Jalen Brunson is the greatest free agent signing in the history of the New York Knicks. His leadership, toughness, and clutch mindset have turned the Knicks into a legitimate playoff threat and a future contender. He is the very reason we have a Game Six preview. But how did he get here? First, we must revisit a team the Knicks have had a contentious relationship with for years— The Dallas Mavericks.
The history between the two teams has run deep in the last decade. After Mark Cuban declined to keep the 2011 championship together, the Knicks signed Tyson Chandler in 2011 and Jason Kidd in 2012. Then the Kristaps Porzingus trade in 2019, sending the Latvian big man to Dallas, dictated the futures of the two teams moving forward. Recently, the Mavs have picked up former Knicks bums with glee, as their current roster includes Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, Frank Ntilikina, and Theo Pinson.
From 2000-2021, the Mavericks operated the opposite of the Knicks. They were a contender in the 200s behind future Hall-of-Fame forward Dirk Nowitzki. They were a competent, high-culture team who integrated veterans into their plug-and-play offense. In 2011, Nowitzki rewrote his career of postseason choking by carrying a team of non-All-Stars to a championship, beating three of the best teams of the last two decades in the process (Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Miami Heat). In the 2010s, Nowitzki joined Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan as legendary players who spent their entire careers with the team that drafted them.
The Mavericks had the dumb luck of transitioning seamlessly from Nowitzki to another European superstar in Luka Doncic. Meanwhile, Knicks fans know exactly our orange and blue state of affairs during those two decades. But there was another player who the Mavs took in 2018, deep in the second round with the 33rd pick in the second round—Brunson. Brunson was an after-thought to Doncic, who was not only the Rookie of the Year but appeared to be a generational talent, ready to carry the torch from Nowitzki.
Behind Doncic, Brunson came off the bench as the backup point guard for his first three seasons, staying under the radar. He was atrocious against the Los Angeles Clippers in his first postseason, averaging a mere 9 PPG on .45% field goal shooting. He was thought to be a playoff bust, which helped general manager Nico Harrison have the upper hand as Brunson approached unrestricted free agency the following summer. But then, in 2021, Brunson began to show the doubters what he could be. In 18 postseason games during the Mavs Western Conference Finals run, he averaged 21 PPG. Not to mention the 41 and 31 pieces he dropped on the Utah Jazz in the first round while Doncic was out with injury. That first-round series, for which Knicks exec William “WorldWide Wes” Wesley had front-row seats, was a preview of what Brunson could do as the lead guard of his own team.
As reported, before the 2021-22 season started, Brunson was eligible for a four-year, $55.5 million extension. But Harrison, a former Nike executive, and a glorified shoe salesman, never made the offer, even though Brunson has said in interviews he would have accepted if the Mavericks made it. In January 2022, his representatives tried to initiate dialogue on getting a deal done, but the Mavericks resisted. After the February trade deadline, the team contacted Brunson about agreeing to the same four-year, $55.5 million extension role player Dorian Finney-Smith had just signed. By then, Brunson was better than Finney-Smith, who the Mavs traded away this season. Brunson instead bet on himself that he could earn more in free agency.
Brunson recalled about the Mavs botched negotiations, “There were two times that I thought we had offers on the table before the season, and then around, I think, December or January, they looked the other way,” Brunson said. “They had every right in the world to do so. I don’t blame them for making any business decisions. That’s on them. I wanted that role of being with the Mavericks for the long haul of my career. I truly loved that place.”
That allowed the Knicks to sweeten the pot by hiring his father, Rick, a former Knick on the 1999 Finals run team, to the Knicks coaching staff. Knicks executive Leon Rose was his father’s agent. And Rose’s son was Brunson’s agent with Creative Arts Agency. Although, by that time, the writing was on the wall, the Knicks signed Brunson to a 4-year, $104-million deal in free agency. Looking back, it was one of the greatest signings in not only the Knicks' history but recent NBA history as well. It also signals the level of dysfunction that plagues the Mavericks organization. Knicks fans consider it payback for the Porzingus trade.
I live in Dallas and am surrounded by Mavs fans. I can attest they are the opposite of Knicks fans. They are intellectually lazy about basketball, fair-weather, and know nothing about the NBA at large. As former Knicks coach and current ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy noted on Dallas’ poverty status,
“So they neither had the depth nor the defense,” Van Gundy said of Dallas. “So they’re really sitting here in a quandary. If they sign Irving [in free agency] and then build around the Doncic-Irving duo, are they going to be able to put around them good enough shooting, size, and defense to be able to play winning basketball?”
So, to fully appreciate Brunson in a Knicks jersey, we must acknowledge the Mavs' historic fuck-up of their mishandling. We are lucky Brunson came from a team so new to institutional poverty, as they didn’t know what they had while he was there. So as you watch Brunson tonight lead the Knicks in Game Six, raise a can, glass, or whatever you drink out of to those Dallas bums, Nico Harrison and Mark Cuban. This one’s for you.
The Knicks take it in a slugfest. See you at Game Seven.