The New York Knicks have planted their flag on a plot of land they’ve never truly been able to for the last two decades: expectations.
They seized opportunities and openings at the trade deadline while their more established counterparts messed around on the fringes, if that, and they can truly say they at least expect to play meaningful basketball in the middle of May.
Usually by that time, Madison Square Garden will only jump for a concert or hockey game but never for the basketball-crazed, forever-optimistic fan base. Acquiring Bojan Bogdanović and Alec Burks from the woeful Detroit Pistons doesn’t seem like a seismic move — not compared to trade deadlines of years prior when James Harden, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook were moved around for one reason or another — but the Knicks made the most impactful moves across the league Thursday morning.
Bogdanović and Burks both score in bunches and each is a plus-40 percent 3-point shooter. As much as scoring has gone up in the league, adding two vets who can drop 20 at a moment’s notice doesn’t hurt a team that wants to fancy itself among the elite.
Some of the smiles are tempered just a bit with news that OG Anunoby will miss three weeks due to a procedure on his right elbow, but the Knicks appear deep enough to compete with the best of a talented yet flawed Eastern Conference.
It’s not that the Knicks are the favorites in the East, but for a franchise that has advanced to the conference finals one time in this millennium — 2000, when they lost to Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers — actual expectations are like manna from above.
Since that time, only the Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards haven’t played in the last week of May in the East. The Knicks are allegedly a marquee franchise but have been inept in terms of playoff success in the last couple decades; one can count the playoff series wins since on one hand — literally.
As in two.
With these acquisitions, it’s reasonable to see them winning a couple playoff series this spring, which would land them in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Knicks looked around and saw what everyone else did — every contender is vulnerable, including themselves. When Boston is at full throttle, there isn’t a team until you get to the mountain time zone that can truly compete with them. But the Celtics are liable to have the worst shooting game at the wrong time.
Milwaukee can hit the high notes as well as anyone in a game of consequence. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard have more room to grow individually and as a tandem, but time is running out to develop that precious chemistry before the playoffs start two months from now — in addition to figuring out the new coach the Bucks just hired, Doc Rivers.
Philadelphia is a big question mark. Joel Embiid has played some of the most dominant basketball we’ve seen in some time, but he’s never put on the superman cape in a game of real consequence and his recent surgery leads one to believe the 76ers are headed toward the play-in tournament rather than homecourt advantage for multiple rounds.
Count out the Miami Heat at your own peril, and the Knicks are well-aware of that team’s movies, having been bounced from the second round by them last year.
Teams around the league largely kept their powder dry. First-round picks are usually thrown about like rice at a wedding, but teams were more prudent as we’re starting to see the effect of the new collective bargaining agreement take hold. That cost control with escalating salaries and higher max deals means more teams will hold on to those picks and make sure they’re only used for true impact moves, not something that will move them deeper into luxury tax and second-apron territory. Even the Lakers and Warriors didn’t do much, and they were prime candidates trying to pry the door open for their respective plus-35 supernovas.
That leaves the Knicks. They’re not the hottest team in the East, that title belongs to the Cleveland Cavaliers, who’ve risen to second in the conference. But since acquiring Anunoby on Dec. 30, the Knicks have outscored their opponents by nearly 14 points a night — albeit with a somewhat light schedule.
The three-man lineups with Anunoby, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle have outscored opponents by 25.9 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Even those who aren't stat nerds can discern that is a huge advantage, if all parties are healthy.
But of course, given this is Tom Thibodeau coaching, there are some injury concerns. In addition to Anunoby, Randle is out with a dislocated shoulder, and Brunson is day-to-day with an ankle injury.
Bogdanović missed the first 19 games of the season with a calf strain and he’s on the verge of turning 35. Burks is 32 and a Thibs favorite from his first stint with the Knicks. When he gets on a heater, Burks is a sight to behold and in January he averaged 17 points on 45 percent shooting after a rough start to the season.
Swingman Quentin Grimes had fallen out of favor with Thibodeau as he favored Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart, so it wasn’t a huge loss to involve him in the deal. Evan Fournier had long been on a milk carton, and his greatest value to the Knicks was the team option for next year worth $19 million.
And even though the two former Pistons are no sure thing, it does give Thibodeau more options in the interim, and at least alternatives to running his headliners into the ground before the playoffs start.
If nothing else, the Knicks have an identity, a signature, and that counts for something. It’s an ethos that goes from the top down, even if Thibodeau coaches every game like it’s his last and his team often looks like it's playing 82 playoff games before the postseason actually starts.
They play as tough and physical as the game’s rules allow these days, and own the league’s seventh-rated defense. Brunson’s game isn’t pretty, but it’s effective and has translated to the playoffs in New York and, previously, Dallas. Sitting 17th in 3-point shooting is an issue they’ve addressed with the acquisitions, and Bogdanović can feast on second units once the Knicks are back to full health.
What’s more, they’ve threaded a very thin line. They didn’t trade any future first-round picks, nor did they even surrender the first-round pick back to the Pistons that Detroit owes them — which could convey in either 2025, ’26 or ’27, depending on where the Pistons land in the draft order.
That future first could be used in a future trade for a disgruntled superstar this coming summer or next season. It’s how the Lakers viewed their future even though LeBron James always seems to have one foot out the door when things aren’t going his way.
The Knicks have to keep their eye on the present, to perhaps take advantage of this opportunity and the future to not sacrifice flexibility. They didn’t have to go all-in, because there wasn’t an all-in move to make, but they’re giving themselves a chance.
A chance for fans to meaningfully say this spring, “Go, New York, Go”— perhaps to a foreign playoff land.