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The Knicks Are Finally in Position to Land a Star Again

New York’s return to respectability hasn’t been linear or smooth, but the franchise’s patience could be paying off. The next time a superstar is on the move, don’t be surprised if they target the Knicks.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There was no specific moment when the New York Knicks reclaimed their status as a competent NBA organization. But coming off their most charming campaign in at least a decade, heading into a critical 2023-24 season with some important cards stacked in their favor, they finally appear to be just that.

For the past quarter century, New York has been haunted by a spiritual devotion to rash decision-making that was so strong it made you wonder if the general manager spent every day channeling George Costanza’s many attempts to get fired by the Yankees.

In a word: chaotic. From Isiah Thomas’s calamitous reign to Donnie Walsh’s shocking resignation to Glen Grunwald’s sudden firing to letting Jeremy Lin walk to giving Phil Jackson the keys to thinking Derek Fisher should be a head coach to drafting Kevin Knox II, life for the Knicks has been a string of embarrassing and impulsive deviations, on and off the court. In another word: failure. Last year’s manhandling of the Cavaliers in Round 1 was the Knicks’ second playoff series win since 2000.

Most of their problems were self-inflicted, and anyone paying scant attention to the NBA knows who the common denominator was. But with some of James Dolan’s attention recently directed elsewhere, the team has seen a somewhat steady transition toward respectability the past few seasons under Leon Rose, William Wesley, Tom Thibodeau, and Scott Perry (who’s no longer with the team). “He places a lot of faith and trust in our basketball operations,” Rose told The New York Times when asked about Dolan’s meddlesome reputation.

Freedom hasn’t hurt. The Knicks entered last year’s playoffs with a top-three offense that relied on winning the possession game—lots of offensive rebounds, few turnovers, toiling at a snail’s pace—and then hoping Julius Randle and/or Jalen Brunson could overcome spacing issues and become anodynes in a half-court setting.

New York finished with one of the lowest effective field goal percentages for the ninth straight season, isolated at a higher rate than every team except the Mavericks, and ranked dead last in assist rate. This is not a championship formula—particularly with a below-average defense and no top-20 players—but the Knicks were durable enough to make it work. They struck gold at the trade deadline when they brought in Josh Hart and then made a sensible choice this summer by using the midlevel on Donte DiVincenzo.

The ability to consistently execute Thibodeau’s in-game strategy obviously matters, but their on-court identity is less relevant than any big-picture look at how the organization has embraced patience and discipline (instead of opportunism) to get where it is: The team is competitive, self-assured, and exciting—and, for a variety of reasons, it has realistic means to acquire a superstar sometime in the very near future.

A couple of years ago, the plan was inscrutable. The Knicks won 37 games in the disastrous 2021-22 season, which included the nonsensical decision to give up a first-round pick for Cam Reddish. They then punted on the 2022 draft, threw a nine-figure contract at Brunson, and—while benefiting from their own foresight and some serendipity—refused to exchange their most valuable assets for Donovan Mitchell, the type of dynamic showstopper (who was born in Westchester County) this fan base would die to root for.

Fast-forward to today, after the Knicks beat Mitchell in a lopsided playoff series this past spring, and their restraint makes sense: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid have now publicly expressed various degrees of agitation with the only teams they’ve ever played for, and the Knicks are an attractive destination with a manageable cap sheet, a chest of desirable draft picks to trade, and the biggest market in the world as their backdrop.

Mise en place matters when courting one of the world’s premier basketball players. The Knicks understand that, even if several ingredients that spice up today’s stew won’t be around when it’s time to serve the meal. For now, though, all the vibes are encouraging. Brunson is a star. Quentin Grimes, Hart, and DiVincenzo are do-whatever-it-takes grinders who possess skills that expand beyond the roles they’re likely to assume in a winning situation. Mitchell Robinson is a game-changing interior presence (when healthy). Isaiah Hartenstein and Immanuel Quickley are two of the more reliable bench players in the entire league. RJ Barrett is still only 23 years old!

