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The New York Knicks Are So, So Back

Yesterday’s deadline trade for Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks was just the latest in a series of moves that have turned the Knicks into contenders—and a looming threat to the rest of the Eastern Conference

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last weekend, I caught the Los Angeles Lakers–New York Knicks barn burner at a Knicks watch party at 33 Taps, a sports bar in Los Angeles. For two and a half hours, the raucous energy of Madison Square Garden was concentrated in a packed sports bar on the opposite coast, with hooting, hollering, and all the hallmarks of a rejuvenated fan base and franchise. In one tiny corner at the edge of the bar, a family of Lakers fans fought the good fight for their middling mom-and-pop franchise, adding to what they thought was a chorus of boos when Knicks fans chanted “Deuuuuuuuce” in support of Miles McBride, not knowing they were just contributing to the crazed momentum. They were uninitiated and outnumbered, a tiny line of defense for what was once the NBA’s most sparkling franchise.

In the fourth quarter, the Lakers pulled away, bumping, trapping, and eventually exhausting Jalen Brunson, a first-time All-Star this season who is top 11 in the NBA in minutes, touches, and drives and has carried an even bigger creative burden since Immanuel Quickley and RJ Barrett were traded for OG Anunoby. The Knicks have been the NBA’s second-hottest team since Anunoby’s arrival, going 16-4 with a top-10 offense and top-two defense, even though Julius Randle and Anunoby have missed time. But I came away from that game wondering whether the Knicks were predestined to be the modern iteration of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls: gritty, smart, and physical on defense. Crushing the league on the offensive glass. Oozing with depth and inspiring when shorthanded, but a smidge short on top-end talent outside of their defensively compromised double-double machine at power forward and the star point guard who makes it all go. And Taj Gibson.

But while the Lakers got the win, the Knicks got more of that sweet, sweet information, a valuable asset with yesterday’s trade deadline looming. On Thursday, the Knicks traded Quentin Grimes—a promising but streaky shooter with defensive upside who’d been supplanted in the rotation by Donte DiVincenzo and McBride—Malachi Flynn, Ryan Arcidiacono, Evan Fournier, and two second-round picks for Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks. The Knicks, ninth in 3-pointers made per 100 possessions and 18th in true shooting percentage, got two high-volume, above-40-percent shooters without giving up a rotation player or a first-round pick—the kind of roster-balancing, offense-diversifying move that Chicago’s front office never had the assets, savvy, or chutzpah to make.

The Lakers’ successful defensive gambit—variations of which potential Eastern Conference playoff opponents like the Celtics, Cavs, Bucks, and Heat will employ—is less tenable now. Take these back-to-back possessions, when Josh Hart, whose 3-point percentage has cratered to 30.9 percent this season, was hesitant to shoot.

I don’t mean to single out Hart. The Lakers’ defensive game plan turned him into a creator when he’s better suited to be a benefactor. They did the same thing to DiVincenzo. And Brunson, who played the entire second half and is third in the NBA in field goals attempted since the start of January, made some uncharacteristic turnovers. Now, imagine Bogdanovic, king of the one-dribble pull-up, shooting, driving, or kicking to Burks, who was miscast in his previous Knicks stint as a starting point guard but is more than capable as a shooter and closeout attacker. Bogdanovic can toggle on and off the ball, filling the secondary perimeter creation role vacated by Quickley and Barrett while making space for Brunson to do what he does best. And he can provide a consistent, trustworthy scoring punch when Brunson sits.

While Bogdanovic was a sieve defensively for the Pistons team, which had little reinforcements, the Knicks have the personnel to protect him. He is big and smart. Though he’s 34, two years removed from his successful stint on the Jazz, he can funnel opponents to the likes of Isaiah Hartenstein, Precious Achiuwa, and Mitchell Robinson (if the latter is able to return for the postseason) as he once did with Rudy Gobert. The Knicks might lose something defensively, especially in lineups that feature Bogdanovic and Randle, but they’ll have enough depth and variability to construct optimal postseason lineups, especially when Anunoby, who just had a surgery on his elbow that will sideline him for three weeks, returns.

Joel Embiid is out for at least a month after knee surgery, and the Sixers just traded away their bench. The Bucks are 1-5 in the Doc Rivers era. There is an opening in the Eastern Conference for someone to challenge the Celtics, and the Knicks (as well as the Cavs) are filling it. In the wake of new CBA rules that don’t allow teams over the first luxury tax apron to sign waived players who signed contracts worth more than the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, Philly’s struggles also make New York the most attractive team on the buyout market for players that are trying to compete for a championship. With Brunson mending a sprained ankle and Hartenstein leaving yesterday’s game with Achilles soreness, the Knicks had only seven available players down the stretch.

Randle will be reevaluated later this month. Anunoby will miss at least three weeks. There’s hope that Robinson, who will resume on-court activities after the All-Star break, could return in time for the postseason. Until then, the Knicks could use reinforcements. The buyout market, which is still filling out, is expected to include Marcus Morris, once-a-Knick-always-a-Knick Danilo Gallinari, Cory Joseph, Furkan Korkmaz, Robin Lopez, Danuel House Jr., and potentially Otto Porter Jr. and Delon Wright. The new CBA rules were designed to make things easier on teams that haven’t loaded up on multiple maximum salaries, and the Knicks are in position to benefit. That’s also a testament to their patience.

In summer 2022, the Knicks traded Kemba Walker to make room for Brunson and Hartenstein, then went to the bank of Sam Presti and turned their lottery pick into three future firsts. Then they held on to them through the Donovan Mitchell sweepstakes. They didn’t go all in on another CAA guy in Karl Anthony-Towns, either. Instead, they signed DiVincenzo to the mid-level this offseason, making Grimes and Quickley more expendable. They turned Obi Toppin into the two second-round picks that went out in yesterday’s trade. New York has all its own first-rounders, plus six more firsts and five second-rounders from other teams. If the Knicks do lose to a star like Giannis Antetokounmpo in the postseason, they have the assets and flexibility to go big-game hunting and try to get one of their own. Even Bogdanovic, whose $19 million is partially guaranteed next year, could be flipped in a deal down the road. How would Luka Doncic feel about a reunion with Brunson? In the event of a Clippers collapse, CAA-repped Paul George would fit like a glove. Even Klutch is open for business now!

In the past five seasons, the Knicks have gone from 17 to 21 to 41 to 37 to 47 wins. This season, they’re on pace to crack 50 for the first time in a decade, despite multiple injuries. The Bogdanovic trade is just another in a string of savvy moves that have allowed the Knicks to reinvent their culture and build genuine chemistry, on and off the court. The Villanova connection helps, but how many contenders have a podcast duo in which the role player incessantly and consistently roasts the star?

Brunson, who made himself into a star by way of utility, savvy, toughness, and incremental growth, is representative of the Knicks’ rise. This franchise facelift—thanks to New York’s geographical advantages and historical relevance—has long-reaching competitive implications. A well-run Knicks team creates an existential threat for the Eastern Conference—and maybe even the entire league. For three years or so, the Knicks were a cute, meandering story, bing-bonging their way into the hearts of subway commuters across all boroughs and of fans across the NBA, who were happy to see the rabid fan base of a star-crossed franchise smiling for once. Since the calendar turned to 2024, they’ve become too powerful to be uplifting, too threatening to the other powerhouses. After this trade, the Knicks officially have a target on their back. The haters are about to start crawling out of the woodwork, and that’s how the Knicks will know they’ve arrived, thanks to a slowly built foundation that is now as scary as it is sustainable. The Knicks are so, so, so, so back, like they’ve never been in the 21st century, and they’re only getting better.