Good news for Knicks fans: The franchise has landed one of the top free agents, a rare occurrence for a team this century.
The bad news: This is a weak free agent class, and that top free agent — 25-year-old guard Jalen Brunson — has never made an All-Star team. He agreed to a contract with the Knicks $104 million over four seasonsHis agents Aaron Mintz and Sam Rose told ESPN. Rose is the son of team president Leon Rose.
It’s a big investment in a player who averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists per game during his four best seasons with the Dallas Mavericks. He has only been playing full-time for one season. But Brunson represents a significant upgrade at the point guard position, where the Knicks have long struggled to find playmakers. Over the past two decades, the Knicks’ starting guards have included Chris DeHon, Tony Douglas, Trey Burke and Pablo Priggion. Brownson has a great floater game in the paint, is a reliable shooter and can break down defenses and pressure the rim.
Brunson’s father, Ricky, who played for the team briefly in the late 1990s, will be an assistant coach with the team next season. The Knicks have not announced their hiring, but multiple reports in early June said they were close to a deal. The team did not respond to a request for comment.
With Brownson Jr. out, 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 difference there is on the roster as free agency signings begin Wednesday.
The conundrum facing the Knicks is that their rotation is talented but flawed. Brunson, in essence, embodies this. He can score for teams, but he’s not a quality defender. He’s not nearly good enough to be the best player on a contending team, and he’s not sure his ceiling is much higher than what he showed last season.
RJ Barrett, 22, entering his fourth season, hasn’t shown enough consistency to be a cornerstone. He’s good at getting to the rim but not finishing and his jumper needs work. Other young prospects, including forward Obi Toppin, 24, and point guard Emmanuel Quickley, 23, have alternated between solid contributors and liabilities. Toppin cuts and runs the floor well, but he’s a below-average shooter and struggles defensively. Quickley has improved offensively in his second season in 2021-22, but he’s an inefficient scorer and his size makes him an easy target on defense.
Last season was—charitably—a step back for the Knicks. It looks like they’re finally finding a way out of the gloom with a 2021 postseason run. They signed Julius Randle to an expensive 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 got heavier. Randle struggled last season and the veterans haven’t played well enough to be a part of the team long term.
Mitchell Robinson, a 24-year-old center, is another good example of the team’s talent but flaws. He’s an excellent rim protector and threat around the rim, but he has no offensive range to speak of and hasn’t improved in four seasons. Still, the Knicks agreed to bring him back A four-year, $60 million dealHis agents Thad Foucher and Joe Smith told ESPN.
The Knicks will have to free up some salary cap space to sign Brunson, and that likely means moving on from some ill-fitting veterans. But beyond that, the Knicks need to add players who can help them out of mediocrity — the worst place to be in the NBA. .
Quality veterans looking to chase a ring most likely won’t take a pay cut to join them because the Knicks don’t have a roster capable of actually contending for a championship. If a star becomes available, say Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, the Knicks probably won’t have the best deal: not the best young prospects, not the highest draft pick, just a mix of in-between pieces. It’s hard to see a ceiling for this team as a low seed in the playoffs.
But the NBA is an increasingly fluid league, and there’s real reason to believe the Knicks can overcome their shortcomings and exceed expectations.
The Knicks will likely start the season with Brunson, Randle and Barrett as the primary ball handlers. Despite their weaknesses, this is a better-than-average group of playmakers in today’s NBA, with Brunson’s penetration ability taking pressure off Randle, who can spend more time as the focal point of the offense. Brunson’s shooting will create more space for him and Randle to operate around the basket. If Randle is relieved of that pressure, he can focus more energy on his other strengths, such as rebounding and passing. Maybe the Knicks get the All-Star version of Randle back.
And Brunson’s arrival should also make life easier for Barrett. He had a bigger role on offense last season after the All-Star break and averaged 24.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He shot just 40.1 percent from the field in those games – talented, but flawed! — but he has shown potential as a No. 1 option. If Barrett can bring normal efficiency to the game, he becomes a borderline All-Star next to Randle.
To fill out that core, the Knicks need consistent shooting around them. They already have someone to help with that in Evan Fournier, who shot 38.9 percent from deep last year. Quickley didn’t shoot well last year, but he also shot 38.9 percent from 3 his rookie year.
Rose, who was injured last season, should also be able to help. With the Knicks, Rose was a surprisingly good shooter and another body to help break down defenses. At 33 years old and with a long injury history, he is unlikely to be the sixth man off the bench, but his return would be a welcome sight for the team. There is a world in which a shutdown lineup of Randle, Barrett, Brunson, Fournier and Rose is very difficult to defend.
There is some light behind this year – some are operative words. The Knicks have first-round draft picks in the coming years, including from Dallas, Washington and Detroit. The Knicks will have four first-round picks next year. Several options have conditions that reduce their value. And if the Knicks continue to be good, but not great, their own draft pick will likely end up in the first round, which also lowers their value.
But having a stockpile of picks is better than none, and the Knicks could use some of them in trades instead of keeping them to draft intriguing prospects. The deal to sign Brunson shows that the Knicks are trying to win now. Leon Rose rarely speaks publicly, so the Knicks’ broader strategy is unclear.
The Knicks have been one of the worst teams in the league for years, but they still have key pieces that helped them gain home-court advantage in the playoffs just two seasons ago. The Knicks aren’t a super team, but in today’s NBA, that might be a good thing.