Knicks forward Julius Randle Credit: Bill Moore photo

The Knicks will be playing beyond their final regular season game on April 9 as long as Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson remain healthy. If Randle and Brunson are on the court for all or most of the Knicks’ games left on the schedule, the team will win enough to be one of the top 10 seeds in the Eastern Conference and, at worst, make the Play-In Tournament. 

Ideally for them, they would finish no lower than the No. 6 spot and earn an automatic bid, averting the play-in. 

What happens before today’s NBA trade deadline can ultimately alter the standings in the East and in the league’s entire landscape. The Knicks are 30–26 and were the No. 7 seed in the conference as of last night (Wednesday). They will be in Philadelphia tomorrow to face the 76ers again after defeating them 108–97 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks followed up with a 102–98 road win against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday. 

What has become increasingly evident is the Knicks are heavily reliant on Randle, the team’s leading scorer (24.7) and rebounder (10.9), and Brunson, who is posting 23.2 points on 47.6% shooting and 6.2 assists. 

Randle was named to his second All-Star team last week. Brunson was not selected as one of the seven East reserves, but had a strong case because he has arguably been the NBA’s best free-agent signing this season. After Randle and Brunson, RJ Barrett is theoretically the Knicks’ third-best player, but the fourth-year guard has not established himself as the effectual two-way player the team needs to rise above mediocrity.

Barrett’s 20.1 points per game average is misleading since his overall (43.1%) and 3-point (32.8%) shooting percentages are well below the league averages of 47% and 36% as of last night. Defensively, Barrett has regressed and has a concerning 116.9 rating despite Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau’s dismissal of those analytics.

“Quite honestly, I look at some of those numbers and they’re meaningless to me,” asserted Thibodeau on Sunday before the Knicks hosted the 76ers. “I haven’t seen a good ratings system defensively, and I think I’ve studied pretty hard for a long time. I don’t buy into it the way some people treat it as gospel. You ask them what does it mean, and they can’t explain it.”

The eye test can. On Saturday at the Garden, the Los Angeles Clippers offensive sets frequently sought to isolate Barrett to defend wing players Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Clippers guard Norman Powell also attacked Barrett in the Knicks’ 134–128 overtime loss. The game magnified the Knicks’ need for a highly capable wing defender who is also a reliable 3-point shooter, such as the Toronto Raptors’ OG Anunoby, who has been a subject of trade rumors for months. 

The Knicks will host the Utah Jazz on Saturday at MSG and the Nets on Monday.

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