August 12, 2022

Good news for Knicks fans: the franchise has brought in one of the best free agents, a rare occurrence for the team this century.

The bad news: It’s a weak class of free agents, and that top free agent — 25-year-old point guard Jalen Brunson — has never made an All-Star team. He 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 sizeable investment to make for a player who, in his best of four seasons with the Dallas Mavericks, averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists per game. He was a full-time starter for just one season. But Brunson represents a significant improvement at point guard, a position where the Knicks have long struggled to find playmakers. Over the past two decades, Knicks starting point guards have included Chris Duhon, Toney Douglas , Trey Burke and Pablo Prigioni. Brunson has a great float game in the paint, he’s a reliable shooter, and he 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 serve as the team’s assistant coach next season. The Knicks haven’t announced his hiring, but in early June there were multiple reports that they were close to reaching a deal. The team did not respond to a request for comment.

With young Brunson in charge, 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 variance there is with the roster as free agency signings begin on Wednesday.

The conundrum facing the Knicks is that their rotation players are talented but flawed. Brunson, in essence, embodies that. He can score in a group, but he’s not a quality defender. He’s almost certainly not good enough to be a team’s best player in contention, nor is his cap 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 for getting to the edge but not for finishing, and his sweater needs some work. The other young prospects, including power forward Obi Toppin, 24, and point guard Immanuel Quickley, 23, alternated between being strong contributors and being passive. Toppin cuts and handles the ground well, but he’s a below-average shooter and struggles defensively. Quickley was better at leading the offense in his second season in 2021-22, but he’s an ineffective scorer and his size makes him an easy target on defense.

Last season was — charitably — a step backwards for the Knicks. They seemed to be finally finding their way out of obscurity 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 contracts. 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 a long-term roster.

Another good example of the team’s talented but flawed question is Mitchell Robinson, the 24-year-old center. He’s an excellent rim protector and lob threat around the rim, but he has no offensive range to speak of and hasn’t improved much in four seasons. Still, the Knicks agreed to bring him back on a four-year, $60 million dealhis agents Thad Foucher and Joe Smith told ESPN.

The Knicks will have to make room at the salary cap to sign Brunson, which likely means moving on from some of the ill-suited veterans. But beyond that, the Knicks need to add players who can lift them out of mediocrity — the worst place to be in the NBA. They’re not bad enough to receive high draft picks, but they’re not good enough to justify their biggest contracts. .

Quality veterans looking to hunt a ring probably wouldn’t take a pay cut to join, as the Knicks don’t have a roster that can realistically challenge for a championship right now. If a star becomes available, say a Kevin Durant or a Kyrie Irving, the Knicks probably won’t have the best package to offer: not the top young prospects, not the top draft picks, just a hodgepodge of middle pieces. 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 will likely start the season with Brunson, Randle and Barrett as primary ball handlers. Even with their weaknesses, they’re an above-average group of point guards in today’s NBA. Brunson’s penetrating ability will take the pressure off Randle, who could use more time to not be the main focus of the offense. Brunson’s shot will create more space for him and Randle to operate around the basket. If Randle has some of that pressure relieved, he can put more energy toward his other strengths, like rebounding and passing. Maybe the Knicks will get the All-Star version of Randle back.

And Brunson’s arrival should also make Barrett’s life easier. He played a bigger role on offense after the All-Star break last season and averaged 24.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He shot just 40.1% from the field in those games – talented but flawed! — but he’s shown potential as a No. 1 option. If Barrett can bring passable efficiency to the game, he becomes a borderline All-Star alongside Randle.

To complete that core, the Knicks need consistent shooting around them. They already have someone who can help them in Evan Fournier, who shot 38.9% from deep last year. Quickley didn’t shoot well last year, but in his first 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 was a surprisingly good shooter and another body to help break down defenses. At 33 and with a long injury history, he probably can’t be the sixth man to come off the bench, but his return will be a welcome one for the team. There is a world in which a fence lineup of Randle, Barrett, Brunson, Fournier and Rose is extremely difficult to defend against.

There is light beyond this year – some being the key word. The Knicks have a stack of first-round draft picks in the coming years, including picks from Dallas, Washington and Detroit. Next year, the Knicks could have four first-round picks. Several choices have conditions, which reduce their value. And if the Knicks continue to be OK but not great, their own draft picks would most likely fall mid-to-late in the first round, which also reduces their value.

But having a stock of picks is better than having none, and the Knicks could use some of them in a trade instead of keeping them to select intriguing prospects. The deal to sign Brunson to a major deal suggests the Knicks are trying to win now. Leon Rose rarely speaks in public, 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 the essentials 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 OK.