How the surprisingly strong Knicks have given themselves the chance to be picky in future superstar pursuits

Five teams have traded to the All-Stars since the start of the 2022 offseason: Atlanta Hawks (Dejont Murray), Minnesota Timberwolves (Rudy Gobert), Cleveland Cavaliers (Donovan Mitchell), Dallas Mavericks (Kyrie Irving), and Phoenix Suns (Kevin Durant) ). What do these five teams have in common? Since December 4, they have all been worse than the New York Knicks.

Okay, this might be a little unfair. In the end, Durant only played three games in Phoenix. But since that mythical date, when the Knicks cut their rotation to nine and devoted themselves to their young players, New York has become one of the best teams in the NBA. Only the Nuggets, Bucks, and 76ers have won more games. Only Denver has the best net rating. Since then, the Knicks have ranked third on offense and eighth on defense in the NBA.

You’ve probably heard this story before. After all, weren’t we here just two years ago when the amazing Knicks finished 4th in the Eastern Conference but were unceremoniously eliminated in the first round and then returned to the lottery? Well, yes, but this team has little in common with this one.

The 2021 team won mostly thanks to a stealth defense that finished fourth in the NBA but did so thanks to an unsteady shot. That season, the Knicks’ rivals made just 34.7% of three-pointers, the second-lowest percentage in the league. They are 37.6% this season, tying them in ninth place and pretty much in line with the league average.

Speaking of erratic shooting, much of their 2021 offensive success depended on Julius Randle doing jumpers, which at that point in his career he never did. That season, Randle landed 171 shots from medium range. In his entire previous career, he earned 178 points. The same trend can be seen in his three-point shots: 160 hits 41.1% in the MVP season, 168 hits 29.5% in his entire career before that.

Randle has a more reasonable jumper this season, but more importantly, he relies on better shots. He’s more than halved his middle-range attempts from 5.8 per game to 2.6 this season and has added three three-pointers in return. In 2021, only 16.2% of his shots came three feet from the rim. This season it reaches 21.6%. Randle is better at making decisions with the ball, and it’s not limited to the shots he makes. He also lost just 3.9 assists per 100 possessions, the lowest since his de facto rookie year in 2015/16.

Of course, it helps that this season, the entire burden of playing does not fall on his shoulders. Good shots are easier to get when Jalen Brunson is in town. Since Dec. 4, Brunson has looked like a star the Knicks can’t sell. His figures since Dec. 4 compare favorably with those of Mitchell over the same time period.

Jalen Brunson Donovan Mitchell

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This is perhaps the biggest difference between the 2021 and 2023 Knicks. Without Brunson, the 2021 Knicks have largely lost minutes played by their starters. Randle, Reggie Bullock, R.J. Barrett, Alfried Payton and Nerlens Noel were New York’s most used lineup that season with 554 total minutes… and were 4.6 points behind in 100 possessions. Swap Mitchell Robinson for Noel and the net rating improves to plus-1.9 pedestrian. Their next three most used lineups, built around bench sensation Derrick Rose, led rivals by at least 14.4 points per 100 possessions. The 2021 Knicks have been winning games on their bench.

But the 2023 team? They win with their starting. Their most used lineup, consisting of Randle, Brunson, Barrett, Robinson and Quentin Grimes, outperforms the opposition by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. Swap Sixth Player of the Year favorite Immanuel Quickly for Barrett and that number drops to plus-7.2. This approach is inherently more sustainable. The first one is based on beating the opponent’s worst players. The latter requires perfection from your best players. These players delivered.

And for the most part, these players are quite young. All of their 10 most used players are under 28, and aside from Randle and Brunson (as well as term-acquired Josh Hart, who didn’t stay long enough to reach the threshold), they are all 24 or under. Throw it all together and not only will the Knicks have a winner that seems sustainable, but if they keep it together, it’s likely to get better in the coming years.

