Let’s be careful about the Knicks point differential

Looking over the Eastern Conference standings, Knicks fans have to be pretty ecstatic. The squad moved to 12–9 with a relatively comfortable win over the Miami Heat Tuesday night, and are now tied with the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Hornets for the three seed in the East.

Of course, if said fan’s eyes wander to the right side of the page, over to the (somewhat rightfully) oft-quoted point differential column, the story is much different. The Knicks currently have a point differential of -1.5, meaning that for all of their games combined, they are being outscored by their opponents by about a point and a half a game. In general, this statistic is more predictive of future success than a team’s win-loss record, and as such, point differential is often quoted by smart NBA fans to suggest which teams are likely to fall off and which teams are likely to start having more success when looking at the NBA standings.

A point differential of -1.5 comes out to something like a 36-win team, and a team that wouldn’t make the playoffs. The Knicks point differential currently ranks eighth in the Eastern Conference, a far cry from the tie for third that their win-loss record suggests.

Because of this, some of the smarter NBA fans and pundits are questioning whether the Knicks can keep winning at this pace. And here’s where we’re going to try to outsmart the smart fans. Any of those smart fans quoting point differential would admit that it is early in the season, and that because of that, point differential isn’t quite as strong an indicator as it would be down the stretch run, but I’m not sure they realize just how skewed it can be this early in the season.

Using the Knicks as our prime example, their worst loss of the season came on Opening Night when they got spanked by the Cleveland Cavaliers to the tune of 117–88. It was a terrible start to the season for the Knicks, but it was just one game. It clearly didn’t even throw them off that much, as they came out and won their next game over a solid Memphis Grizzlies team.

Now if we take out that 29-point shellacking at the hands of LeBron and co., the Knicks point differential swings drastically. The new point differential nearly moves into the positive total, coming in at -0.1 — basically a .500 team.

Now one thing we all know about this Knicks squad is that they are just beginning to coalesce. They came into the season with about as much roster turnover as any team in the league, and any team with that much turnover is bound to take a little while to come together. If we simply take out the first four games of the season (remember how long ago their loss to the Rockets feels? Yeah, I don’t even really remember it either) their point differential becomes positive — 0.7. Now that still doesn’t move the needle much in terms of where they would rank in the Eastern Conference, but it projects the Knicks as about a 45-win team, which is closer to where many of us thought would be a decent season before the year.

Of course, because it is the Knicks we are talking about, they will have to prove themselves to the pundits (and their fans) far more than some other teams whose fanbases in particular wouldn’t be as skeptical as New York’s. Wednesday night will be the perfect test. The Knicks, who have won four in a row (with a +7.8 point differential in that tiny sample size), will face off with none other than the Cleveland Cavaliers, the reigning champions and the team that gave the Knicks their worst loss of the 2016–17 season. It will be interesting to see if true progress has been made for the Blue and Orange of New York.

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