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The Knicks Bewilder Us Again, a Draft Tradition Unlike Any Other

As much as any NBA franchise, New York entered the draft in dire need of some buzz. Instead, all it got was some future protected picks and enough cap room to make a possibly doomed decision.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sussing out the details of a draft-night trade can be maddening. National and local newsbreakers, all doing their best to digest and disseminate as much information as possible, dish out whatever morsels they can muster as quickly as possible. Those morsels can, at times, seem to run contrary to one another; as a result, they can, at times, leave fans and observers without all the information necessary to be able to properly evaluate, or even simply understand, the transactions taking place.

It can also be exhilarating, though, and kind of intoxicating. When you’re putting together the puzzle in real time, each new piece opens up fresh possibilities, and helps bring organizational plans and priorities into the bigger picture, especially when it relates to the pursuit of potentially game-changing players.

Unless, of course, you don’t get that game-changing player … or, for that matter, any player.

Knicks team president Leon Rose and Co. entered Thursday’s first round holding the no. 11 pick. Through deals with the Thunder, Pistons, and Hornets, New York’s front office turned that one choice into three protected future first-rounders: the Pistons’ and Wizards’ choices in 2023, and the Bucks’ pick in 2025. They also shipped out veteran point guard Kemba Walker—whose homecoming had its moments, but who had his worst season in a decade—to Detroit, using four future second-round picks to pay his freight.

By sloughing off the obligation to pay a guaranteed rookie-scale salary for a first-round pick and shedding the $9.2 million owed to Walker next season, New York opened the door to creating about $18 million in cap space ahead of the start of free agency next week. Combine that with three new (protected) future firsts, while still controlling all of their own and a half-dozen extra second-rounders, and the plan snaps into focus: The Knicks will look to shed more salary, using draft-pick sweeteners as necessary, to create enough cap space to be able to make a major offer to a free agent—overwhelmingly likely to be Dallas point guard Jalen Brunson—while also retaining enough draft capital, movable contracts, and young talent to be able to put together a competitive offer for an All-Star should one become available. (Potential targets here could include Donovan Mitchell, the just-theoretically-added-to-the-market Dejounte Murray, and—gulp—Kyrie Irving.)

It’s not a difficult plan to grasp; it’s the one New York brass sketched out last summer. This time around, though, the Knicks don’t have a reservoir of goodwill built up over the course of a surprisingly fun run to the playoffs. Now they’re coming off a roundly disappointing sub-.500 season that saw new additions Walker and Evan Fournier underwhelm, All-NBA revelation Julius Randle backslide, Derrick Rose and Nerlens Noel miss 70 percent of the season, and head coach Tom Thibodeau give all of his compelling young players frustratingly little leeway.

As much as any franchise in the NBA, the Knicks entered draft night in dire need of intrigue—a genuine reason to get excited. And then, suddenly, there it was: After peeling off three firsts from Oklahoma City’s war chest so the Thunder could take French wing Ousmane Dieng, New York was reportedly readying a run at Jaden Ivey, the electric Purdue guard whom they (along with roughly a quarter of the league) had reportedly coveted before the draft, and whom Detroit had landed at no. 5 after the Kings opted for Iowa forward Keegan Murray at no. 4. And they were suddenly trading for Memphis center Jalen Duren, whom the Hornets had taken 13th!

Unless … wait a second, was Duren going to Detroit? Ooh—maybe it was a three-team deal, with the Knicks taking Duren so they could send him to the Pistons with one of their new picks, in exchange for Ivey! Except, if that was true, then why would Kemba be involved? And how come Detroit-sourced media kept insisting that Ivey was staying put?

The answers, once we finally had all the pieces to the puzzle: Because Ivey was staying put; because, with its top lottery targets (reportedly Ivey and Wisconsin guard Johnny Davis) unavailable, Rose and Co. decided discretion was the better part of valor, punting on the lottery and the first round entirely in favor of shedding money and adding picks; and because Duren was headed to Detroit, as the payoff (along with those four second-rounders) for absorbing Walker’s salary.

Zoom out and you can understand the logic, even if the powers that be at Madison Square Garden don’t seem all that eager to walk you through it; the famously cloistered Rose didn’t hold a press conference after the draft. Fandom, though, is inherently illogical—Knicks fandom, perhaps, more than most—and going from your team being in the mix for a dude who did all this working in congested half-court sets in the Big Ten …

… to that team passing on a chance to take any late-lottery prospect in service of having greater flexibility to erase its own mistakes …

… is enough to give you whiplash. And, with it, pangs of withdrawal: Every franchise has its missed opportunities and tales of woe, but few have missed out on quite as many chances over the past 15 years to land a legitimately exciting player in the draft as the Knicks.