Of course, we know that the goal is clearly No to keep it together, which is why we started this story by comparing it to teams that have traded stars recently. This is exactly what the Knicks are currently built for. New York has 10 first-round picks. While many of their veterans have dropped out of the rotation, they still have medium-sized contracts with valuable team options on players like Rose and Evan Fournier to easily match dollars in the trade. When the right deal comes along, the Knicks will lash out.

But this “right deal” qualifier is crucial here. Last summer, teams like Minnesota and Atlanta rushed to land the first star contracts they could find. How do they do it? The Knicks were astute, drawing a line in the sand when it came to the price they were willing to pay for Mitchell. Many criticized them for this (me included!), but their faith in the current line-up was rewarded. The Knicks may not have a championship team yet, but they do have a very, very good one, and when their inevitable pursuit of that perfect superstar resumes in the offseason, they will have to ask themselves which players are really worth breaking this team. on the.

Take, for example, two superstars who have been the most rumored of the last decade. Two years ago, the Knicks would have sold the farm to Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal. At this point in their trajectory, it makes absolutely no sense to give up significant value for an old player like Lillard or an injury-prone player like Beale. At this stage, Brunson may be better than Beale, and assuming the typical age curve holds, he could soon be better than Lillard. Pairing with Brunson would also be an odd choice. Mitchell is young and athletic enough to grow into a strong defenseman. This ship sailed to Beale and Lillard. Quickly and Grimes are minor players, but much more complementary.

Another variable we need to consider here is Why The Knicks were so determined to cap the price in Mitchell’s hypothetical trade. By all accounts, they wanted to keep the assets in order to trade them for a second star. Well, here’s the catch: if Brunson and Randle are already either All-Stars or something relatively close, do you really need to bargain for two? Doesn’t it make sense to go all-in on the first player if that player right player?

Who can be this right player? There are a number of viable answers. An upgrade on Barrett’s slot, given his volatility and the general importance of wings, would probably be ideal. Of course, star caliber wings are rare, and even the few that do exist probably won’t be sold anytime soon. It’s possible the Clippers will disband if they have another disappointing playoff. Perhaps Jaylen Brown has a wandering eye and free agency is looming in 2024. These are possibilities, but remote ones. If the Knicks want a player like that, they’ll probably have to get a non-star version and hope to develop their infrastructure like Brooklyn did with Mikal Bridges. The Knicks looked into OG Anunoby by the deadline, likely hoping for a similar upswing.

And then there are the players who are beyond fitness, so good and so young, that teams need to be ready to drastically refocus if they become available through a trade. The Knicks probably don’t need another oft-used ballman, but if the Kyrie Irving thing flares up in Dallas, they’ll drop everything to reunite Brunson with Luka Doncic. If James Harden leaves Philadelphia and (CAA client!) Joel Embiid gets nervous, the Knicks will take the same approach. Who cares if Embiid is a dubious fit for Randle and a bad fit for Robinson? It’s Joel fucking Embiid.

These players almost never enter the market. When they do that, the whole league takes notice. This is especially true now that teams that traded such players a few years ago are starting to turn into buyers in the star swap market. No matter how much assets the Knicks have amassed, they simply can’t win a trade war against Oklahoma City or Houston. Players of this caliber most often dictate their assignment, but we’ve seen teams take franchise-changing risks with enough talented players. Toronto won the championship by doing it on Kawhi Leonard.

If this all sounds confusing, well, this is a modern roster building. There are no easy answers, and despite all the well-deserved criticism that Atlanta and Minnesota have received for bad trades, Cleveland and Phoenix deserve credit for making trades that seem right for now. Star trading is inherently risky.

But it’s probably worth noting that two years ago, Phoenix made it to the Finals, and Cleveland was already considered arguably the best young team in the NBA. Acquiring and integrating stars, right or wrong, becomes much easier once you’ve laid the foundation for winning.

The Knicks did it. This team isn’t as flashy in the pan as 2021, nor is it as robust that it all eventually needs to be torn down to accommodate the two outer stars. This is a steady winner who needs to be both active and picky as he seeks to take the leap from good to great. As difficult as this jump is, it is much shorter…


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