The annual NBA spend-a-palooza begins 6 p.m. on Thursday, with the Knicks, again, established as big players after clearing roughly $30 million in cap space over the last week.
Leon Rose’s foray into big-time spending was a big-time disaster last year, when the Knicks hitched their money to Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, Nerlens Noel, Derrick Rose and Alec Burks. Three of those five are already off the team, traded with the necessity of draft capital attached, while another – Rose — hasn’t played since pre-Christmas.
The reason for such moves is mostly about Jalen Brunson, which we’ll break down below with three important questions for the NYK heading into Thursday.
At this point, it’s fait accompli that the Knicks will offer Brunson a monster contract to be their lead guard. The only thing that could derail the signing is the Mavericks offering more while exercising his Bird Rights, but reports out of Dallas suggest Mark Cuban is unwilling to go that high. Brunson may have stayed at $125 million, but Cuban has not gone above $106 million. Cuban also have luxury tax penalties to pay, and Spencer Dinwiddie’s acquisition last season made Brunson somewhat dispensable.
The Knicks offer? A reported four years and roughly $110 million.
Their logic is easy to defend. The Knicks, as witnessed the last two decades, need a dependable point guard. Brunson, despite his flaws (more on that later), is the top one available in free agency after Kyrie Irving discovered he’s trusted by no teams in the NBA, especially his own in Brooklyn.
You might argue that the Knicks are better off trading for San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray or Indiana’s Malcolm Brogdon – who are both upgrades defensively – but the Knicks are first focused on Brunson.
As widely dispersed, the organization has familial ties to Brunson that raise eyebrows. His father, Rick, was hired as an assistant coach under Tom Thibodeau. Rick was also the first NBA client of Rose, the former agent who now runs the Knicks and recently attended Rick’s 50th birthday party.
Rose’s son, Sam, became an agent and represents Jalen Brunson.
It sets up a defining moment of the Leon Rose regime, which will be play out based on Brunson’s production. If he struggles, Rose will have manipulated James Dolan’s money to take care of his people. Think Brodie Van Wagenen. Or, if Brunson successfully navigates the Knicks back to their 2020-21 status, Rose will be lauded for his connections and insight into an overlooked star.
Brunson, according to a source, is viewed by at least one high-ranking member of the Knicks as a top-10 NBA point guard. It’s a reasonable assessment, but hardly a given that will translate to NYK without the spacing provided by the Mavericks system and personnel.
He’s a proven winner (two-time NCAA champion) and a dependable personality, which is significant for a franchise that seems perpetually unstable. Brunson provides something the Knicks backcourt has sorely missed – a facilitator and playmaker who can create shots for himself and thrive with ball screens.
His defense is suspect, however. Opposing teams often targeted Brunson, who isn’t an elite athlete, which makes a backcourt with Evan Fournier troubling, especially with Tom Thibodeau’s defensive demands.
There’s also the unknown of adding usage to Brunson’s game without Luka Doncic dominating the ball and attention. He handled that well during Doncic’s absences last season, especially in the playoffs, when Brunson led the Mavericks to two victories over the Jazz while averaging 36 points.
With that being said, Brunson, by himself, isn’t viewed as a road to instant contention. Much of his value will be attached to turning the Knicks from a disappointment into a desirable destination for a true superstar.
Trading Nerlens Noel on Tuesday set up another likely scenario: the return of Robinson.
It’s another gamble for the Knicks, but for different reasons. Robinson, who’ll be an unrestricted free agent if he doesn’t sign an extension by Thursday’s deadline, has been an efficient scorer and rim protector but also an injury risk who has intermittently grumped about his role and fallen out of shape.
Robinson, 24, was vastly underpaid during his first four seasons in the NBA, and many wonder what a big guaranteed payday will do to his motivation.
According to Bleacher Report, Robinson is expected to sign with the Knicks for four years and approximately $60 million. That’s a 1,000% raise from his previous deal.
Still, the Knicks can’t lose Robinson for nothing after drafting and developing him for four years.
He’s their best option at center. Plus, on a team mostly devoid of engaging and fun personalities the last two seasons, Robinson was a shining light.
The Knicks’ best young player becomes eligible for an extension Friday but there’s no rush. The sides have until the season opener to reach an agreement, and, if a deal isn’t struck, they can renegotiate next summer when Barrett hits restricted free agency.
Sense around the NBA is Barrett will ask for the max, worth a projected $185 million over five years. Whether he gets that is a different story. If Barrett doesn’t, things might get messy.
The big hole in Barrett’s argument for max money is his efficiency, which ranks among the lowest in the NBA for such a high usage rate. Only two weeks removed from his 22nd birthday, it’s reasonable to expect improvements in Barrett’s free-throw and 3-point percentages. The athleticism, or lack of burst, isn’t changing. He’s strong to score in transition with running room but Barrett’s not going to break defenders down in the halfcourt.
He’s a relatively low-maintenance personality who enjoys the spotlight of the Knicks, and we may discover if that translates to playing the third fiddle on a better team.
Then there’s the history of this heartbreaking franchise and its draft picks, the statistic that incapsulates its ineptitude of the last two-plus decades: No Knicks first-round pick has resigned with the team off his rookie deal since Charlie Ward, who is so old he played two sports (and four years) in college.