There is muted applause surrounding the Knicks’ pick-up of point guard Jalen Brunson. The fit isn’t perfect and free agency isn’t quite buzzing under Leon Rose just yet.
For what was weeks but probably felt like months, the worst kept secret in sports was that Jalen Brunson was bound to be a Knick once free agency officially began. Possible alternate destinations like Detroit and Miami were floated; a return to Dallas wasn’t out of the question. But New York felt like an inevitability. Leon Rose and co. would pay Brunson handsomely, and he’d join the team’s championship quest with the franchise entering its 50th year of one of the most prolonged title droughts in professional sports.
It was so inevitable, in fact, that it was announced hours before the teams were legally allowed to discuss a deal. The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted that Brunson intended to sign with the New York Knicks at 5:02 p.m. ET, 58 minutes ahead of the 6 p.m. threshold at which free agency would officially open. Additionally, Charania noted that his sources told him “the Mavericks never received [a] chance to make [an] offer.” That’s… not great! Because of that, the Knicks find themselves in a possible tampering controversy, which could cost them draft picks at the very least. All this for a player who, by all accounts, is plenty talented. But move the needle, Brunson does not. At least, not as much as the Knicks—and their fans—might hope a splashy (and expensive) free-agent signing would.
Not that teams sign free agents in an effort to make a splash. They do so in hopes that they’ll improve, become a more complete version of themselves, or elevate. And while Brunson fits the first two requirements, his addition—along with the signings of Isaiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson—doesn’t exactly elevate the Knicks much beyond where they were last season. The chances that they’ll be a better team, perhaps a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, are higher than they were last season. But as the conference grows more competitive by the season, the Knicks feel like they’re treading water. It may not be a recipe for moving backward, but it’s certainly not one that prioritizes moving forward.
Brunson’s deal with the Knicks doesn’t hurt the team in any way; not financially, and not in a basketball sense. He vaulted from a mid-tier offseason target to the most desirable point guard on the market for a reason—he had three 30-point efforts this past postseason and shot better than 54% from the field in each of those outings. He should be able to elevate his ability as a passer given that his opportunities as a true point guard will increase; aside from Immanuel Quickley, who Brunson is better than, the team lacks a true playmaker. So, the role is there for him to succeed, a hole for him to fill.
Just how much more room does Brunson have to grow, though? It stands to reason that he could feasibly elevate another level or so. He entered the league as a player quite comfortable in the in-between game, creating inside for himself and others. He was admired as a savvy ball-handler and passer, as well as a player who could knock down difficult shots inside despite his size. On the NBA level, he has noticeably involved, becoming a borderline-reliable three-point shooter who has increased his volume from beyond the arc each season, if not his percentage (though that has hovered around 38% over the last two seasons, a respectable clip).
Brunson has also proven himself capable of thriving without a true star beside him, so worries that he was a beneficiary of Luka Doncic’s superstardom should be ditched at the door. His counting stats all increased with Doncic on the bench; the only stats that fell were his percentages, largely resulting from a jump in attempts.
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However, Brunson is a drive-or-create-first player, not someone who thrives beyond the three-point line, despite being capable. And while he’s undeniably skilled in that area, he’s joining a starting lineup that also happens to boast a group of players that are better inside the arc, not behind it. Julius Randle and RJ Barrett are both capable three-point shooters, but not at the clip that would allow them to operate from outside first and foremost. The newly extended Mitchell Robinson is a paint dweller. Unless dealt in a trade this offseason, the other starter will presumably be Evan Fournier. He’s a shooter, so at least there’s that. But four in and one out is a recipe for disaster. The Knicks will work around (or through) it, but how effectively is up for debate. Head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t much of an offensive mastermind, and the players his team has added, while versatile, will require time to find their proper fit alongside their new teammates.
Perhaps Brunson, in particular, is up to that task. But the Knicks are banking on him reaching his maximum potential, and while he’s capable, he’s not exactly the kind of player you want to gamble on. His statistical averages have increased in each of his four seasons in the league, but the real catalyst behind his deal is undoubtedly his strong showing in Dallas’ 2022 playoff run. Brunson helped bring the Mavericks to the Western Conference Finals, scoring 21.6 points in 34.9 minutes per contest. He was especially efficient from inside the arc, making just over 50% of his attempts. But he was inefficient from three—a tick under 35%, making just 1.4 of his 4.2 three-point attempts per game—and couldn’t play a big enough part in carrying the Mavs over the hump that was the eventual-champion Golden State Warriors.
It’s not fair to lay that blame on Brunson’s shoulders alone; Dallas collapsed as a unit while the Warriors thrived offensively en route to their sixth Finals appearance in eight years. But Brunson’s performances, while a few were impressive, were hardly groundbreaking from an overall standpoint, and arguably not worth $104 million over four seasons.
That doesn’t exactly break the bank for the Knicks. Frankly, it hardly makes a dent in the cap. It does, however, represent yet another deal in which a team banks on a player who had a few decent outings in the playoffs becoming the embodiment of their maximum potential. It’s too early to call this acquisition a bust the likes of the Miami Heat signing Duncan Robinson to a five-year, $89.9 million deal after his performance in the NBA bubble in 2020–21, or, uh, the Knicks forking over $78 million to Evan Fournier just last offseason. But it does reek of desperation, a team throwing wads of cash at a player who’s essentially Julius Randle in a point guard’s body. In lament’s terms, a team paying someone for their best flashes, not what they’ve shown as an overall body of work.
We’ve yet to see Randle reach the potential he flashed two seasons ago; perhaps with Brunson’s help, he will, and vice versa. But at first blush, I have a hard time buying into the Knicks as a burgeoning contender in the East based on what they pulled off this offseason. I like Brunson, despite my measured enthusiasm about his game and his fit in New York. And I especially like Hartenstein as a backup to Robinson now that Nerlens Noel was traded to Detroit; Hartenstein was excellent as a backup in a breakout year with the Clippers last season. But time and again, the promise is that the Knicks will be big players come summertime, and time and again, they fail to prove themselves right.
These deals are hardly flops—they’ll serve the team in the long-term if they can continue to develop internally and add another star down the road. But the road keeps on getting longer for the Knicks, with “ifs” and “whens” seeming far more popular than actual results.