And then there’s Randle, a productive albeit flawed floor raiser who miraculously made two All-NBA teams in the past three years. His accomplishments have been marred by a pair of playoff flameouts, that wildly inefficient 2021-22 season, and his unfortunate tendency to be his own worst enemy. As the first option, Randle creates a lead ceiling for his team; there are several reasons to be skeptical about his fit next to someone like Embiid or Giannis—inside presences who require as much spacing as possible—but it’d be fascinating to see them coexist if Randle isn’t included in an initial trade. If their pairing doesn’t work, exchanging him for more appropriate parts shouldn’t be that complicated. This is a multiple-time All-Star who is in his prime, is on a team-friendly contract, and averaged 25 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists last year. There’s a market here.

So far as trade chips go, what really matters is draft equity. The Knicks have all of their own first-round picks and four additional firsts through 2026 (with varying protections, including Milwaukee’s in 2025 if it falls between no. 5 and no. 30). Owning their future is smart business. On top of that, there’s a wide range of agreeable contracts and movable salaries, including those of Grimes, Barrett, and Randle, plus Evan Fournier’s expiring deal.

Landing a superstar is far from guaranteed, and even the most perfect strategy can’t succeed without some luck. New York’s path to where it is now—let alone where it wants to go—has not been linear or smooth. But the Knicks carry themselves with more confidence than desperation. Most of their moves are purposeful and indicative of a front office that understands how precious continuity is when establishing and then seeing through a vision—even when the team is braving a storm, of which the Knicks have endured several since 2020.

This season, they won’t be better than the Celtics or Bucks, and the rest of the Eastern Conference is muddy. There’s no definitive reason to place New York in a tier above the Cavaliers, Heat, Sixers, Hawks, Nets, Bulls, or Raptors, with the Magic and Pacers nipping at everyone else’s heels. But even if they don’t go any further in the playoffs than they did last season, this year’s results are less important than their commitment to stability and that same scrappy underdog culture that endears itself to restless superstars who see themselves as the missing piece.

Four years ago, the Clippers and Nets found themselves where the Knicks are now, squeezing all they could from a plucky, overachieving, insufficient roster that was built to support a top-10 talent they didn’t have. Both teams were well positioned when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George became available.

It’s so hard to forecast how the NBA will look six months from now, let alone a year. But a plausible best-case scenario in New York might be for Embiid to demand a trade after another springtime collapse while the Knicks sustain last year’s momentum and make more playoff noise.

One can imagine some incredible trade packages would be thrown Daryl Morey’s way, but for the sake of argument, let’s say Embiid makes it clear that New York City is where he wants to be, with Rose, his former agent, at the helm. Embiid would have two years left on his contract, so he could muffle what could otherwise be some truly wild offers.

A package that features some combination of Barrett, Robinson, Grimes, and Quickley and, say, five first-round picks isn’t bad if your hand is being forced. To take this hypothetical dream a step further, Mitchell can become an unrestricted free agent in 2025, which is the same summer Randle and Brunson can also opt out of their deals. Having 31-year-old Embiid and then using cap space to sign a 29-year-old Mitchell is not impossible! (To be clear, there’s a world where Brunson is just a better player by then and Mitchell becomes reductive, but if the Knicks fall short several years in a row, then signing a four-time All-Star might be the upgrade they need.)

Again, it’s foolish to make a prediction that far down the road. So much can and will happen between now and then. The window to secure a star won’t be open forever, which brings us to the much-less-than-best-case scenarios that can destabilize New York’s strategy.

If Embiid and Antetokounmpo take themselves out of the equation, New York will be stuck without much of a plan B beyond waiting for another disgruntled star to ask out. It’s all a precarious balancing act. Unless Barrett makes a massive leap, the Knicks would likely tread water as a middling challenger. By themselves, that’s what competence and professionalism get you. Risk is inherent regardless of what the Knicks do, though. And given their recent history as one of the most dysfunctional business properties in America, they should be thrilled about where they are, filled with hope about what they can possibly be.