Elfrid Payton (301047)
Credit: Bill Moore photo

Progress can be determined by a single measure or a multitude of criteria. The Knicks should be viewed employing both. In assessing their development this season using only the eye-test, they continue to make promising gains and are a vastly improved team from a year ago.

Conversely, the eye-test also reveals, along with their 20-21 record, their 105.3 points per game average, the third lowest in the NBA, and losses in three out of their last four games, that the Knicks are still a few levels below the league’s elite teams. With one of the top five most difficult schedules in the second half of this season based on their opponents’ combined win-loss record, the Knicks have stumbled out of the All-Star Game break.

It doesn’t signal there is cause for alarm—at least not yet—but it is an indicator they are still at the stage of having a small margin of error in the tight Eastern Conference standings. After a non-competitive 134-101 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks last Thursday in their first game back following a six-day hiatus, the Knicks recovered on Saturday to firmly defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 119-97.

Although they resolutely took the Brooklyn Nets, the Eastern Conference’s current No. 2 seed, and Philadelphia 76ers, the East’s top seed, down to the final possessions in their respective games on Monday and Tuesday night, the Knicks fell to the Nets by 117-112 and were beaten 99-96 by the Sixers for the 14th straight time. They faced all four opponents on the road.

Knicks All-Star forward Julius Randle maintains the viewpoint that the most definitive barometer of advancement is the scoreboard. “I don’t believe in moral victories,” he emphasized after producing 19 points and 15 rebounds in Philadelphia. “It’s a win or a loss for me.”

The seven-year veteran is acutely aware the NBA is unforgiving. So is his head coach, Tom Thibodeau, who thus far has proven to be the right off-season hire of team president Leon Rose and owner James Dolan. After a tough defeat to the 76ers, Thibodeau reflected on the recent obstacles the Knicks have had to cross.

“…You’re on the road…you’re coming back off the break, so that’s a challenge in itself. And then you have to go through, you know, a different challenge with all the…COVID protocols stuff, so your practice time is very limited and you have to be ready to go. The games keep coming. We have to be ready and we have to find a way to win.”

Like every team in the league, the Knicks have had to navigate a roster beset by injuries and COVID-19 related issues. Starting point guard Elfrid Payton has missed seven of the last nine games nursing a hamstring strain. Backup point guard Derrick Rose has been out the past six due to health and safety protocols.

Center Mitchell Robinson is still recovering from a fractured hand sustained Feb. 12 versus the Washington Wizards, and shooting guard Austin Rivers, who hasn’t been given any time by Thibodeau since playing two minutes Feb. 13 versus the Houston Rockets, is officially away from the team on paternity leave as he and his fiancée are awaiting childbirth.

The Knicks are at Madison Square Garden for their next four games. They’ll play the Orlando Magic tonight, the Sixers again on Sunday, and two against the Washington Wizards on Tuesday and Thursday.