Text after text on draft night came through on my phone as the events of the evening unfolded. Some iteration of “What are the Knicks doing?” If you were to sum up Knicks fandom the past 20 plus years, I’m not sure you can do better than that question.
Let’s start with this - Ernie Grunfeld was the Knicks General Manager from 1992-1999. During his 8 year tenure the Knicks made the playoffs all 8 seasons with a winning percentage of .636, including 2 trips to the NBA Finals. Just remember that. It was during that 1999 season that James Dolan was given the reigns to really start managing the sports assets that fell under the Viacom ownership umbrella. Apparently Grunfeld’s track record of success didn’t appeal to Dolan because he let him go and since then here is a high level review of what has taken place under the “distinguished” James Dolan era:
In 23 years:
7 trips to the playoffs
5 winning seasons
8 different general managers
14 different head coaches
They haven't signed their last EIGHTEEN first round draft picks to an extension
ONE playoff series win since 2001
ONE division title since 1994 – Do you know what the best selling album of 1994 was? The Lion King Soundtrack. The freaking Lion King Soundtrack. Can you feel the love tonight?
Dolan’s most recent management hire came in March of 2020 when he hired Leon Rose as President of Basketball Operation. Rose had absolutely no front office experience whatsoever, however he built his reputation as an agent for players like LeBron James, Allen Iverson, Carmelo Anthony, Devin Booker, and Joel Embiid. The hope was that Rose’s experience would translate to opportunities to reel in some stars to a franchise that has been without one for far too long. He also was tasked with cleaning up some salary cap issues and increase flexibility for the team moving forward.
Rose and the front office’s most polarizing decision thus far has been signing Julius Randle to a 4-year $117M extension after his All-NBA Second Team season in 2021. During that magical playoff season Randle was serenaded by chants of “MVP!” from the Madison Square Garden Faithful and looked like a star in the making. Last season however was one step forward, two steps back as Randle regressed in every major statistical category and most importantly, regressed in terms of effort. There were run-ins with officials, fans, and the coaching staff. Cheers quickly turned into boos and the Knicks have been now forced to consider whether or not the gamble to sign Randle to a quick extension will be worth it in the long run. The Knicks are currently facing another tough decision on what type of extension to give to budding star RJ Barrett. Detractors will point to the fact that Barrett struggled being the 3-point arc this past season and shooting wise he has been inefficient at times. Supporters will point to the fact that he averaged 20 points per game this past season and just turned 22 years old. He has improved every year however, and the fan base loves him. The decision on when to extend Barret and for how much will help to define Rose’s tenure.
To his credit, Rose hasn’t made many major missteps otherwise thus far. He’s drafted Obi Toppin (although did pass on rising point guard Tyrese Haliburton to do so), Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, and Deuce McBride thus far, all who have played relatively well considering their ages and skill sets. None of the above would be what you would consider franchise altering players however. Free agent wise his strategy has been to sign veterans to short term deals to give the team flexibility and tradeable contracts if a star became available. Rose used this year’s first round pick to acquire more conditional first round picks down the road as well as clear the salary of Kemba Walker. Most recently the Knicks were able to unload the contracts of Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks to the Detroit Pistons to clear over $30 million of cap space before free agency begins today. It’s important to note however, that not making major missteps should not be confused with making significant progress.
The Knicks are targeting Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson who is coming off a career year and impressive performance in the playoffs. Brunson averaged 16.3 ppg and 4.8 apg and is an efficient scorer around the rim and at the free throw line. The Knicks haven’t had a capable point guard since the days of Derek Harper and Brunson will be only 26 years old entering next season. Rose and the front office are throwing all of their proverbial eggs into one basket and have no choice but to sign Brunson or else everything they have done up to this point will have been for naught. There are other holes on the roster including 3-point shooting, deciding how much money to throw at center Mitchell Robinson, and perimeter defenders. There are also decisions that need to be made as it pertains to Randle’s fit on the team and whether or not Tom Thibodeau is the right coach for this particular roster. All of that said, none of that matters if the Knicks don’t sign Brunson. He’s not the sexiest name on the market, but he’s everything the Knicks have been missing for far too long. If Brunson can play at the level he played at in Dallas and the young guys like Barrett, Toppin and Quickley can continue to develop, the Knicks will be if nothing else, an exciting team to watch next year. If the front office strikes out, it’s going to be hard to convince even the most die-hard of Knicks fans that there is a reason for optimism. The Knicks have asked their fan base to be patient during this rebuild and the time has come for the front office to produce results.