NBA roundtable: Are the Knicks and their ‘Big 15’ preparing to join the Eastern Conference elite?

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Too much has been made of the Nets’ Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving. Not enough is being made of the Knicks’ Big 15. So says Julius Randle.

Before their game against the Nets earlier this week, Knicks forward Reggie Bullock dismissed Brooklyn’s Big 3 by saying, “We got a Big Five.” He was quickly corrected by Randle, who said, “A Big 15.”

Indeed, these are some heady times for a Knicks franchise that has advanced to the playoffs only five times in the past 20 years. The Knicks are experiencing their most successful season in nearly a decade, with the chance to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

That begs the question, have the Knicks turned the corner?

That’s just one of many questions we have about the NBA. What MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic leading the way, can the Nuggets break through to the Finals? Is Jokic the surefire MVP? And should the Warriors plan a full-scale rebuild?


In Part II of this week’s NBA roundtable, we tackle those questions and more. USA TODAY Sports’ Larry Starks moderated the discussion with a panel of NBA experts from around the USA TODAY Network: Jeff Zillgitt of USA TODAY Sports, Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Berry Tramel of the Oklahoma City Oklahoman and Chris Iseman of the Bergen County Record.

Starks: There would seem to be more teams rising in the East, including the Knicks. What will have to happen for them to be a real contender?

Owczarski: Man, Larry, the Knicks barely beat the Bucks’ JV squad. I think the East contenders end at Miami. After that, it’s all about offseason wish lists.

​Tramel: I’m not sold at all on the Knickerbockers’ future. They hired a coach who is notorious for winning now, so they’re winning now. Among their top 7-8 players, only two are under 26. And it’s not like the older guys are Durant/Irving/Harden. I don’t see much reason for optimism in New York, other than they are way better than they have been.

​Iseman: The Knicks have played great defensively under Tom Thibodeau. That’s been the biggest difference with this team, considering they were horrible on that end of the floor the last few years. Offense is the issue. They just get stagnant at times and stop moving the ball or commit too many turnovers. Julius Randle has carried them but he can’t do it all himself. The Knicks need to fix their offense to become a true contender.

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Barnes: The Knicks will need a whole lot more to contend than just a great defensive coach. Who carries this team late in games? Can Randle continue evolving into being that guy? They’ll certainly be in the mix because of defense and how they’ve improve. They have good young pieces but does that make them contenders or potential in two years? Time will tell but right now, they’re a good story and I can’t wait to see them Friday when the Grizzlies play.

​Iseman: The Knicks are where they are because they’ve beaten some bad teams, which is a step forward considering they were the ones getting beaten up on in recent years. But this next month is going to be a huge challenge because of how tough their schedule is going to get.

​​Zillgitt: This a great start for the Knicks under Tom Thibodeau and the new front office led by Leon Rose. They need young stars or established stars still in 20s, a Bradley Beal type who can score. Randle has been a revelation, but until they get that offense Chris mentioned, it’s hard seeing the crack the top four even next season with what’s already there in the East. Bucks, Sixers, Nets and Heat will be again next season and probably the season after that given contract situations.

​Starks: Since I can’t get any love for the Knicks, let’s turn back to the West and Denver. Chris talked about Denver earlier. Can they take the next step and finally get to the Finals?

Tramel: The answer is, sure, Denver could win the West. Will they? Different question. To win the West, the Nuggets likely are going to have to win three tough series. That dang near did it last year, winning two, but three? Aaron Gordon helps a bunch, but I’m not sure he’s a playoff upgrade over Jerami Grant. Michael Porter Jr. is improved, so that helps. But I just don’t know. I wouldn’t rank Denver’s chances any higher than fourth. And Chris Paul vs. the Nuggets would be a tough advancement for Denver. The Nuggets remain somewhere in the murky world between legit West contender and longshot.

​Owczarski: Let’s say the Lakers remain injured or are just too freshly put back together for it to work, then to me the West is wide open. Aside from Kawhi Leonard, who out there has been through it? And we saw last year he’s not enough to just carry the Clippers through. To me, shooting can go cold, and when that happens you gets you those buckets? I think Phoenix has that guy. I think Denver has that guy. So yeah, I could see the Nuggets making another run if you’ve got a jumble of first-timers trying to get to the Finals.

