The hard work seems over. The Knicks’ off-season looks pretty solid, after the signings of Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein — and the resignation of Mitchell Robinson — leaving them with only the $5.2 mid-range exception.
Zach Braziller of The Post offers five thoughts on President Leon Rose’s work to date:
Incremental progress made
The Knicks are better, but how much better? They filled their most pressing need at point guard (Brunson) and added some versatility up front (Hartenstein), but that won’t lead them to serious combat. If all goes well – if Brunson and franchise cornerstone RJ Barrett step forward like stars, if the enigmatic Julius Randle rediscovers his form for 2020-21, if Hartenstein explodes with more opportunities, if the role behind them shines – this is still a team that does not belong to the elite in the Eastern Conference. The loaded Celtics, Heat, 76ers and Bucks remain the teams to beat in the East. The Hawks, who follow Dejounte Murray’s trade, and the improving Cavaliers are both better on paper. And the Kevin Durant sweepstakes could jump someone else into the higher echelon mix, like the Raptors. Make no mistake, the Knicks should be more competitive. A place in the warm-up round is very realistic. But anything beyond the seven-seeds would be stunning for this roster as it is currently assembled.
Randle .’s riddle
Two years after he became one of the best players in the NBA, Randle will be asked to make major changes. He will play with the ball less, which could limit his production. A playmaker like Brunson could free Randle, but it will also mean a new way of playing for the attacker, who is used to creating, albeit with a high turnover rate. There’s also the issue of distance, as Brunson, Randle and Barrett all excel below the three-point line, and non-shooting center Mitchell Robinson is also hiding the paint.
The Knicks traded away their top 3-point shooter percentage in Alec Burks to create enough room for a salary cap to bring in Brunson, and this is a team that was 13th in the league in 3-point shooting percentage a year ago. Brunson, a career 37.3 percent shooter who can create open looks for his teammates, helps, of course. But the Knicks will need more from young players Quentin Grimes and Cam Reddish, provided Reddish stays with the team, and they should be given more opportunities to perform. Immanuel Quickley, who will probably mainly play with the ball next year, saw his shooting percentage drop from 38.9 percent to 34.6. So improving him is not a silly question. It could be a necessity for the Knicks.
Brunson had the right decision
I’ve noticed a lot of criticism of this move, that the Knicks pay too much for a good – but not a great – player. The fact that Brunson agreed to a $104 million four-year deal on Thursday night does not make them a title contender. That he’s not a top-five point guard in the league. I’m not here to disagree with any of those ideas. But what he’s doing is making this team better. He probably jumps them in the play-in tournament. There’s this idea that unless the Knicks add a superstar, what’s the point? Unless you’ve been in a coma for years, you understand that the NBA is run by stars. They decide where to play, whatever their contract status. I think Barrett could be a No. 2 on a title contender and Brunson could be a No. 3. The way to get a No. 1 is by making yourself more attractive, by creating a winning culture, and you do that through good players. That’s Jalen Brunson. He makes the Knicks better. Perhaps his post-season breakthrough, where he averaged 21.6 points over 18 games, was a sign of a young player ready to really make a comeback. Anyway, as ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told me, “he’s a significant player in the NBA,” The Knicks need as many of those guys as possible.
Two moves left
The Knicks can use another wing after handing out Burks and Barrett is now eligible for a rookie max contract. That’s the activity I see happening to close off the off-season. Players in Barrett’s class — Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Darius Garland — have reportedly agreed to rookie max extensions. The advancing Barrett could land a deal of up to $185 million over five years. As for wing position, right now the Knicks have Barrett, Reddish and little else. A veteran is needed. Injury-plagued goalscorer TJ Warren, one of the top unsigned players in the free-agent market who played in just four games for the Pacers last year due to a stress fracture in his left foot, could be a worthwhile bet.