The Knicks stumbled last season. Here’s how they can recover.
By Sopan Deb
Good news for New York Knicks fans: The franchise has lured one of the best free agents, a rare occurrence for the team this century.
The bad news: It’s a weak free-agent class, and this top free agent — 25-year-old point guard Jalen Brunson — has never made an All-Star team. He has agreed to sign with the Knicks for $104 million over four seasons, his agents Aaron Mintz and Sam Rose told ESPN. Rose is the son of the team’s president, Leon Rose.
That’s a hefty investment to make in a player who, in his best of four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists per game. He has been a full-time starter for just one season. But Brunson represents a significant upgrade at point guard, a position where the Knicks have long struggled to find playmakers. In the last two decades, Knicks starting point guards have included Chris Duhon, Toney Douglas, Trey Burke and Pablo Prigioni. Brunson has an excellent floater game in the paint, he’s a reliable shooter and he can break down a defense and put pressure at the rim.
Brunson’s father, Rick, who briefly played for the team in the late 1990s, also is expected to be an assistant coach on the team next season. The Knicks have not announced his hiring, but in early June multiple reports said they were nearing a deal. The team did not respond to a request for comment.
With the younger Brunson running the floor, the Knicks could be a dangerous playoff team, like they were in 2020-21, or one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, like they were last season. That’s how much variance there is with the roster as free agency signings began Wednesday.
The conundrum facing the Knicks is that their rotation players are talented but flawed. Brunson, in essence, embodies this. He can score in bunches, but he isn’t a quality defender. He’s almost assuredly not good enough to be the best player on a contending team, and it’s not certain that his ceiling is much higher than what he showed last season.
RJ Barrett, 22, who is entering his fourth season, has not shown enough consistency to be a cornerstone. He’s good at getting to the rim but not at finishing, and his jumper needs work. The other young hopes, including power forward Obi Toppin, 24, and point guard Immanuel Quickley, 23, have alternated between being solid contributors and being liabilities. Toppin cuts and runs the floor well, but he is a below-average shooter and struggles defensively. Quickley was better at running the offense during his second season in 2021-22, but he is an inefficient scorer and his size makes him an easy target on defense.
Last season was — charitably — a step back for the Knicks. They seemed to be finally finding their way out of the darkness with their 2021 postseason run. They signed Julius Randle to a pricey contract extension and gave new deals to veterans Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel. Then, they missed the playoffs last season, and the weight of those new deals felt heavier. Randle struggled last season, and the veterans didn’t play well enough to merit being part of the team long term.
Mitchell Robinson, the 24-year-old center, is another good example of the team’s talented-but-flawed issue. He is an excellent rim protector and lob threat around the rim, but he has no offensive range to speak of and hasn’t improved much in four seasons. Still, the Knicks have agreed to bring him back on a four-year, $60 million deal, his agents Thad Foucher and Joe Smith told ESPN.
The Knicks will need to make salary-cap space to sign Brunson, and that likely means moving on from some of the ill-fitting veterans. But beyond that, the Knicks need to add players who can help them rise out of mediocrity — the worst place to be in the NBA. They aren’t bad enough to receive high draft picks but aren’t good enough to justify their biggest contracts.
Quality veterans looking to chase a ring most likely would not take a pay cut to join them because the Knicks don’t have a roster that can realistically contend for a championship at the moment. If a star becomes available, say a Kevin Durant or a Kyrie Irving, the Knicks probably won’t have the best package to offer: not the best young prospects, not the highest draft picks, just a mishmash of middling pieces. It’s hard to see the ceiling for this team as anything higher than a low seed in the playoffs.
But the NBA is an increasingly fluid league, and there is a real reason to believe the Knicks can overcome their deficiencies and surpass expectations.
The Knicks likely will start the season with Brunson, Randle and Barrett as the primary ballhandlers. Even with their weaknesses, that’s a better-than-average group of playmakers in today’s NBA. Brunson’s ability to penetrate will take pressure off Randle, who could use more time not being the primary attack point on the offense. Brunson’s shooting will create more space for him and Randle to operate around the basket. If Randle has some of that pressure relieved, he can put more energy toward his other strengths, such as rebounding and passing. Maybe the Knicks will get the All-Star version of Randle back.
And Brunson’s arrival should also make life easier for Barrett. He had a bigger role in the offense after the All-Star break last season and averaged 24.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He shot only 40.1% from the field in those games — talented but flawed! — but he showed potential as the No. 1 option. If Barrett can bring a passable efficiency to the game, he becomes a borderline All-Star alongside Randle.
To complement that core, the Knicks need consistent shooting around them. They already have someone who can help with that in Evan Fournier, who shot 38.9% from deep last year. Quickley didn’t shoot well last year, but in his rookie year, he also shot 38.9% from 3.
Rose, who was injured for much of last season, also should be able to help. With the Knicks, Rose has been a surprisingly good shooter and another body to help break down defenses. At 33, and with a lengthy injury history, he likely can’t be the sixth man off the bench, but his return will be a welcome sight for the team. There is a world in which a closing lineup of Randle, Barrett, Brunson, Fournier and Rose is extremely difficult to defend.
The Knicks were one of the worst teams in the league for years, but they still have the core pieces that helped them secure home-court advantage in the playoffs just two seasons ago. The Knicks are not a superteam, but in today’s NBA, that might be OK.