They picked sixth in 2008, landing Danilo Gallinari in a draft in which Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Kevin Love went in the top five. They watched Stephen Curry go one pick before them in 2009. Prior trades and brief pockets of relative success kept them out of the top 10 for the next six years; when they finally landed another high pick, they took Kristaps Porzingis, which started out great, but aged like milk.

In 2017, it was Frank Ntilikina, five spots ahead of Donovan Mitchell and Bam Adebayo going back-to-back. In 2018, it was Kevin Knox, two spots ahead of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. In 2019, after finishing with the league’s worst record, they fell to third in a draft in which Zion Williamson and Ja Morant went first and second. (Though, in fairness, RJ Barrett was one of New York’s few bright spots last season.) Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley are pretty fun when Thibs lets them play, which, given his long-standing preference for veterans, rarely happens enough; and now, in consecutive drafts, Rose has traded down, nearly skipping the first round in 2021 (he wound up taking Quentin Grimes at no. 25) and ducking out entirely on Thursday.

Prioritizing prudence in that way might make sense for a team replete with established high-end talent unlikely to be improved upon by some 19-year-old. It’s less defensible, though, for a team that’s had one winning season in the past nine years—and all the more disappointing when those three future firsts are all protected such that they might not convey for several years and, when they do, they’re not likely to turn into something significant. That could matter quite a bit when it’s time for interested suitors to make their best offers for Suddenly On The Market Star X; given a choice of draft-pick packages, that star’s team is more likely to opt for one featuring picks with fewer protections than the selections the Knicks now have to dangle.

The sunniest outcome from all this maneuvering, then, is that New York can chop another one of its “whoops!” summer-of-2021 salaries off the books—likely Fournier, Noel, or perhaps Alec Burks, though he’s rehabbing from foot surgery—to get up over $25 million in cap space. That would allow Rose to at long last reveal the worst-kept secret in the NBA by making a bid to sign Brunson—his former client, now his son Sam’s client, and the son of his first client, former Knicks player and just-hired Knicks assistant coach Rick Brunson—to fill the yawning chasm New York has had at the point guard spot for most of the past 15 years.

The 25-year-old Villanova product has improved in each of his four pro seasons, and is coming off a campaign in which he averaged 16.2 points, 4.8 assists, and 3.9 rebounds in 31.9 minutes per game, all career highs. He’s a low-turnover facilitator adept at scoring at all levels of the defense—he shot 68 percent at the rim, 50 percent from midrange, 37 percent from 3-point land, and 84 percent at the foul line last season—who’s awfully good at operating in the two-man game. Among 99 players who finished at least 150 plays as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll during the regular season, Brunson ranked first in points scored per possession, according to Synergy.

Brunson stepped his game up in the playoffs, too, averaging just under 22-5-4 for a Mavericks team that made a surprise push to the Western Conference finals. That included a pair of massive performances to keep Dallas afloat in Round 1 against Utah, while Mavs superstar Luka Doncic was sidelined by a calf strain and coach Jason Kidd needed somebody else to shoulder the primary offensive burden:

New York’s elevator pitch to Brunson likely rests on giving him more opportunities to operate with that sort of primary playmaking responsibility than he’d ever have alongside Doncic in Dallas. Given both how much Randle has lorded over the offense over the past two years and how forcefully Barrett took the reins in the second half of last season, it very much remains to be seen how such a shot-creation timeshare would play out. Besides: Would a higher-usage role be enough to overcome Dallas’s significantly higher chances of contention and the fact that it can pay Brunson more money for more years?

If not—if the Mavs decide to pony up a no-hometown-discount deal of somewhere north of $80 million, and Brunson decides that he’d rather stay with the franchise that drafted him—then New York might not wind up with a whole hell of a lot to show for all of Rose’s draft-night wheeling and dealing. Conversely, if the Knicks blow Dallas out of the water with a deal closer to (or even topping) $100 million, can Brunson live up to it? How does this impact the development of Quickley? And how good can a Randle-Barrett-Brunson core be, anyway? Is all of this a whole lot of fuss for what might be an eighth seed?

It feels that way, but by sticking with this strategy rather than leaning into a draft-and-develop ethos, that seems to be where the Knicks are headed—and that’s if they get their guy. If they don’t, and if New York comes away from yet another offseason without either a viable future-star-caliber lead ball handler or a young prospect worth getting excited about, Rose’s tenure as basketball operations czar could wind up following the same path as so many Knicks executives before him, and as those Thursday night trade-report tweets: from exciting to exhausting, from elation to resignation.