Jalen Brunson finally gives the Knicks the point guard they’ve coveted for decades
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The New York Knicks have been craving a point guard for 30 years, but they couldn’t wait for the overtime. New York has signed former Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson to a four-year contract, Athleticism‘s Shams Charania reported an hour before the official start of NBA free agency on Thursday night.
The Knicks went through 2021-22 with a thirties hampered and a converted winger linking up to score the point. The Knicks point guard patchwork trend was not new. No organization has been in perpetual search for a floor general like the Knicks, whose search dates back to the departure of Mark Jackson 30 years ago.
If all goes according to plan, the desperation has passed – and it should last longer than Raymond Felton’s remarkable half-season of 2010-11.
Brunson was the target from the very beginning, whether you define “beginning” as early summer, the middle of last season, or when Knicks president Leon Rose first met Brunson as the 25 year old young man was a small child. And the Knicks didn’t care who knew their priorities.
They didn’t care who knew when they hired Brunson’s dad, Rick, as an assistant coach a month ago. Rick is a longtime devotee of Tom Thibodeau and a former client of Rose since Rose was a players’ agent. He worked under Thibodeau in Chicago and Minnesota, and there was an element of hiring a coach bringing in a trusted former sidekick. But make no mistake: there can be more than one reason to give someone a job, and hiring the father of a first free agent was one of them. (Rick Brunson resigned from his last NBA coaching job with the Timberwolves in 2018 amid allegations of inappropriate conduct towards women).
They didn’t care who knew when they signaled Brunson’s marked confidence on draft night, giving up Kemba Walker’s contract along with the expected salary for the No. 11 pick to clear more of the berth. The Knicks aggressively bought their veterans on expiring contracts leading up to free agency. The timing of trades, however, said it all.
They didn’t care who knew when they dropped Alec Burks and Nerlens Noel on the Pistons 48 hours before free agency even began. They didn’t care who knew when rumors that Brunson was accepting a four-year contract began to air on June 28. The Mavericks knew Brunson coming to New York was inevitable. He canceled a meeting with Dallas just before the start of free agency.
The Knicks may not care if the league imposes penalties on them for tampering, which in recent history means losing a second-round pick. They made sure it would never end otherwise.
The Knicks finally have a point guard – a real, living, breathing, prime-of-age, two-eyed, highly-respected point guard who became one of the best bench players in the league a while ago. two-year-old, slotted in as a starter last season and took off on the Mavs’ impressive run to the Western Conference Finals in the spring.
They needed a great organizer. The Knicks were dead last in assists last season. They were the slowest team in the league to come into their offense. Too often, Burks, Walker or Julius Randle would descend heavily to the ground, cross the half-court line with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock, execute a pick-and-roll five seconds later, then be forced to rush on a jumper as the buzzer sounded. The shot selection was unsettling. The Knicks ranked 25th in points per possession.
Brunson took advantage of his situation in Dallas. There’s a reason superstars are superstars; they make the players around them better. Brunson looked good, partly because he was alongside MVP candidate Luka Dončić. Most of Brunson’s lineups featured at least three shooters around him. Sometimes the five Mavericks on the floor could drain long balls.
But Brunson also knows how to produce. He can slice through defenses during catch-and-gos when the ball swings towards him from the opposite side, which looks especially good when Dončić is the one giving it to him. He’s a master at navigating to the middle and then twisting into those rinky-dink down moves. Its rhythm is offbeat; like a miniature, left-handed, caffeinated Kyle Anderson. Brunson made 55% of his 2-pointers this season and 58% the season before. He is one of the league’s most effective guards inside the arc.
When Brunson was a kid, he played as a power forward. This shows. He has the footwork of a skilled big man, but in a 6-foot-1 frame.
More than any other team in the league, the Knicks could use someone who can lay up. Both RJ Barrett and Randle struggled to finish in the paint last season due to tight spacing that won’t be much different if the Knicks re-sign free agent center Mitchell Robinson. Brunson, however, is top notch. No point guard who took that many total shots in the restricted area last season shot a better percentage there.
He averaged 16.3 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 50-37-84 shooting in 2021-22.
Brunson isn’t the only player the Knicks added on Thursday. They also agreed with former Clippers big man Isaiah Hartenstein (Athleticism‘s Kelly Iko was the first to report). The deal is for $16.7 million over two years. Hartenstein’s arrival doesn’t necessarily mean the end for Robinson, who is currently a free agent.
