Good news for Knicks fans: The franchise has attracted one of the best free agents, a rarity for a team this century.
The bad news is that this is a weak free agent class, and the top free agent, 25-year-old point guard Jalen Brunson, has never made the All-Star team. He agreed to sign with the Knicks. $104 million over four seasonsThis was told to ESPN by his agents Aaron Mintz and Sam Rose. Rose is the son of Team President Leon Rose.
That’s a huge investment 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 was a full starter for only one season. But Brunson represents a significant upgrade to the point guard position that the Knicks have long been unable to find playmakers for. Over the past two decades, Knicks starting point guards have included Chris Duhon, Tony Douglas, Trey Burke, and Pablo Prigioni. Brunson has a great paint floater game, he is a solid shooter, he can break the defense and put pressure on the ring.
Brunson’s father, Rick, who briefly played for the team in the late 1990s, is also expected to become assistant head coach on the team next season. The Knicks did not announce his hire, but in early June, multiple reports suggested they were close to a deal. The team did not respond to a request for comment.
With Brunson Jr. on the court, the Knicks could become a dangerous playoff team like they did in 2020-21 or one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference like they did last season. That’s how many differences there are on the list as free agent signings begin on Wednesday.
The conundrum the Knicks are facing is that their rotation players are talented but flawed. Brunson essentially embodies that. He can score in combinations, but he is not a quality defender. He’s almost certainly not good enough to be the best player on the opposing team, and it’s not certain that his ceiling is much higher than what he showed last season.
R.J. Barrett, 22, who is starting his fourth season, hasn’t shown enough consistency to be a cornerstone. He approaches the rim well but doesn’t finish and his jumper needs work. Other young hopefuls, including power forward Obi Toppin, 24, and point guard Immanuel Quickly, 23, alternated between solid contributions and hindrances. Toppin hits and runs well, but his shooter is below average and he has a hard time defending. Quickly managed offense better in the second season of 2021/22, but he is an ineffective scorer and his size makes him an easy target in defense.
Last season was, to put it mildly, a step back for the Knicks. It seemed they had finally found their way out of the darkness in their 2021 post-season run. They signed a costly contract extension with Julius Randle and signed new veterans Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel. Then they missed the playoffs last season and the weight of those new deals got heavier. Randle had problems last season and the veterans didn’t play well enough to deserve to be part of the team long term.
Mitchell Robinson, 24-year-old center, is another good example of a team that is talented but flawed. He’s a great under rim defender and a throwing threat around the rim, but he doesn’t have range to speak of and hasn’t improved much in four seasons. However, the Knicks agreed to bring him back. four-year, $60 million dealThis was told to ESPN by his agents Ted Fucher and Joe Smith.
The Knicks will need to make room in the salary cap to sign Brunson, and that likely means giving up some unsuitable veterans. But beyond that, the Knicks need to add players to help them rise from mediocrity, the worst place in the NBA.
Quality veterans looking to challenge for the ring likely wouldn’t take a pay cut to join them because at the moment the Knicks don’t have a roster that can really challenge for the championship. If a star like Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving shows up, the Knicks probably won’t have a better deal: not the best young prospects, not the top picks in the draft, just a hodgepodge of mediocre figures. It’s hard to imagine a ceiling for this team with anything more than a low seed in the playoffs.
But the NBA is becoming an increasingly volatile league, and there is real reason to believe that the Knicks will be able to overcome their shortcomings and exceed expectations.
The Knicks will likely start the season with Brunson, Randle and Barrett as their main ball handlers. Even with their weaknesses, this is the best group of playmakers in today’s NBA. Brunson’s ability to get on target will take the pressure off Randle, who could use more time without being the main point of attack on offense. Brunson’s throw will create more space for him and Randle to operate around the basket. If Randle eases that pressure a bit, he can channel more energy into his other strengths, like rebounding and passing. It’s possible the Knicks will bring Randle back in an All-Star version.
Brunson’s arrival should also make life easier for Barrett. He played a big role on offense after the All-Star break last season and averaged 24.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. In those games, he shot only 40.1 percent from the field – talented, but imperfect! – but he showed potential as No. 1 option. If Barrett can bring passable efficiency to the game, he’ll be a frontier All-Star alongside Randle.
To complement this core, the Knicks need to constantly fire around them. They already have someone to help with that in Evan Fournier, who shot 38.9 percent from deep last year. Quickly didn’t shoot very well last year, but in his first year he also shot 38.9% out of 3.
Rose, who was injured for much of last season, should also help. On the Knicks, Rose was a surprisingly good shooter and another body to break down defenses. At 33 and with a long history of injury, he probably won’t be the sixth man off the bench, but his return will be a welcome sight for the team. There is a world where the final line-up of Randle, Barrett, Brunson, Fournier and Rose is extremely difficult to defend.
There is some light outside of this year – some of it is the operative word. The Knicks will have many first-round picks in the coming years, including picks from Dallas, Washington, and Detroit. The Knicks could have four first-round picks next year. Some choices have conditions that reduce their value. And if the Knicks stay ok but not up to the mark, their own drafts are likely to drop in the middle or end of the first round, which also reduces their value.
But it’s better to have a supply of picks than none, and the Knicks could use some of them in a trade instead of holding them for intriguing prospects. The agreement to sign a major deal with Brunson suggests that the Knicks are now trying to win. Leon Rose rarely performs in public, so the Knicks’ overall strategy is unclear.
The Knicks have been one of the worst teams in the league for years, but they still have the core elements that helped them secure home court advantage in the playoffs just two seasons ago. The Knicks are not a super team, but in today’s NBA, that might be okay.