Contenders and Pretenders in the Eastern Conference: Are the Knicks a true threat?

The Knicks are a top team in the East.
New York Knicks, Jalen Brunson
New York Knicks, Jalen Brunson / Dustin Satloff/GettyImages
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It's no secret that the New York Knicks could make some noise in the playoffs this year and push past the second round for the first time since 2000. Much of it will rely on health, as the Knicks are still without Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson.

After the OG Anunoby trade in late December, New York looked unstoppable. The defense was on another level. He missed a month and a half, and the Knicks are 2-0 with him back in the lineup. When New York is at full strength, beware.

Are the Knicks a true threat in the Eastern Conference?

Even amid a string of injuries, the Knicks have stayed toward the top of the East. If the regular season ended today, New York would be back in the playoffs for a second straight year.

Like it or not, the Knicks are an actual threat. No team in the East should want to see New York in the first or second round, for that matter. A healthy Knicks team is a true contender. There are a few other contenders in the conference, and some teams are supposed to be contenders but are instead pretenders.

Pretender: Philadelphia Sixers (36-30)

The Sixers were dealt quite an unlucky hand when Joel Embiid suffered an injury to the lateral meniscus in his left knee. He hasn't played since Jan. 30. It was initially reported that Philadelphia believed he'd be back before the season ended, but ESPN's Ramona Shelburne reported a few days ago that Embiid isn't "anywhere close" to returning.

The Sixers have slipped down the standings without Embiid. If they don't go on a run, they'll be in the Play-In Tournament. Tyrese Maxey is having a career year, averaging 25.9 points and 6.2 assists per game, so he'll need to go into overdrive for Philadelphia to have a shot.

Contender: Boston Celtics (52-14)

There's no way around it -- the Celtics are one of the best teams in basketball. If it weren't for the Nuggets, who are 2-0 against the Celtics this season, they'd be the best.

Milwaukee did Boston a favor by trading for Damian Lillard in the offseason, giving Brad Stevens a chance to snag Jrue Holiday from Portland. He's been an excellent addition to an already strong starting five. You can't forget about Kristaps Porzingis, who, if healthy, could be the Celtics' X-factor in the playoffs. He's been a force on both ends of the floor.

Boston has playoff experience, too. Porzingis hasn't been part of a deep postseason run, but Holiday has won an NBA title. That will only help an already strong Celtics squad in the playoffs. It'll be a disappointment (not to New York fans) if Boston doesn't make it past the Eastern Conference Finals.