The New York Knicks are 21-10, sitting pretty in the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, enjoying a season in which Carmelo Anthony is an MVP candidate and his team is viewed widely as just a Miami Heat injury away from a shot at the NBA Finals.
They are also, thanks to the wide gulf between the two conferences and a statistical anomaly that’s unlikely to last, an utter illusion.
Don’t be fooled by their 2-0 record against the defending champion Heat or the New York media’s frenzied focus on, at long last, a Knicks’ team worthy of its city.
The fact is, the Western Conference is so dominant over the Eastern Conference that it warps the realities of each.
Out West, there are at least four serious title contenders:
• The Los Angeles Clippers, who just ended a 17-game winning streak and, despite my own doubts, are respected and feared throughout the league.
• The Oklahoma City Thunder, who have managed to be better this season without James Harden and are fresh off their own Finals appearance.
• The Memphis Grizzlies, powered by Zach Randolph and a team quietly making a case that it, too, should be feared.
• And the San Antonio Spurs, who remain formidable despite a dynastic run the past decade that may be nearing its end.
That doesn’t even get into the Los Angeles Lakers, who, if they figure out their own mess, are loaded with talent. And the Golden State Warriors, a middling fifth in the Western Conference playoff picture, which would easily compete for the No. 2 spot in the East.
Don’t buy it?
If the season ended today, the Dallas Mavericks without Dirk Nowitzki, would finish 12th in the West. They’re a miserable 13-20 through Wednesday. But against the lowly East they’re 8-9.
The Houston Rockets are an 18-14 team that looks to have little to no chance to advance far in the playoffs once the Western Conference teams have to battle past one another in April. But against the East? Then the Rockets suddenly seem a juggernaut with a 12-2 mark, with two wins each against the Knicks, Bulls and Hawks, and a win over Boston to boot.
Even the lowly, floundering, issue-plagued Sacramento Kings — who are a lowly, floundering, issue-plagued 12-20 — approach respectability when pitted against Eastern Conference teams: 6-7 with, yes, a win against the Knicks.
So the Western Conference is a much more formidable place to survive, filled with several title-contending teams and several others that would probably be at the top of the East were they on the other side of the country.
At 12-3 against the West, the Heat are, as we all know, very much for real. But the Knicks are just 8-7 against the West, while the Bulls, Nets and Bucks are 40-20 in conference and 10-22 out of conference. Overall, East teams are 81-120 vs. West opponents this season.
But that’s only part of the reason the Knicks are paper tigers. Yes, you and I could get a team together that could probably make a run in the East until we had to face the Heat, which means the Knicks are well-positioned. But they’re also a team that shows all the signs of being wildly overhyped, even by Eastern Conference standards.
In the history of the NBA, only about a dozen teams have finished the season shooting 40 percent or better from the 3-point line, and during their early-season tear, the Knicks sat well above that mark.
The result? They raced to a 10-4 start and became the toast of the NBA. Few bothered to point out that they shot 40 percent or better from the 3-point line in half of those games and better than 36 percent in three others.
In fact, so far this season, the Knicks are 13-2 when they shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Pretty good for a team that leads the league in 3-point shots per game (29.1), right?
Because when they fall beyond that lofty, unrealistic and already out-of-reach mark, they’re a very so-so 8-9. Already, their 3-point shooting has dropped below that magic line to 38.8 percent.
There’s also the uncomfortable fact for Knicks fans that when they shoot lights out from the 3-point line, they beat Miami twice (52.8 and 40.9 percent), San Antonio (42.3), the Nets (50 percent) and the Lakers (48 percent).
That’s not a game plan you want to rely on come the playoffs, nor numbers you can count on to win.
Those were good times, but they’re starting to look like the good old days. The Knicks have shot better than 40 percent from 3 just once in the past nine games. No wonder they’re 4-5 during that stretch. That bodes particularly bad for future playoff series against teams like Miami, or even Atlanta, Boston or Indiana.
There are other issues that will dog the Knicks going forward: the significant regression of their defense from fifth last season in points allowed per 100 possessions (101) to 20th this season (106.3); Amar’e Stoudemire’s return and how that does or does not fit with Anthony; the possibility the Bulls will get Derrick Rose back or that the Pacers will have figured themselves out even before Danny Granger’s return; or that, you know, they’re the Knicks.
But for now it’s enough to know that the Knicks are no more a title contender than I am. Don’t let the East’s weakness or the Knicks’ now-fading and always unsustainable early barrage of 3-pointers fool you.
They’re not the title contender they’d have you believe.