Knicks finally showing signs of free agency plan

Leon Rose’s Knicks have shelled out $180 million in contracts so far in this free agency, and a plan appears to be emerging for a front office with little to celebrate after two summers in charge.

For three consecutive summers, fans have patiently waited for Leon Rose’s diet to move. With a monk’s patience, they spent two summers during which marginal signings were made, but with success. But still, in the grand scheme, the playbook was to remain flexible with short-term, team-friendly contracts until the big move revealed itself.

While that decision has yet to surface, the team has not sat idly by as past regimes tended to do. Cultural craftsmanship was central to the Rose regime. Tom Thibodeau was brought in as head coach to instill a hard-working attitude in the team and, armed with the right young players, the results are starting to show.

The main obstacle last season was those same fringe signings that made a playoff appearance possible a season before. Evan Fournier was the first major ‘splash’ signing made under Rose, a misguided attempt to recapture the magic of the previous season. Other than that, a bunch of bridge signings were made, which created a natural point of tension for fans and players alike if things went south like they did last season.

That’s what made last week so refreshing.

The New York Knicks wasted little time minding business when opening free agency after a night of anxiety-provoking drafts.

That night, fans saw their dream of Jaden Ivey killed, resurrected, and killed again, with the Knicks ultimately switching to Plan B. That plan was to use their first-round pick not on a player, but to ceiling space. The team returned the 11th overall pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for three first-round picks in 2023, paving the way for major free agency.

Fans had seen this film two summers in a row. The front office quietly plotted for a major move, only to sign a bunch of secondary targets to team-friendly contracts. This summer, however, was different. For the first time in the three spells of free agency under Rose, the Knicks were able to secure their primary goal.

The worst-kept secret before free agency began was that the Knicks had their eyes on Jalen Brunson. Family and agency ties, a chance to be a starter, plus $100 million was a strong enough argument for Brunson to move from a fairly soft setup in Dallas playing with Luka Doncic, a player on the verge of take control of the entire league.

Brunson isn’t the star signing the team has in mind, but they’ve targeted him as an essential player. Brunson shares many traits of current staples: a gym rat who has steadily improved since entering the NBA with increased responsibilities. This context greatly facilitates the purchase of Brunson by taking a bigger step forward with more responsibility in New York.

When Doncic was out for the first three games of the Mavericks’ first-round series against the Utah Jazz, Brunson averaged 32.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, including a masterclass 41 points in Game 2.

Brunson fried anyone the Jazz put in front of him, scoring from anywhere, and still managed to contribute elsewhere with eight rebounds, five assists and two steals. Even with Doncic back, Brunson was able to be the winger, averaging 19.5 points per game.

The versatility in whatever role Brunson can play on any given night will be welcome in a team with a growing young star. How a player fits in next to RJ Barrett should be weighed heavily, and despite initial concerns Brunson and Barrett should be able to coexist. The two lefties share a few similarities beyond their dominant hand.

Like Barrett, Brunson is the son of a former player and understands the work it takes to improve year after year. As former Knicks head coach and friend of Brunson’s Jeff Van Gundy said eloquently, “Fools don’t get better. Serious players keep getting better because it’s important to them.

Both Barrett and Brunson are serious people, as are Immanuel Quickley, Julius Randle, Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson, and the list can go on. There’s a specific type of player the Knicks have brought in over the past two years, gym rats who want to win. Clearly, Rose trusts Brunson to be a focal point on and off the pitch, as he already shares those same values.

The $104 million price tag seems steep at first glance to some. Brunson is the first player to sign a $100 million contract without making an All-Star team, and just the fifth $100 million man in franchise history. Unlike the previous four players (Carmelo Anthony, Allan Houston, Amar’e Stoudemire and Julius Randle), Brunson won’t be forced to become the face of the franchise.

In a nice PR stunt before the signing was made official, the team let it be known that they did not view Brunson as the piece to a drastic turnaround (which is how Fournier’s signing was viewed and derided), but as an important piece towards a championship team’s goal.

Brunson’s signing paved the way for the rest of free agency.

Once Brunson was taken care of, the team moved quickly to sign seven-footer Isaiah Hartenstein to a two-year, $16 million deal. The former Clipper is just 24 and provides a competent player to anchor the defense, with the advantage of stretching the ground on offense.

Hartenstein’s passing ability should make him an ideal replacement for Mitchell Robinson and a fun addition to the bench crowd. Insert him into lineups with Quentin Grimes or Immanuel Quickley, and games like this could become the norm.

The signing of Hartenstein showed the front office’s confidence in Robinson to be the starting center, which was quickly followed by a financial commitment. Hartenstein is an underrated player, and certainly not among the biggest names the team might have been looking for.

A day later, Robinson agreed to a four-year, $60 million extension. Robinson’s extension was a key step in the front office’s efforts to build a lasting winner. Internal talent has become a forgotten concept in New York. Robinson, a second-round selection, technically may not break Charlie Ward’s curse, depending on your definition; however, he is the first Knick draft pick since Ward to sign a second multi-year contract.

The extension shows stability, and that good work will not go unrewarded. True to Brunson’s theme, Robinson has improved with each season. Last season, only Steve Adams had more offensive rebounds than Robinson. He reduced fouls and forged a close bond with Barrett.

Its only downside is its one-dimensional score. As a rookie, it appeared Robinson might one day develop a jumper. Instead, with each passing year, Robinson becomes a worse free throw shooter and almost exclusively scores lobs, offensive boards, and lobs. The workaround is that Robinson wasn’t paid to score the basketball, he was paid to stop others from scoring.

The flurry of moves allows the team to now focus on more pressing needs, such as the RJ Barrett extension. Barrett’s classmates all have extensions inked so far, while things have been quiet in New York. Every move the team has made so far, however, suggests that Barrett will be supported when the time comes.

Before the team commits nearly $200 million to its franchise cornerstone, more deals can be done. A successful trade for Donovan Mitchell doesn’t seem to be in the cards at present.

The Knicks still have assets to deploy. They own nine first-round picks over the next five seasons that could be used in a blockbuster trade, but can also be used to take out Evan Fournier or Julius Randle if the team is ready to move on. Fournier’s contract becomes an asset after this season, and Randle still has a chance to redeem himself if he can survive the summer.

Where the Knicks go from here decides the landscape of the league once the saga with the Brooklyn Nets is settled. The key is that the Knicks have finally taken steps towards what they believe is a step in the direction of the championship. Whether it’s the core of guys who can make it happen remains to be determined.

For now, fans can take comfort in the fact that the front office has finally put some money behind their actions, showing that there might be a plan here after all.

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