Mixed forecast on Knicks’ playoff bid as third-toughest schedule begins

The New York Knicks are ahead of schedule thanks to Tom Thibodeau’s maniacal preparation and tough coaching.

The much-maligned coach has led the same Knicks core as last year in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference that only a few saw it coming.

Under Thibodeau’s stewardship, Julius Randle made an incredible 360-degree spin from a selfish player into a leader. That earned him his first All-Star berth. Now, he’s setting his sights on his first playoffs berth.

“We’re growing as a team, growing as a unit,’’ Randle said after leading the Knicks to a 19-18 record in the first half, good for the fifth seed in the bunched-up East. “We got to go into the break and stay ready because the second half will be a beast. The first half was great for us, but we know we can keep improving and get better as a team, and we will.’’

They have no other recourse.

After having the easiest schedule in the first half, the Knicks are bracing for the third-toughest schedule in the second half, according to FiveThirtyEight metrics.

FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine arrived at that conclusion by using their classic Elo ratings, and he adjusted for the home-court advantage. The Elo ratings, which the analytics-driven opinion website uses both in its NFL and NBA forecasts, determine a team’s strength at any given time based on game results.

Killer road trips

The Knicks will have 17 of their last 35 games on the road, with two killer stretches at the start and tail end of their grueling second-half schedule.

A four-game road featuring the East’s top three teams awaits Randle and the Knicks after the All-Star break. They will be in Milwaukee tomorrow (Thursday), Oklahoma on Saturday, Brooklyn on Monday, and Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Then their longest road trip of the season— a six-game West Coast trip in May would determine their fate.

In a span of 10 days, the Knicks will face Houston, Memphis, Denver, Phoenix, and the two Los Angeles teams.

In the bunched-up East, where 2.5 games only separate the Knicks and the 11th seed Atlanta Hawks, a losing streak could be fatal for the Knicks’ chances of ending a seven-year playoff drought.

Contrasting forecasts

ESPN Analytics forecasts the Knicks to finish at 31-41 with an 18.7 percent chance of sneaking into the playoffs via play-in tournament. ESPN uses its NBA Basketball Power Index (BPI) to measure a team’s performance for the rest of the season. It accounts for game-by-game efficiency, the strength of schedule, pace, days of rest, game location, and preseason expectations. Before the season, ESPN gave the Knicks only a 2 percent chance via their RPM projections.

Meanwhile, ESPN’s Power Rankings boldly predicts that the Knicks will miss the playoffs.

In contrast, FiveThirtyEight’s forecast is sunnier.

Based on their Elo forecast, the Knicks currently have a 58 percent chance of making the playoffs and could end up with a 35-37 record and the seventh seed in the East. It’s a significant increase since their Elo-based metric pegged the Knicks to have just a 21-percent playoff chance before the season started.

But just like any forecast, different factors such as injuries, health protocols, and other unforeseen circumstances that may arise can instantly change the trajectory of the Knicks’ season.

If their first-half performance is any indication, expect this Thibodeau-coached Knicks to be competing until the end.

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