Are They Pretenders Or Contenders? If New York Doesn't Fix Road Woes Quickly, The Answer Will Be Clear

By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks are more than a third of their way through their season, yet we still don’t know what they are.

At 17-16, they are tied with the Heat for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, but not all records are equal at this time of year. We’re about to find out if the Knicks are contenders or pretenders.

New York might be a game above .500 but has done it by winning just two of 12 on the road. No NBA team has played more home games than the Knicks’ 21, and no team has played fewer road games.

MOREKnicks’ Christmas Struggles Continue With Loss To 76ers

The Knicks have the 10th best net rating (+/- per 100 possessions) in the league at home (+5.9), but the third worst on the road (-10.7). Simply put, they are a different team when they are away from Madison Square Garden.

They are about to hit the road in a big way. The Knicks plays 16 of their next 20 away from the Garden between now and the end of January, and 24 of 33 before they return from a four-game trip that ends on March 9. If the Knicks don’t become a better road team and quickly, they will find themselves out of the playoff race by March.

The first 20-game stretch is far more important because of the trade deadline. This season, the deadline was moved up to Feb. 8 to take players who make it to the All-Star game out of the awkward situation of answering questions about being traded. The Knicks are going to have some decisions to make and some clarity as to where they really stand.

Enes Kanter, Courtney Lee

Knicks big man Enes Kanter, left, reacts after throwing down a dunk against the Philadelphia 76ers at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 25, 2017. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Courtney Lee is having a good season and could have some real value at the deadline. Enes Kanter, especially due to his opt-out clause after this season, could fetch real interest from a playoff team looking for offensive help. Kyle O’Quinn, on a reasonable contract and with an opt-out after this season, could possibly net a second-round pick.

These are veteran pieces that could kelp the Knicks make the playoffs this season, but hold little value in the team’s long-term quest to be serious contenders down the road. Kanter, who is only 25, is an exception, but his contract status makes him moveable. If the Knicks really want him back they can re-engage him as a free agent either this summer or next. The Knicks have young players at center (Willy Hernangomez) and the wing (Damyean Dotson) that could benefit from the playing time they would inherit if those older veterans were moved.

Of course, if the Knicks fix their road woes and are still in a realistic spot to make a playoff run, the front office likely won’t entertain subtracting from the roster. It’s why the next 20 games are so important. Even an 8-12 stretch would leave the Knicks only a few games out of the playoffs with time to make up ground. A 5-15 stretch or worse, however, will force the team rethink its short- and long-term strategies. The importance of the weeks to come cannot be underestimated and the impact will be far-reaching.

Schmeelk’s Snippets

Tough loss to the 76ers on Christmas. Some notes:

— I would have played Joakim Noah against Joel Embiid some in that game. O’Quinn is not built well for that matchup.

— Michael Beasley finished the game playing small forward with Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter on the floor. That is not going to work defensively. Beasley is only useful on the court if the offense is run through him (and he is efficient), which it wasn’t with both Porzingis and Lee also in the game.

— Frank Ntilikina had a couple bad (and rare) moments on defense against TJ McConnell, but he should have been on the floor more during crunch time. Ntilikina also turned the ball over a couple of times. Jarret Jack struggled mightily. Ntilikina didn’t shoot well, but he is showing more confidence in the pick and roll, keeping his dribble and going towards the basket. If head coach Jeff Hornacek had taken him out of the game late in the third for a rest he might have been able to close out the last eight minutes of the fourth.

For everything Knicks, Giants, and the world of sports, follow John on Twitter at @Schmeelk