Sunday, November 27, 2022

Jalen Brunson good move but Knicks still look like play-in team

The Knicks are allowed to employ Jalen Brunson on Wednesday, the first day free agents can officially sign, and when the deal is done a good number of New Yorkers will raise a glass in response. The city always has been madly in love with point guards, and it has been some time since the Knicks had a young one who is worth a damn.

They have been looking for another Walt Frazier about as long as the Jets have been looking for another Joe Namath, and while we’re on the subject of local quarterbacks, here’s an interesting question to ask and answer:

If you had to invest in a local one over the next four years, would you sink your money into Brunson, Zach Wilson or Daniel Jones?

I’d probably bet on Brunson, because he’s the QB who already has proven he can score a lot of points in winning playoff performances. After his Mavericks lost to the eventual-champion Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, it was pretty clear Brunson was going to bolt Dallas for his dad’s former team in the big city — now run by his dad’s former agent, Leon Rose, father to Jalen’s current agent, Sam. The Knicks erased all doubt when they hired Rick Brunson as an assistant coach.

Tamping? The whole friggin’ league has been tampering for decades. The Knicks once lost Pat Riley and the prospect of winning multiple championships to the tampering Heat. All these years later, they will pay the fine or cough up the second-round pick or do whatever for Jalen Brunson and move on.

Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson
Getty Images

A two-time national champ at Villanova, Brunson is the ultimate crafty left-hander, an athlete who compensates for his lack of high-end athleticism by playing the angles, by seeing things his opponents don’t see and by using his squatty 6 -foot-1 body as the hammer needed to create his workspace. Among NBA guards last season, Brunson owned the fourth-best shooting percentage in the paint (51.4), the fifth-best in the restricted area (67.2), the eighth-best on midrange shots (47.3), and the third-best on corner 3s (50.0). The guy can play.

And now the bad news. (It’s the Knicks, remember? There has to be bad news.) This time around, even after Rose delivered Tom Thibodeau a player he actually wants, the Knicks don’t seem like a safe bet to return to the main-draw playoffs next season after missing the postseason altogether last year. They should hurdle the unraveling Brooklyn Nets and maybe pass another team or two in a loaded Eastern Conference. But barring a big summer move to come, the additions of Brunson and backup center Isaiah Hartenstein and the re-signing of Mitchell Robinson leave the Knicks looking like a play-in team.

That’s not ideal in Year 3 of Thibodeau’s program, especially after the stunning Year 1 breakthrough suggested the Knicks might be a whole lot closer to legitimate contention than that.

Of course, this might be a different conversation had Rose traded for Dejounte Murray, acquired instead by Atlanta, the very playoff opponent that bounced the Knicks from the first round in 2021. Murray and Brunson in the backcourt would have gotten people’s attention in the Eastern Conference places that matter.

Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson
Getty Images

But now it’s hard to see how the Knicks gained significant ground on the conference-champion Celtics, who got a bit better (via Malcolm Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari), and on the Miamis, Milwaukees, Phillys, and Torontos. Kevin Durant might end up on one of those teams, negating whatever benefits the Knicks thought they were getting from the Nets’ implosion.

Those 11 first-round picks over the next seven years? Rose needs to figure out how to convert those assets into better players sooner rather than later. None of his top three Knicks—RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Brunson—is good enough to be the lead franchise player on a title contender or to be the second-best player on a championship team.

That doesn’t mean the Knicks are completely lost — they’re not. Barrett might develop into a consistent force, and Randle might shake off a bummer of a season, in all ways, and return to something approximating his Most Improved Player form. Thibodeau might have a bounce-back year too, and his new point guard — the son of his former assistant in Chicago and Minnesota — might make his four-year, $104 million deal seem smart.

Though Brunson clearly benefitted from the otherworldly presence of Luka Doncic, and all the attention Luka commanded, he is not merely a creation of the partnership. Brunson shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of the last two seasons, and averaged 21.6 points in the Mavs’ 18-game playoff run. At age 25, he could be a very good long-term NBA starter, but probably not a great one. I could see him as another Fred VanVleet, an opportunistic winner who will make two or three All-Star teams.

All in all, the Knicks could do a lot worse than that. They got better, finally, at the spot that New Yorkers care about more than any other; their romantic connection to that traffic-cop spot inspired Brooklyn’s fleeing Mr. Durant, of all filmmakers, to produce a Showtime documentary titled “NYC Point Gods” airing later this month.

But ending a drought at that position doesn’t mean the Knicks got meaningfully closer to ending a far more important drought. Unless Leon Rose has a big summer move coming out of left field, the Knicks will start next season as just another barely relevant club.


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