from Jalen Brunson to Donovan Mitchell
The Knicks had a fascinating offseason. It included a blockbuster signing (Jalen Brunson), a near blockbuster trade (Donovan Mitchell), a wild draft night of trades and two pricey re-signings (Mitchell Robinson, RJ Barrett).
Ultimately, the Knicks should be better than they were last season. But could they have improved even more? Let’s dig into what team president Leon Rose did and didn’t do over the past few months and hand out some early grades:
Jalen Brunson signs a four-year, $104 million contract
The Knicks finally have an in-his-prime point guard. While there is an argument to be made that they overpaid to land Brunson — he wasn’t even a full-time starter until this past December — there is no question he fills a decade-long void of a difference-making playmaker.
There have been too many stopgaps, over-the-hill veterans and journeyman types at this all-important position. The Knicks have had 12 different starting point guards since opening night in 2009. Only Raymond Felton, in 2010 and 2012, began a season as the lead guard more than once. Brunson stops that revolving door.
The 26-year-old is coming off his best season as a pro, posting career bests in points (16.3), assists (4.8), rebounds (3.9) and minutes (31.9). A three-year graduate at Villanova who was an NCAA Academic All-American, Brunson was at his best in the playoffs, helping the Mavericks reach the Western Conference finals by posting 21.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 18 games. He showed his full potential with superstar Luka Doncic sidelined in the first round, producing games of 41 and 31 points in wins over the Jazz.
The Knicks are banking on that performance as a precursor to Brunson’s time in New York City. If they paid more than they had to, so be it.
The Donovan Mitchell trade falls through
I’m torn. Mitchell would’ve been perfect here, a big personality from the New York City area who could have helped draw another big star down the road. Then again, was it worth it for the Knicks to deal several first-round picks and young pieces such as RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes and Obi Toppin? Would it have made sense to have two small guards, in Mitchell and Brunson, as their best players?
I see both sides of this. The Knicks probably should’ve made it happen and bit the bullet. Barrett will never be as good as Mitchell, already a three-time All-Star and only 26 years old. He would have immediately elevated the Knicks in the eyes of players around the league. And who knows what these picks become? But I understand why Rose didn’t pull the trigger when you consider all that the Cavaliers gave up — Collin Sexton, Lauri Markkanen, Ochai Agbaji, three first-round picks and two pick swaps — to Utah to acquire Mitchell.
RJ Barrett inks a four-year, $120 million extension
When it became clear they weren’t going to get Mitchell, the Knicks had no choice but to do this. They ended up giving Barrett, the third overall pick in the 2019 draft, $65 million less than the rookie max (or less, given $13 million of the deal is incentive-based), and locked up one of the bedrocks of the franchise.
With the deal, he becomes the first Knicks first-round pick to sign a multi-year contract extension after his rookie deal with the team since Charlie Ward in the late 1990s. He has improved each season, and has become a strong two-way player, though his shooting numbers dipped last year to 34.2 percent from deep (after hitting at a 40.1 percent clip the prior season).
I’m a fan of Barrett. He works, he wants to be here and he appears determined to make himself into an All-Star. If it wasn’t certain before, Barrett is now one of the franchise’s faces, along with Brunson. They both have big contracts to live up to. But unlike Barrett, Brunson wasn’t dangled in trade talks.
Isaiah Hartenstein gets a two-year, $16 million contract
This was my favorite move of the offseason. Hartenstein, I believe, is ready to bust out as a two-way impact player. The 7-footer can shoot 3-pointers, he can create for others and he’s a valuable rim protector. He’s also only 24 years old, and is only now coming into his own after getting his first real shot with the Clippers last season.
Hartenstein is what this roster has lacked, a big man capable of making a difference at both ends of the floor in the new-age NBA, where spacing and shot-making is so important. The Clippers wanted to keep him, but couldn’t afford his rising cost. A shrewd move by Rose and Co.
Mitchell Robinson receives a four-year, $60 million contract
There is now redundancy on the roster with three young centers in Robinson, Hartenstein and Jericho Sims. As I wrote above, I’m a fan of the Hartenstein addition because of the different elements he provides. The Knicks, however, may have been wise to let Robinson walk considering Sims does a lot of the same things for far less money.
Clearly, they weren’t comfortable enough with Sims yet for that to happen, so the Knicks weren’t willing to let their defensive anchor walk, which is understandable. But paying Robinson $15 million per year when he has historically struggled with injuries, has yet to improve on the offensive end and there is a similar player on the roster is questionable. Robinson is actually making more money than Celtics big man Robert Williams III, who recently signed a four-year, $48 million pact. The money could’ve been better spent for additional shooting and scoring depth.
Draft night moves
The Knicks made three different trades on draft night, all with the intention of clearing salary-cap and roster space. It left them without a first-round pick this year and saw Kemba Walker (and his contract) moved off the roster with one of the picks. They ended up adding three future first-round picks, though they all have some degree of protection on them.
The moves worked in that the Knicks landed Brunson and Hartenstein. Obviously, there was no prospect at No. 11 — where the Knicks were originally slotted — whom they felt was worthy of investing in. In time, we’ll see if that was a prudent decision.