It should be noted that the Knicks just used draft picks to dump Noel, a backup center, who is expected to earn $9.2 million a year, to sign another who will earn a similar salary to Hartenstein. That said, Hartenstein and Noel are stylistic antonyms, especially on offense.
Hartenstein didn’t play much when he entered the league in Houston, but he showed a little something for 16 games to close out the 2020-21 season with the Cavaliers. Cleveland used him as a passer at the high post, where he would find cutters and shooters. It worked. He has intelligent vision. He signed an unsecured deal with the Clippers last summer, then kicked the team out of training camp and worked his way into the rotation as a reserve big man.
The Knicks did not employ a center with his passing ability during Thibodeau’s tenure. And there’s one Hartenstein stat that must have Thibodeau salivating: Opponents shot just 47.5% on layups and dunks despite Hartenstein being the closest defender to them last season, the second-best in the NBA, according to data-tracking site Second Spectrum. He will fit into Thibodeau’s philosophy which modifies shooting.
He also fits into the Knicks type in other ways. Hartenstein transferred his representation late this season to CAA, the same agency that represents Brunson.
When Rose took over the Knicks a few years ago, it was thought he could leverage his connections for the players he wanted. He exploited countless just for Brunson alone. The Knicks hired his father. They knew his agency well; it’s the one Rose used to run. One of Brunson’s representatives is Sam Rose, Leon’s son.
Now we wait to see what else the Knicks have to do. They still have to deal with Robinson’s free agency. They could use more shooting. There will be questions about Brunson’s form alongside the big players already in New York. Both Randle and Barrett are the best inside the 3-point arc, and the Knicks have always played with a rim-diving center. Robinson is, of course, as inhabited by painting as the inhabitants of painting. Brunson loves to weave into the lane – as long as there is enough daylight to do so.
Brunson can drain jumpers, but spacing doesn’t necessarily equal shooting. It is also a commentary on geography. When your best guys are in the best versions of themselves when occupying the same spots on the pitch, the crowds come together.
Whoever the Knicks start at both will have to bomb 3s, like Evan Fournier did in 2021-22. Based on how Thibodeau tends to operate, and assuming the roster roster is relatively similar in training camp, Quentin Grimes could be a dark horse to start alongside Brunson in the backcourt. Brunson is tough and he defends, but the group could use Grimes’ size and defensive chops so teams don’t pick an undersized point guard and Fournier or even Immanuel Quickley. Grimes could throw deep balls like Fournier.
We still don’t know the capping mechanics of how the Knicks will pull off those two deals. They entered free agency with a $31 million cap, which isn’t enough to match the lowest possible first-year salary for Brunson plus the lowest possible salary for Hartenstein. If they want to squeeze those two players in cap space, they’d have to give up Taj Gibson, whose 2022-23 salary isn’t guaranteed. In that case, they would be left with the exception of room, worth $5.4 million, to sign another player, and they could fill the roster with Robinson, minimum wages, or, of course, d other trades.
They also have another option. Since none of the salary offload deals with the Pistons are official yet, they could expand them to turn the Brunson acquisition into a giant three-way signing and trade and then operate as a team above. of the cap and use the $10.5 million Mid-Level Exception to accommodate Hartenstein’s salary. (If the team wanted to sign two-way center Jericho Sims to a long-term contract, they could use the rest of the mid-tier in this case to do so.) It would be up to Dallas to force a sign and trade instead of losing Brunson. for nothing.
High on the Knicks’ list of offseason priorities, Barrett is talking about an extension. As of now, Barrett is expected to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Athleticism recently asked 16 front office managers what a fair contract might be if New York agreed to extend the 22-year contract. Half of the respondents said $100 million over four years. Now the circumstances have changed. If you’re Barrett and the Knicks have spent the past three years making you the face and future of the franchise, you’d probably use Brunson’s announced deal as a bargaining chip.
Barrett has a little more clout for a payday now. But the deadline for extending it isn’t until the fall. The Knicks have more to deal with until then.
They must determine Robinson’s future. They may have another addition or two on the margins. They bought Fournier and Cam Reddish leading to free agency, sources say Athleticism. What amounts of this? They may feel the need to open up roles to some of the younger players who played late last season, like Quickley or Obi Toppin.
But for now, at least, they have their man, and no one should have ever doubted they were going to get him.
(Photo by Brunson: David Richard/USA Today)