Vincent Carchietta | USA TODAY Sports

Barring injuries or an unexpected collapse, the Knicks are going to avoid the play-in tournament this year. Jalen Brunson’s steady hand and Julius Randle’s resurgence are pushing the orange and blue to unexpected heights. Now, Knicks fans are looking at who they might have to face in the first round.

While any Knicks fans would be all in on a seven-game tilt with the 76ers, that’s not the most intriguing matchup. Not by a long shot. New Yorkers — Stephen A. Smith excluded — would love a chance at the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although Knicks-Cavs isn’t some deep-seated rivalry, there’s more to it than that this year.

Donovan Mitchell.

Cleveland swooped in to undercut the Knicks and pull off the biggest blockbuster trade of the summer. It’s hard to keep track of all the trades involving star players in the new world of NBA player empowerment, but Mitchell was the biggest story of the offseason. When the Knicks missed out on him, the world pointed and laughed, as they often do when misfortune finds the Knicks.

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Although it felt like a blow at the time, passing on Mitchell is looking better and better every day. RJ Barrett is having a down season, but Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes were two other guys deeply entrenched in last summer’s trade discussions. Add in a boatload of picks and the Knicks would have had to move a ton to acquire Mitchell.

In fact, New York might be better off without Mitchell in the long run. The Knicks are pushing for a top-four seed in large part due to Quickley’s Sixth Man of the Year campaign and Grimes’ breakout season. That’s not to diminish what Barrett brings to the table, either. He’s a core piece of the puzzle.

Since switching to a nine-man rotation in early December, the Knicks have been one of the best teams in the league. Mitchell is a much better player than any of the Barrett-Quickley-Grimes trio, but depth has been a key to New York’s success.

New York isn’t just looking to avoid the play-in tournament at this point. They have a legitimate shot at jumping Cleveland and stealing home-court advantage in the first round. As of Sunday, the Knicks are a game behind the Cavs for fourth place in the East.

Critics will say that New York is poised to follow the same script as the 2021 playoffs when the orange and blue flamed out against Trae Young and the Hawks. That’s a lazy comparison for two reasons. First off, that series can serve as valuable experience for this Knicks roster going forward.

But more importantly, the Knicks didn’t have Jalen Brunson.

Despite Julius Randle’s All-Star appearance this year, it’s clear that Brunson is the lead dog. This is his team. The big problem with the 2021 Knicks was Randle’s postseason struggles as the No. 1 option. We already know Brunson is capable of dominating in the playoffs as the top option.

After all, he completely outplayed Mitchell in the first round of the playoffs last year. For anyone who forgets, the Mavs took a 2-1 lead without Luka Doncic against Mitchell’s Jazz last April. Brunson averaged 32.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists on 51/41/85 shooting splits over those three games. Without Brunson’s heroics, the Mavericks aren’t making a run to the Western Conference Finals.

We already know Brunson can go toe to toe with Mitchell when it matters most. New York has the edge when it comes to depth after the stars too. If they can secure home-court advantage, it’s hard not to like their chances against the Cavs in a seven-game series. There is still a long way to go before the playoffs arrive, but there is something undeniable about these Knicks.

Follow ESNY on Twitter @elitesportsny

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.