Good news for Knicks fans: The franchise has attracted one of the best free agents, a rare thing for the team this century.
The bad news: It’s a weak class of free agents, 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 team president Leon Rose.
That’s a big investment to make in a player who, in his best 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 the Knicks have long struggled to find playmakers at. Over the past two decades, the Knicks’ starting point guards have included Chris Duhon, Toney Douglas, Trey Burke and Pablo Prigioni. Brunson has an excellent float game in the paint, he’s a reliable shooter and can break down a defense and pressure the rim.
Brunson’s father, Rick, who briefly played for the team in the late 1990s, is also expected to be an assistant coach on the team next season. The Knicks have not announced the signing of him, but in early June multiple reports said they were close to a deal. The team did not respond to a request for comment.
With young Brunson running the floor, the Knicks could be a dangerous playoff team, as they were in 2020-21, or one of the worst teams in the Eastern Conference, as they were last season. That’s the variance with the roster as free-agent signings begin Wednesday.
The dilemma facing the Knicks is that their rotation players are talented but flawed. Brunson, in essence, embodies this. He can score a ton, but he’s not a quality defender. He’s almost certainly not good enough to be the best player on a contending team, and he’s not sure his ceiling is much higher than he showed last season.
RJ Barrett, 22, who is entering his fourth season, hasn’t shown enough consistency to be a cornerstone. He’s good at getting to the rim but not at finishing, and his jump shot needs work. The other young hopefuls, including power forward Obi Toppin, 24, and point guard Immanuel Quickley, 23, have alternated between being solid contributors and being passive. Toppin cuts and runs well on the floor, but he’s a below-average shooter and struggles defensively. Quickley was better running the offense during his second season in 2021-22, but he’s an inefficient scorer and his size makes him an easy target for defense.
Last season was, charitably, a step backwards for the Knicks. They appeared to be finally finding their way out of the darkness with their 2021 postseason run. They signed Julius Randle to a costly contract extension and gave veterans Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel new deals. 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 deserve to be part of the team long-term.
Mitchell Robinson, the 24-year-old center, is another good example of the talent problem but the team’s flaws. He’s an excellent rim protector and lob threat around the rim, but he doesn’t have an offensive range to speak of and hasn’t improved much in four seasons. Still, the Knicks agreed to bring him back. a four-year, $60 million contracthis agents Thad Foucher and Joe Smith told ESPN.
The Knicks will need to make cap space to sign Brunson, and that likely means moving away from some of the veterans who don’t fit in. But beyond that, the Knicks need to add players who can help them get out of mediocrity — the worst place to be in the NBA. They’re not bad enough to get top picks in the draft, but they’re not good enough to justify their biggest contracts. .
Quality veterans looking for a ring probably wouldn’t take a pay cut to join them because the Knicks don’t have a roster that can realistically contend for a championship right now. If a star is available, say Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving, the Knicks likely won’t have the best package to offer: Not the best young prospects, not the top picks in the draft, just a mix of middlemen. It’s hard to see this team’s ceiling as anything higher than 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 are likely to start the season with Brunson, Randle and Barrett as their primary ball handlers. Even with their weaknesses, that’s a better-than-average group of playmakers in today’s NBA. Brunson’s penetrating ability will take pressure off Randle, who could use more time since he’s not the main attacking point of the offense. Brunson’s shots will create more room for him and Randle to operate around the basket. If Randle has some of that pressure relieved, he can put more energy into his other strengths, like rebounding and passing. Maybe the Knicks will bring back the All-Star version of Randle.
And Brunson’s arrival should make life easier for Barrett, too. He took on a bigger role on offense after the All-Star break last season, averaging 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 showed potential as the No. 1 option. If Barrett can bring decent efficiency to the game, he becomes a borderline All-Star alongside Randle.
To complement that core, the Knicks need consistent shooting around him. They already have someone who can help with that in Evan Fournier, who shot 38.9 percent from deep last year. Quickley didn’t shoot well last year, but in his rookie year, he also shot 38.9 percent from 3.
Rose, who was injured for much of last season, should also be able to help. With the Knicks, Rose has been a surprisingly good shooter and another body to help break down defenses. At 33 years old, and with a long history of injuries, he may not be the sixth man to come off the bench, but his return will be a welcome sight for the team. There is a world where a final lineup of Randle, Barrett, Brunson, Fournier and Rose is extremely difficult to defend.
There is some light beyond this year, something being the operative word. The Knicks have plenty of first-round picks in the next few years, including picks from Dallas, Washington and Detroit. Next year, the Knicks could have four first-round picks. Several of the selections have conditions, which reduce their value. And if the Knicks are still good but not great, chances are their own draft picks will drop mid to late in the first round, which also lowers their value.
But having a pool of picks is better than none, and the Knicks could use some of them in a trade rather than retain them to select intriguing prospects. The deal to sign Brunson to a big deal suggests the Knicks are trying to win now. Leon Rose rarely speaks in public, so the Knicks’ overall strategy is unclear.
The Knicks were one of the league’s worst teams for years, but they still have the centerpieces that helped them secure home-court advantage in the playoffs just two seasons ago. The Knicks aren’t a superteam, but in today’s NBA that might be fine.