Tight Playoff Race Puts Pressure on Knicks & Kings

The NBA All-Star break is often welcomed by players, as the season has lasted approximately 60 games. The league will not return to normal activity until Thursday, February 23, giving players a chance to recover, take some much-needed time off to heal from injuries, or simply take a breather.

They’ll all need it, too, given the pool of teams angling to make the play-in tournament grow tighter. The remaining 20-something games of the season will not only be incredibly exciting to watch for the fans, but also nerve-wracking for the teams still clinging to the hope of breaking through and ending up in the postseason.

As such, here’s a look at two teams, one from each conference, that are currently ahead of the curve but will need to keep their engines running to maintain their current position.

Sacramento Kings

The Kings have had a fantastic season so far, as they finally look like a playoff team after a 17-year drought. They are led by one of the league’s most clutch players in De’Aaron Fox, and one of the most creative big man playmakers in Domantas Sabonis.

Normally, you wouldn’t think that duo would be enough to take a team this far, but they’ve proven to fit together beautifully by playing off each other’s passes and being flanked by shooters. Simply put: They’ve leaned on offensive volume, and it’s worked for them.

Post All-Star, however, will be the most trying time for the Kings. Currently sitting in third place in the Western Conference at 32-25, they are just three games ahead of the New Orleans Pelicans, who are currently in the play-in tournament.

The Kings would love to avoid going through the play-in and instead be assured of a rock-solid postseason berth, which is only guaranteed with a top 6 finish. With the Clippers and especially the Suns nipping at their heels, they need to maintain their current momentum.

Staying ahead of the Suns in particular will be challenging, as Phoenix recently acquired future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant, who is expected to make his debut after the All-Star break. Phoenix was able to keep Chris Paul, Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton around, and that foursome is certainly cause for concern in Sacramento.

The Mavericks, who are 2.5 games back, also recently made some changes by trading for All-Star Kyrie Irving as they look to climb the rankings over the next two months.

Sacramento, it could be argued, would be smart to get involved in the NBA’s buyout market, specifically making a pitch for Kevin Love, who is reportedly nearing a divorce with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Love, still a formidable rebounder, passer and quality shooter, could help give the Kings much-needed depth in the closing stages of the regular season, helping them out in key areas to withstand strong pressure from the Suns and Mavs in particular. .

New York Knicks

The Knicks currently sit in the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, which would automatically qualify them for the postseason if the season were to end today.

However, they are only half a game ahead of the Miami Heat, a team notorious for pushing themselves, whether it’s the regular season or the playoffs. The Knicks, just like the Kings, would love nothing more than to avoid the play-in tournament, and with rumors of the Heat looking to be active in the buyout market, the Knicks will have to get creative themselves.

One change on the field they could make is to give more opportunities to Isaiah Hartenstein. The 24-year-old center was a significant free agent acquisition last summer, but he has yet to duplicate the production he gave the Los Angeles Clippers last year.

First, Hartenstein hasn’t been given a ton of scoring opportunities, which seems counterintuitive given that he’s historically been effective in that department. Second, he has been used off the ball more than he should have been, considering his ability to function as a big player. Hartenstein’s rather unique set of talents allows him to be used in a number of ways, and the Knicks have seemingly found the one way to not use him properly.

With Jalen Brunson, Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and now Josh Hart in the lineup, the Knicks are in dire need of an all-around center who can both do the dirty work on the glass, get the attention of others, and serve as a secondary passing hub. Hartenstein fits that description, and it’s time for the Knicks to fully unleash his talents if they want to stay ahead of the competition.

Even if Hartenstein needs to be used as a bench player, as he is now, it is imperative that the Knicks make him the centerpiece of the secondary rotation, rather than the afterthought he is now. Winning bench minutes is crucial, especially late in the season, and the Knicks could use some firepower in that regard, as it seems only a matter of time before Hart – who has come off the bench since being acquired – ends up in the starting lineup.

Throwing away good players is never a good idea, and it’s a downright terrible idea if you’re playing to win.

Unless otherwise stated, all statistics via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the glass or Basketball reference. All salary information via Spotrac. All odds thanks FanDuel Sportsbook.

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