The New York Knicks owe the woeful Eastern Conference a thank you.
Here the Knicks are, nearly three-quarters of the way through 2013-14, fifteen games under .500 and we're still talking about the prospect of them making the playoffs.
Because it's still a possibility.
Against all logic, and despite the Knicks' inadvertent attempts to sabotage their own campaign, making the postseason remains a feasible scenario.
On some levels, it's sickening. The Knicks haven't played like a team deserving of a playoff spot. Chasing a postseason appearance paves way for the illusion that this season can still be salvaged when really, it can't.
New York was supposed to contend for a title, not cling to withering playoff odds in one of the NBA's worst conferences ever. Alas, the power of inadequacy is on full display out East, where the Knicks inexplicably have hope.
Ensuring that doesn't change demands the Knicks do something they haven't done all season: Succeed—with a little help from their friendly and rueful Eastern Conference comrades.
So. Many. Changes.
Making the playoffs is as simple as winning. But if you've watched the Knicks at any point this year, you also know winning doesn't come easy for them.
Losing is an art form in New York. These Knicks aren't being obliterated regularly. They're blowing fourth-quarter leads and creating deficits small enough to overcome, but large enough to crumble under.
Defense continues to be the root of most losses. Recurrent switches weaken an already broken system that allows opposing point guards to waltz—or tango or Cotton-Eyed Joe or Electric Slide—their way to the rim largely untouched.
The amount of confusion and bloodletting that takes place during their defensive sets couldn't even be exceeded by a meat-factory-held Iditarod. They've been that bad, switching their way to the NBA's fifth-worst defense.
If the Knicks are going to make the playoffs, they must improve their defense. Or start playing some. Their 12th-ranked offense isn't good enough to cover up for the absence of a defensive identity. Maintaining the status quo has put them where they are now: On the brink of collapsing altogether.
And so has poor point guard play.
Head coach Mike Woodson has continued to entrust Raymond Felton with running the offense, even though he's perhaps New York's worst defender—save for maybe Amar'e Stoudemire—and is shooting 40.3 percent from the floor.
I rode an elevator with Amber Rose & Liz Cho follows me on Twitter. Needless to say, I'm having a way better season than Raymond Felton.— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) February 25, 2014
Felton would ideally be benched, never to crack the rotation again. Having shown the door to Beno Udrih, though, per ESPN New York, that's not really an option.
Or maybe it is, out of necessity.
A police spokesman told ESPN New York's Ian Begley, Felton was arrested and charged with "second- and third-degree criminal possession of a firearm, which are felonies, and fourth-degree possession of a firearm, a misdemeanor," shortly after the Knicks lost to the Dallas Mavericks.
I'm not here to comment on the nature or validity of Felton's off-court dilemma. Not enough is known about what happened or what the consequences will be. But recent developments could force the Knicks to solider on without him.
Which is a good thing.
Toure' Murry and Pablo Prigioni make for a thin point guard corps, but they've proved to be more serviceable options than Felton. Prigioni has been especially instrumental when on the floor, despite averaging a shade under 21 minutes per game.
However it happens—deliberately or involuntarily—the Knicks are better off handing the 36-year-old Prigioni more responsibility at this point. Age be damned. Felton needs to play less.
As does Stoudemire.
The six-time All-Star is an unbelievably hard worker and is being paid nearly $21.7 million this season. Benching him doesn't appear to be an option, but desperate times call for exceptional measures.
The Knicks are 9-5 without him this season, which for them, is impressive. They've won 36.8 percent of their games overall, so a 64.3 percent victory rate is nothing to scoff at.
For all the work STAT puts in, he remains defensively inept. His 106 offensive rating is erased by his 109 defensive rating, and the Knicks' team defensive rating with him on the floor is even worse (110.1).
By this point, if Stoudemire, who has remained relatively healthy this season, was going to be anything other than an occasionally prolific scorer and perpetually minus-defender, he would be. Minutes should be given to Jeremy Tyler and, when he's back, Kenyon Martin before they are STAT.
It's cruel. It's painful. It's damn-near crazy. But the Knicks don't have the liberties that come with conventional politics. Financial commitments can no longer overrule production. Not now.
Not when the Knicks season depends on them doing just the opposite.
Asking for a Friend
There is only so much the Knicks themselves can do. Regardless of how well they play, they're going to need help.
A lot of help.
New York is in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, six games behind the seventh- and eighth-place Charlotte Bobcats and Atlanta Hawks. Before the Knicks can even start thinking about catching them, they must hope their direct competition doesn't.
Atlanta is injury-riddled and has lost eight of its last 10. Washington, meanwhile, lost Nene for four to six weeks, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. If any of the teams New York is chasing are going to regress, it's them.
In time, the Wizards might prove easier to usurp. Though they're 7.5 games ahead of the Knicks, the two will play each other once more this year. If New York can steal that one, a 6.5-game cushion might not be enough for the Nene-less Wizards to stave off another lottery finish.
Above all else, the Knicks need to help themselves.
No one is going to clinch a playoff berth for them. Any amount of help other teams like the Wizards and Hawks provide means nothing if the Knicks cannot make the most of it...by winning.
Fifteen of New York's remaining 25 games come away from Madison Square Garden. More importantly, 10 of those 25 games come versus teams .500 or better, against which the Knicks are 5-20.
Really, it's going to take an uncharacteristic performance from the Knicks these last 25 games to make the playoffs. Rotations need to be shored up, certain players need to be benched in favor of others and defense needs to played.
Will the Knicks make the playoffs this season?
Wins also need to be stranded together. There can be no hiccups against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics. Only victories. And there can be no rolling over against the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors. Fights must be waged.
Games the Knicks are supposed to lose will have to be contests they win. Odds must be defied and the Knicks must start playing like the contenders they were supposed to be, not the basement-dwelling, loss-accumulating harbingers of doom they've been all season.
"You score 40, 44, 44, 44, all losses—you kind of ask yourself is it worth it,” Anthony said, via The New York Times' Clifton Brown. "I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing. You can believe that."
If the Knicks stop doing what they're doing in time to make the playoffs, well, you can believe in miracles, too.