Photo by TJ Dragotta on Unsplash

A semi-serious knee injury to Joel Embiid will keep the MVP candidate out of action for the entirety of February – and perhaps for even longer, too.

The 76ers ace has been in for surgery, and as of February 6 was given a minimum timeline of four weeks before he can begin preparations for an on-court return.

It’s a bitter blow for Philadelphia, but in basketball as in life, where there’s pain there tends to be opportunity too.

So step forward New York Knicks, one of the surprise packages of the 2023/24 season, who could benefit from such an opening in the Eastern Conference.  

Big Apple Bites Back

It’s hard to look past the Celtics or the Bucks in the East when it comes to nominating likely NBA champions this season – the sports betting odds agree, with Boston the +250 favorites to win the Finals and Milwaukee not far behind at +450.

The sports betting guides confirm that there are more wagering options to explore beyond the identity of the NBA Finals combatants – including whether a franchise will make the playoffs and how many regular season wins they’ll pick up.

The sportsbooks currently have the Knicks pegged at 52 wins, which would – historically at least – be enough for them to make the postseason shakedown without the inconvenience of the play-in tournament.

A weakened 76ers fortifies that notion, so Tom Thibodeau’s men could be heading for a second successive appearance in the playoffs.

And with Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle in career-best form, who knows how far the Knicks can go towards a deep run into the postseason that was, pre-season at least, considered highly doubtful.

Eastern Promise

The year 2000 was a strange old time, but it played host to an NBA season that lives long in the memory of Knicks fans of a certain vintage – it was the last time they reached the Eastern Conference finals.

Much has changed since – not the Knicks’ fortunes on the court, but they are trending in the right direction again. And in Brunson, they have a player of immense talent.

The 27-year-old is in Stephen Curry, Jayson Tatum, and Devin Booker territory as far as his points-per game ratio is concerned, while his ranking of 15th for assists confirms that Brunson is happy to the provider or the finisher.

But there’s more to Brunson’s game than simply putting points on the board, with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra describing the point guard as “desperate and urgent and maniacal […] about the will to try to win”.

That’s an attitude that tends to rub off on others, which explains why both Brunson and Randle have been named to the All-Star ranks in 2024.

Others, including Isaiah Hartenstein, have also benefitted from Brunson’s “maniacal” streak, while an improvement in the team aesthetic took the Knicks on a nine-game winning streak – ended by the Lakers at the Garden on February 3.

That was a contest in which Brunson scored 36 points, to go with the 40 he blitzed against the Pacers 48 hours earlier. The Knicks crowd chanted “MVP”, which visibly moved Brunson on court.

But if he keeps playing the way he is, it’s maybe not as crazy as it sounds.