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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Pretender: Orlando Magic (38-28)

The Magic have been the surprise team of the season. Orlando will soon be a true contender with Paolo Banchero (21) and Franz Wagner (22). It won't happen this season, though.

Last week, the Magic got a taste of what playoff basketball is like with back-to-back losses to the Pacers and Knicks. If the team can stay in the top six of the conference or fall into the Play-In Tournament at worst, Orlando will get valuable postseason experience. Even if it resulted in a first-round exit, it'd help a young team be more prepared in 2025.

In the last three years, the Magic have missed the playoffs entirely. They haven't made it to the second round since 2010. Soon enough, going to the postseason will be a regular occurrence for Orlando.

Contender: Cleveland Cavaliers (42-24)

New York might've exposed Cleveland in the first round of the playoffs last year, but that doesn't mean the Cavaliers are pretenders. In the offseason, they addressed their need for more shooting by adding Max Strus and Georges Niang.

Like the Knicks, the Cavaliers have dealt with injuries this season to key players. Also, like the Knicks, the Cavaliers have kept their position as one of the top teams in the East. At one point, Cleveland held the No. 2 spot in the conference.

Mitchell Robinson dominated Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley last year, and if the two teams meet again, he and Isaiah Hartenstein could do the same again. It's worth noting that Allen is having a career year, averaging 16.2 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. That doesn't mean he can't be stopped, though!

Donovan Mitchell missed the past couple of weeks with a left knee bone bruise, but he returned on Wednesday. If Mobley (ankle sprain) is ready to go in time for the postseason as expected, Cleveland could make it to the second round for the first time since 2018. Of course, that's if they don't clash with New York in the first round!