Knicks will have steep competition for Eastern Conference title next season

Dec 8, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA;  New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) drives to the basket during the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks are projected to be a serious contender next season, thanks in part to bringing OG Anunoby for the long term and acquiring Mikal Bridges in a trade with the Brooklyn Nets. As long as the team stays healthy this time around, there’s no reason why New York shouldn’t be a heavy favorite to represent the East in next year’s NBA Finals.

However, despite the upgrades to the roster, the Knicks will have competition. One of the most notable free agent additions comes from an Eastern Conference rival that New York defeated in the playoffs this past season, as the Philadelphia 76ers took exception to their first-round loss and added forward Paul George in free agency, arguably the most coveted free agent on the market.

The 76ers are now a formidable foe in the Eastern Conference

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks
Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The 76ers now have possibly the best trio in the entire league, with George joining the lethal duo of Tyrese Maxey and Joel Embiid. While they lack some bench depth, they signed Eric Gordon and Andre Drummond and brought back Kelly Oubre, so they have a few serviceable options outside of their big three. While it’s unlikely they make any more substantial moves this summer, they’ve already accomplished their main goal of becoming one of the favorites in the conference.

The New York Post’s Zach Braziller surveyed the outlook of the East for the Knicks, and described the conference’s best teams as a “bear.”

“It includes the dominant defending champion in the Celtics, arguably the most talented big three in the 76ers, young teams with upside in the Magic, Cavaliers, and Pacers, and the superstar-laden Bucks,” Braziller wrote. “The Knicks got better, but their competition didn’t get worse. If anything, the teams they will be jockeying with improved.”

The Celtics destroyed everybody last season

Feb 24, 2024; New York, New York, USA; Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives to the basket against New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) and center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) and guard Donte DiVincenzo (0) during the first quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In retrospect, the East was essentially the Celtics just dominating everybody else last season. They steamrolled each team they faced en route to the NBA Finals, where they continued their dominance with a 4-1 series victory over the Dallas Mavericks to grab the franchise’s 18th NBA title.

Many of their competitors dealt with significant injuries throughout the playoffs, as the Miami Heat were missing Jimmy Butler and Terry Rozier in their first-round series against Boston, and the Cleveland Cavaliers were missing Donovan Mitchell and Jarrett Allen for most of their second-round matchup.

The Knicks were one game shy of facing the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, but the high amount of injuries became too much as they fell to the sixth-seeded Indiana Pacers in seven games. Boston would go on to sweep Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics were the best team in the NBA during the regular season, so they shouldn’t be discredited for their run despite their opponents being severely undermanned. However, like the Knicks and Sixers, the East has bulked up as they look to prevent a Celtics repeat.

The Knicks have the guys to match up with the Celtics

New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau high fives New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) with guard Donte DiVincenzo (0) and forward OG Anunoby (8) and guard Jalen Brunson (11) during the first quarter against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Shortly after the Bridges trade, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Knicks’ plan was to stack up on two-way wings to match up with Boston. Now, they have two guys that can guard Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown while also having two players that can score at an All-NBA level in Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle. That puts them in a great position to potentially overtake Boston as the East’s best team.

They still lack center depth following the departure of Isaiah Hartenstein to the Oklahoma City Thunder in free agency, however. That position could become a problem for them if Mitchell Robinson isn’t able to stay healthy, as some of their top free-agent targets to replace Hartenstein are now off the board.

The 76ers will be extra motivated heading into next season

As evidenced by the George signing, the Sixers are not going to let the Knicks and Celtics dominate the rest of the conference. While Boston remains the team to beat, the Knicks shouldn’t just glance over at the 76ers either. New York may have more depth (i.e. Donte DiVincenzo and Josh Hart coming off the bench), but Philadelphia certainly has more star power that can finally get them to where they’ve wanted to be. Like the Knicks, the 76ers are trying to end a long conference finals drought, as they haven’t been to one since 2001, the same year they would make the NBA Finals.

In addition, time is starting to run out for Philadelphia’s “Trust The Process” method. The team has had several breakups with star players that couldn’t get them over the edge, most notably Ben Simmons and James Harden. The constant shortcomings have led many to believe that Embiid could be on his way out next if this group doesn’t get the job done soon. Therefore, the team will be playing with massive desperation next season.

The rest of the East can sneak up on the Knicks

While the Celtics, Knicks, and 76ers are projected to be the East’s three-headed monster, the rest of the conference isn’t exactly a pushover. The Cavaliers just extended Donovan Mitchell to a three-year, $150 million contract — which effectively eliminates the heavily popularized rumors of him joining the Knicks. The Pacers are keeping Pascal Siakam long-term to form a strong duo with star point guard Tyrese Haliburton, and the Orlando Magic will only continue to improve as they build around star forward Paolo Banchero.

The NBA is full of surprises, and there’s always a possibility that a team with low expectations heading into the season could finish amongst the favorites. Nevertheless, the Knicks are expected to capitalize on their most successful season in over a decade, but doing so will be far from an easy path.

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