Well, on one level, you have to hand it to the Knicks: they clearly aren’t afraid of the withering spotlight that is sure to shine on them between now and the start of NBA free agency on June 30. And they clearly are not spooked by their past failures to make anything notable happen once that basketball bazaar opens for business.
They are officially of one mind now:
Jalen or nothing.
And let’s be perfectly clear about something: whenever the NBA finally gets around to declaring when the starting gate on free agency will officially open — likely next Thursday at 6 p.m. — the Knicks must successfully secure the Mavericks point guard’s signature to the bottom of a contract. That is a must. That is essential.
Has to happen.
For a while Thursday, the Knicks reportedly went hard after an alternate plan, trying to figure a way to land Purdue’s Jaden Ivey. Once the Pistons picked Ivey at No. 5, the hoops hot stove was still percolating that the Knicks were hoping to make a deal with Detroit, maybe centered around picking Memphis’ Jalen Duren at No. 11 and putting together a package to tempt the Pistons.
Detroit demurred (and suddenly have one of the most intriguing young rosters in the league). That’s when Leon Rose went to work. He traded back in the first round with Oklahoma City, adding multiple future No. 1 picks. He sent Kemba Walker’s salary to the Pistons along with a pick. And with that, the Knicks’ intentions became crystal clear.
Rose does like to find hidden gems buried at the back of the draft — Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes out of the last two drafts, as examples — but the time is long past for Rose to be cute about this. This is Year 3 of his tenure, and if the Knicks are better than they were when he arrived they are no closer to making a dent in the Eastern Conference.
They need a splash.
Brunson would be a splash, and more importantly he would bring youth and stability to the point guard position, something the Knicks have craved for years. They started this process slowly, hiring Jalen’s father, Rick (an ex-Knick), out of Camden High and installing him on Tom Thibodeau’s staff. Both Rose and Thibodeau have long-standing relationships with the elder Brunson (and Rose’s son, Sam, is Brunson’s agent), but it’s impossible to believe they didn’t hope that hire could bring a secondary benefit.
By shedding Walker’s salary, and by not taking a 2022 first-round pick, the Knicks now project to be around $18 million under the cap for 2022-23. They will likely try to offload one more veteran in the next few days. That ought to be enough to make a competitive offer for Brunson, who blossomed this year on a Dallas team that made it to the Western Conference Finals before bowing out to the eventual-champ Warriors.
But competitive isn’t enough. They can’t finish second here.
“What the Knicks need, more than anything, is an undisputed leader on the floor, a classic point guard,” Jeff Van Gundy mused last month. “That ought to be priority one.”
It clearly is, and it will clearly be a monster deal the Knicks prepare for Brunson, one big enough to accomplish two things: first, make Brunson leave a winning situation to become a foundational piece on a team still in flux; and more importantly, make it as close to a poison-pill deal as possible to make Dallas owner Mark Cuban — who has emphatically stated he wants to keep Brunson — back away.
However it happens, it must happen. An awful lot of Rose’s credibility and viability is on the griddle now. If Brunson is still a resident of Texas by this time next week, then Rose will essentially have taken a pass on draft day, watched every one of their conference foes take a few more steps beyond them and set the Knicks up for a desultory 2022-23.
The Knicks have been terrible summer closers for years. That’s a tradition that has to end now. Jalen Brunson doesn’t put the Knicks in the Finals next year. But he’s a terrific player at an essential position, and he brings the Knicks a few steps closer to the sun. Still, he has to get here first. And so Leon Rose is on the clock.