The Knicks’ season didn’t end in glory, but there was enough success to be confident as the team builds toward the future.

Do not let the bitter taste of defeat take away from the season the New York Knicks put together. It had been ten long years since New York City celebrated a playoff series victory. 

That team from a decade ago felt ahead of its time. They had Mike Woodson at the helm, Carmelo Anthony playing what has now become the modern four, Tyson Chandler as an elite rim protector and shooters to space out the floor. Then the front office sent Knicks fans right back down to hell.

The offseason response to retool after Roy Hibbert had the series of his life against Tyson Chandler was to trade for Andrea Bargnani. The Bargnani trade was like watching a brutal car crash unfold in slow motion. The end result would be what many expected, an unmitigated disaster as the team dropped from 54 wins to 37 wins in a single season. 

Bargnani would do nothing of value on the court, his most notable contribution being unintentional comedy. The Bargnani trade would be the catalyst for the Knicks re-entering the basement of the league, a place they stayed until this season.

It is important to re-live the pain of the Hibbert block and the Bargnani trade as the team heads into an important summer. For as miserable as the Miami Heat series felt, it was a needed learning experience for a young team that could keep its core together for years to come. Unlike the pandemic year that felt like a fever dream, this current iteration of the Knicks feels like a team with a strong foundation that the front office can build a contender on.

That foundation starts and ends with Jalen Brunson, the undisputed captain of the team.

Brunson went out like Maximus Decimus Meridius against the Miami Heat. In the final two games of the series Brunson played 93 out of a possible 98 minutes and scored 79 points on 59.1% shooting. 

The problem is Brunson was the only one who managed to remain effective. He accounted for 38.7% of the team’s total points over the last two games and became the first Knicks player since Patrick Ewing to score at least 30 points in three consecutive playoff games.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra did a great job of showing that the Knicks still have progress to make before they can consider themselves championship contenders. Speaking of Spoelstra, he spoke glowingly of Brunson following the series.

“How is that dude not an All-Star or All-NBA?” Spoelstra said. “He should be on one of those teams. I wish he was still out west, but man, you gotta respect him as a competitor.”

Brunson sadly did not make the All-Star team or All-NBA team, both feats accomplished by his wingman Julius Randle, but Brunson did accomplish something far greater. He ended a decades-long drought at the point guard position in New York. Now, the Knicks, who have so often relied on New York City to attract star players, can finally pitch the actual team. 

Brunson has helped reestablish a standard for Knicks basketball. When fans tuned in this season, it was no longer for lottery pong balls, but for wins. In late April, fans were still watching Knicks highlights, instead of seeing who the next franchise savior could be.

The Future Is Now

Beyond Brunson is a young core headlined by RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, and Immanuel Quickley. Deuce McBride should be tossed into this group as well, with Obi Toppin still in wait-and-see mode. Barrett, Grimes, and Quickley though, should be penciled in as core pieces. Each played a pivotal role this season, and their progression will dictate the team’s ceiling in the immediate future. 

Quickley had a postseason to forget. He was nonexistent on offense, and at a certain point seemed to lose his trademark confidence. Still, to be the runner-up for the Sixth Man of the Year at 23 years old is a special season. Extension talk will come into focus next season, and Quickley has given the front office few reasons to not engage immediately.

Then there is Quentin Grimes, who also had a rough go of it in his first playoff run. Grimes lost his starting spot for a minute after missing the final two games of the first round with a shoulder injury. Before and after he retained his starting role, he struggled to find his shot.

Grimes was an x-factor versus the Heat, but came up short, shooting 24.3% from beyond the arc and 30.4% from the field. The flashes were there. His 48-minute performance in Game 5, which included some defensive heroics, proved how high he can elevate. 

It may feel like a hot take to say Grimes has the highest upside of all the young guys, but it’s true. He has All-Defense potential with a lethal jumper, underrated first step, and underrated vision. Once everything starts to slow down some more for Grimes, the end product could be special.

The team does not really have cap space this summer, heightening the need for internal development. A Grimes leap could be all the team needs to take their next step. That leap is shooting 40% from three, averaging close to 20 points per game.

RJ Barrett reminded himself who he was after a sluggish start to the playoffs. Things got dicey for RJ at first, shooting 6-for-25 through Games 1 and 2 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barrett was the true x-factor in the first round. When he was locked in the Cavs got blown off the court.

Barrett imposed his will over the final three games of that series, running to the rim enough that the Cavaliers relented, averaging 22.0 points during that stretch. His 26 points in Game 4 supplied the haymaker the Knicks needed as he combined to score 55 points with Brunson to guide the Knicks to the 3-1 series lead.

He kept that momentum humming into the second round while Brunson and Randle struggled. Barrett scored over 20 points in four out of the six games, though, like most of the team, his shot was M.I.A. in MIA for Game 6, as he shot 1-for-10 in the deciding game.

Moving forward, it is difficult to not trust Barrett at this point. He will be 23 years old next season with two postseasons under his belt. Efficiencies on offense still need to be worked on, but an engaged RJ Barrett is a good core piece.

The Rough Truth

The only problem Barrett presents is what to do with Julius Randle. Barrett and Randle have now been together for two playoff runs, proving they can win together — at least, in the regular season. That is not the problem. The problem is, if the Knicks want to level up, one of them will end up the odd man out.

Randle officially has the “can he produce when it matters” label, fair or not. Randle never seemed fully healed from an ankle injury late in the season, and as he struggled to consistently look like the Randle from the regular season, Barrett stepped up to fill the void.

Unlike most things in Tom Thibodeau’s world, choosing between Randle and Barrett will not be merit-based. The sad truth is that Randle and Barrett are too redundant to keep together. Randle has the better resume: two All-Star and two All-NBA selections. Barrett is the puppy with the big paws.

There is no easy decision. The overlapping skills are almost uncanny, down to their left-handedness. Every major hole in Randle’s game could be said for Barrett. Together they can play on a winning team, but if the team is going to add another star, it would come at one of the two’s expense.

Always Keep a Wandering Eye

The Knicks have enough cap space to beef up weaknesses. They will not figure to be a factor in any summer star shuffle. Josh Hart should be brought back to anchor the second unit, with Quickley and iron man Isiah Hartenstein. Mitchell Robinson proved to be a winning option at center. The smart move, for now, is to add the best possible shooters they can find.

But still, this is New York City, the media machine. Giannis Antetokunmpo has already (comically) been mentioned as someone the Knicks are monitoring. Luka Dončić ended the season pissed off, and who the hell knows what is going on in Phoenix at the moment under new owner Mat Ishbia.

The main difference between now and 2013 is stability. A stable front office group, and now a stable core of players, could make an offseason of doing essentially nothing a success. It has been said ad nauseam that the Knicks are in the best position they have ever been in, but this time it is true.

Do not speak about them like they’re those Knicks from ten years ago, they’re at a higher place.

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