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In praise of the Knicks’ pursuit of Jalen Brunson

You’ve tried the rest. Now try the pretty good.

Golden State Warriors vs Dallas Mavericks, 2022 NBA Western Conference Finals Set Number: X164071 TK1

When Leon Rose was named Knicks President in 2022, skeptics believed that without any basketball front office experience, he wouldn’t know what he’s doing outside of relying on old, biased CAA agency connections, a la Brodie Van Wagenen with the Mets.

The Knicks’ draft night this year appeared to be the encapsulation of those pessimistic fears.

Instead of a typical draft night of scouring YouTube highlight compilations to become an optimistic expert on their selection after a disheartening season, it was a night of sifting through tweets to put together what the Knicks just did, if anything.

It appears the flurry of exchanged picks boiled down to punting on their first selection for the second straight year and also conceding that the last offseason was a failure—trading four second-round picks to rid themselves of their least-damaging contract of last summer in Kemba Walker’s expiring 8 million. That was followed up by trading even more picks to get rid of Burks’ and Noel’s contracts.

Why all the movement and hubbub? Reportedly to make a play at offering Jalen Brunson a hefty contract in the range of 110 million dollars.It’s hard to not be reminded of the Knicks other flexibility movements—going all out to clear cap space to chase stars in free agency like the Leon Rose-repped LeBron James in 2010, or the infamous Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant chase in 2018 (a successful failure?). The key difference?

Jalen Brunson is not LeBron James or Kevin Durant, or even an All-Star. Jalen Brunson is the son of Leon Rose’s first client and longtime friend in Rick Brunson, who they just brought on as an assistant coach (similarly to how they brought on Durant’s friend Royal Ivey), despite him resigning from the Timberwolves for misconduct allegations in 2018. Jalen Brunson is also represented by Leon Rose’s son Sam Rose, who I imagine would see a bit of commission on any mega-deal for Brunson. With all of that laid out, it becomes hard to shake the idea that the Knicks are run by Leon Rose and his cronies while being unenthused by any potential pursuit of Jalen Brunson. Questionable as the Knicks maneuvering may feel, it is important to distinguish between it and Jalen Brunson the player.

Jalen Brunson is a good NBA player and fit for the rebuilding Knicks. At 25, Brunson has steadily improved in each of his four seasons in the league, a point guard who can score inside and outside while also being an adequate playmaker. Though teams should not act off history, I’m genuinely not sure if that’s a statement you could make about any Knick since, what, Earl Monroe?

Brunson may not be Earl the Pearl, but he’s a good player who fits a team need of being a point guard that is not Alec Burks with room to grow. Truthfully, Brunson, who has been able to provide solid rotational minutes his entire career, should have been a Knick since the Kristaps Porzingis trade instead of Dennis Smith Jr. The Villanova product will certainly be an overpay. I am not going to list every comparable player making a comparable amount of money. My rule is whenever “inconsistent bad player makes 20 million,” is being said to defend a new contract, that contract is also almost certainly an overpay.

For a budding player at a position of need with free agency increasingly becoming less of a viable option, it’s acceptable to overpay. Being capped out is not a great place to be, but it’s not fair to distinguish it as being capped out on Brunson himself when Julius Randle’s and Evan Fournier’s are more disruptive and can and likely should be moved eventually, even if it costs more second rounders to do so.

My concern would be less with signing Brunson and more with the team not giving him and others the ability to improve. There’s certainly a difference in ability and age, but it was only one year ago where Tom Thibodeau was tasked with bringing the best out of a guard averaging 19.3 points and 4.9 assists on 56 TS% while needing help on defense in Kemba Walker, not too-different on paper from Brunson’s 16.3 points and 4.8 assists on 58 TS%. Although Walker is undeniably washed at this point, there was little attempt to play him with any other lineup other than the starting lineup which clearly did not work, or Immanuel Quickley with the starters which did.

It will be important for Tom Thibodeau or any future Knicks head coach to experiment with lineups rather than do entire platoon swaps that avoid experimentation with Brunson and other players. I have waxed poetic about Quickley and Miles McBride as much, if not more, than anyone else, but the fear of them remaining lower on the depth chart totem pole is not a reason to pass on Brunson. Teams can play and develop multiple guards at the same time; the Knicks had one of their most successful seasons doing so in 2013, it just may not happen under Tom Thibodeau.

Quickley could and should easily play with Brunson and other starters, there just is not much reason to believe it will happen off recent Thibodeau history, although you cannot make team decisions off poor ones made by a replaceable head coach (or off a still-streaky career bench player and G-League second-rounder). There is certainly merit to a Thibodeau-coached Brunson, who could thrive as the type of penetrating guard he loves as Derrick Rose did, and could see his measly 3.2 point attempts (4.2 in playoffs) uptick as necessary as Bullock’s and Fournier’s did.

Hopefully Thibodeau can also help maximize Brunson’s remarkable but ultimately too-safe assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.8 assists to 1.6 turnovers as he unlocked Randle’s playmaking in 2020. The moves feels crummier than it is. It feels like the Knicks are moving hell and Earth to get rid of all their bad contracts made just a summer ago for a nepotistic player who may never be a star—while some of that is true, it makes it feel like the Knicks are cluelessly upheaving their franchise for one above-average player to fix everything single-handedly, which is not true.

This isn’t the Carmelo Anthony trade. It’s just the signing of a good player with a few tedious steps. The front office did sign the bad contracts themselves, but those should have been moved regardless of any free agency hunt just to clear up developmental minutes — and were, for middling second rounders.

With or without family ties, going for a young solid player is what any rebuilding team should be doing with cap space openings. Trades rectifying recent bad moves made will never inspire too much confidence in a front office, but Boston trading a first-rounder to undo their Walker signing and the Warriors trading for Andrew Wiggins to undo their Russell signing just made them both Finals teams.

The Knicks have had gaudy free agent chases before that have failed, is it so bad to go for a less gaudy but still good target that may actually sign this time?