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How close are the Knicks to contending?

What level of player does New York need to add in order to level up?

New York Knicks v Chicago Bulls Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The vibes right now on the New York Knicks are immaculate. Since his arrival, newly acquired Josh Hart has brought the intangibles and glue behind a five-game win streak. In addition, head Coach Tom Thibodeau has been evolving with the team's personnel, making better adjustments to end games, allowing the bench to finish runs, and keeping the ball moving in the second half.

The Knicks are balanced with two All-Star-level talents in Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson, who could have a case made for co-MVPs. RJ Barrett is finally finding his ground as a secondary playmaker and tertiary scorer. Mitchel Robinson is anchoring our defense along with second-year sniper Quentin Grimes. Immanuel Quickley is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate off the bench. He leads the Knicks’ Mobb Deep of rebounding guru Isaiah Hartenstein, bouncy one-man-fast break Obi Toppin, and our defensive dynamo Josh Hart.

As amazing as the team is playing, Leon Rose seemed to be aware they need one more piece to get to the next level and truly contend. Even after Jalen Brunson’s free agent signing was in the bag this past summer, he was still negotiating with the Utah Jazz to acquire Donovan Mitchell. When they fell apart, he turned his attention to Chicago's Zach LaVine at the deadline, which went down to the wire. Both deals involved a combination of Knicks first-round picks and members of the young core. So it makes sense Rose will continue searching for the last piece to the championship puzzle this off-season.

With Brunson filling the decades-long point guard hole and Randle and Robinson holding down the front up-front, that leaves the perimeter as the area left to upgrade. Barrett was included in almost all discussions for Mitchell. And Grimes was the centerpiece of the LaVine negotiations. It appears one of them will eventually be moved when Rose eventually lands his perimeter star.

For years it felt like we needed a LeBron James-level addition to turn us into any kind of contending team. But with Rose's organic approach to team building, relying on incremental gains and continuity to build trust and talent, the level of star power is less than a top-five talent. No longer are we forced to chase un-gettable pipedreams like Kevin Durant, James, or Giannis Antetokounmpo. So who are realistic targets, and which ones should top the list?

The term “superstar” is relative and is constantly misused when describing first options. Some players, like Tim Duncan, Durant, and Steph Curry, have been superstars for most of their careers. Others have short stints as superstars during the height of their primes, like Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard, and Paul George. However, Randle seems to be entering a phase of his career where he could certainly be considered one. That’s not to say it will last for two more seasons, but the transparency and humility he has shown about his mental state and doing his due diligence to strengthen that area of his game has done wonders for his impact on winning and team ball.

This, along with the emergence of Brunson as one of the best point guards in the NBA, has lessened the severity of what kind of star we need to complete our championship-building strategy. So who's out there? Mitchell is clearly off the table. This leaves guys who are not impending free agents and would require mega trades to acquire, like LaVine, who Rose clearly targets, and his teammate DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, Bradley Beal, Jimmy Butler, and Brandon Ingram. Beal and LaVine both have inflated contracts, averaging $50 million per season for the next four years. Beal would be 33 years old when his contract ends, LaVine 31. That’s too much for Beal, who has been declining year to year and lis injury prone. Plus, he is a defensive liability and would require a major adjustment going off-ball with Brunson.

LaVine is also expensive, injury-prone, and defensively challenged. He is a sniper with a career 38% from three. LaVine doesn't feel worth the risk, and Beal feels past his prime. The same can be said for DeRozan, who would occupy many of the same areas of the court as Randle and Brunson, creating even worse spacing without the ability to hit the three-ball. His contract ends after next season, and he would be a better acquisition as a free agent. The same could be said for Jerami Grant, who would fit in great but would not raise this team’s ceiling to contention, making him not worth a major trade. He should be the Knicks' primary sign and trade target this summer, though.

Masai Ujiri is on record for how much he hates the Knicks and has a history of fleecing us in the Carmelo Anthony deal when he was the Nuggets exec and with Andrea Bargnani when he first joined the Raptors. This makes OG Anunoby an unlikely prospect, as he has already set the asking price way too high, with the Raptors wanting a rumored three first-round picks for the forward during the deadline. Stars like Anthony Edwards, Kawhi Leonard, and Jaylen Brown don’t seem available yet, although their presence on this Knicks team alongside Brunson and Randle would instantly make us the favorites in the East. It will be a few seasons before they become disgruntled and demand out, removing them from the present conversation.

This leaves Brandon Ingram as the lone option. Ingram is a silky smooth scorer, averaging 22.8 PPG, 4.7 APG, and 5 RPG this season with the New Orleans Pelicans. If they have another injury-plagued playoff appearance and are bounced in the first round, GM David Griffin could look to retool around Zion Williamson and try to add a high-level point guard to the roster. A combination of Toppin, Quickley, and Barrett could be used to acquire Ingram, plus draft compensation, reuniting the Duke teammates of Barrett and Williamson while giving the Pelicans an up-and-coming stud in Quickley. Losing any of those players would hurt, but we would also retain three and d guys like Grimes and Hart around our new big three.

Ingram would certainly fill the long, athletic wing we have been looking for while retaining enough assets for another future move should other stars become available. Adding Ingram wouldn't guarantee anything, but it would give us the best team since the 90s Black and Blue 1994 Finals teams. Ingram provides playmaking and scoring at 25 years old and on a value contract ($33,833,400 in 2023 -2024 and $36,016,200 in 2024 - 2025). he also would reunite with Hart and Randle, who were all three drafted by the Lakers and spent their early years together. Unlike some of the older vets mentioned, Ingram doesn't demand we win now with a truncated window. He could grow with this Knicks team, the youngest rotation of any team with a winning record. It would be a move to set us up for the present while remaining flexible in the future, fitting right in line with how Rose has operated thus far.