​Iseman: The addition of Aaron Gordon has been pivotal for the Nuggets. He’s really helped them playing alongside Jokic and Murray and he’s helped elevate their defense. The Lakers (again, if healthy) I think will stand in their way of getting to the Finals.

​Zillgitt: Really love what the Nuggets did with the Aaron Gordon trade (though the Nuggets were reluctant to give up R.J. Hampton in the deal). Gordon is a great No. 3, No. 4 option on that team. Doesn’t need to ball, will benefit from playing alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murry and gives them a defensive boost. We know Michael Malone can coach. He has depth. Murray starting to play better and Jokic might be the MVP. Whatever happens with Denver, it can’t fall behind 3-1 in a series this year! Tim Connelly, VP of basketball ops, has given Malone the players to compete for a title, that’s for sure.

Tramel: Denver isn’t better than Utah. Last year, the Nuggets were better than the Jazz and still almost didn’t get past Utah.


​Barnes: I’ll agree with everyone. Trading for Aaron Gordon was the right move and a great one at that. One more perimeter option who does a lot of good things. The Nuggets needed maybe 1 or 2 more pieces to be true title threats … and yet I don’t know if I can trust them yet. Will they defend better? Right now, Jokic is probably the MVP and big men can still help teams as a centerpiece win a title moreso than a perimeter scorer. BUT again….can they beat the healthy Lakers in a series? Can they match Utah on both ends? More importantly, can Jamal Murray be counted on to go supernova like last postseason? I doubt it even though he’ll be very good. I’d take Utah in a series over them but Denver making a deep run wouldn’t surprise me either.

​Zillgitt: That’s it, Evan. Not many teams can match Utah on both ends. Probably the Lakers in a series.

​Barnes: That’s what I’m thinking too, Jeff. Even if Utah’s shooting goes cold, they can rely on defense to win games as much as Donovan Mitchell or Jordan Clarkson. Denver? We’ll see.

​Tramel: With all that said, I could watch a best-of-49 Utah-Denver series.

Starks: I’ll turn the final question over to someone who asks questions for a living. Does anyone else have a final question for the group?

​​Tramel: Does Golden State trudge ahead or cut its losses and rebuild? The Warriors ownership claimed they were built to last for like 300 years, but now they’re struggling.

Zillgitt: My sense Berry is that the Warriors want to see what it looks like with a healthy Klay Thompson next to Steph Curry, Draymond Green and James Wiseman. … That’ll help them determine what kind of rebuild is necessary. Maybe retooling on the fly could work. Maybe.

Owczarski: If you’re the Warriors, run it back when Klay is healthy enough to do so and see how Wiseman develops.

​Iseman: I would agree with both of you, I think it’s too early to go full rebuild mode. Have to see where Klay is when he’s back.

​​Starks: What do you think, Berry?

Tramel: I think Klay will be 32 next season and Curry will be 34, and Green is not a great player when he’s not on a great team. They just had the second pick in the draft, and with a little lottery luck, they get Minnesota’s first-round pick this year (top-3 protected). In a loaded draft. That doesn’t mean they have to tear down. But I can tell them that even if Thompson comes back reasonably healthy, the glory days are gone. The West remains loaded.

​​Barnes: 2021-22 will be the year we see if they have another serious title run. All depends on Klay but I wouldn’t be surprised. NBA dynasties usually have a five-year run and the Warriors being another good team isn’t a bad thing honestly. But title contenders? I think it’s a wrap – Wiseman could have a great impact easing the load on Curry/Thompson the next couple years, though.

​Zillgitt: It’s really something how quickly it goes from five consecutive years in the Finals to getting passed by four, five other teams.

Zillgitt: I’ll throw one out and you don’t need to elaborate other than throw out a name? Since we’re talking all these potential contenders, who is your MVP this point of season?

Tramel: Rudy Gobert.

Owczarski: Oh man. I think you could have Mitchell and Gobert take votes away from one another. Yet I think they could win on a given regular season night, or nights, without the other. Right now, I would put Nikola Jokić as my No. 1. As we discuss this, they have the same number of losses as the Clippers – if they climb to the three seed and he’s the one guy that plays the entire season while Harden/Antetokounmpo/Embiid all miss time…that’s tough to overlook.

Barnes: Right now, it’s Jokic. The numbers back it up and he’s playing at a level I thought we wouldn’t see centers be able to with the game drifting more towards guard play. Embiid makes the 76ers a much different team when healthy but will he play in enough games to take it from Jokic is the question.


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