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Offseason review: New York Knicks

With Jalen Brunson in tow, and their eyes on Donovan Mitchell, with whispers James Dolan may one day sell the team, could there exist a world with yet another big market contender in the Atlantic?

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at New York Knicks Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Amid the most dormant part of an NBA cycle, we at Liberty Ballers will be sizing up the Philadelphia 76ers’ 14 Eastern Conference foes. Next up are the New York Knicks.

Previously on our offseason review series: Orlando Magic, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and Washington Wizards.

Although New York Knicks President Leon Rose rarely speaks publicly, and when he does he tries to avoid reporters employed outside the comfy Garden confines, his strategy has become pretty clear over his two years at the helm: blur the lines between The Knicks and Creative Artists Agency Sports until there are multiple CAA All-Stars in blue and orange. And no, we’re not counting Julius Randle.

Building sustainably through the top of the NBA Draft has mostly seemed to be beneath the Knicks over the decades years and they’ve again, mostly prioritized other avenues to enhance their roster.

In his first ever season as a GM back in 2020, the same offseason Daryl Morey took over the Sixers, Rose hired coach Tom Thibodeau, who did what Thibs does, and overachieved massively during that ensuing season. Thibs earned himself another Coach of the Year award, and one of the league’s perennial bottom-dwelling jokes even snagged a top-four seed in the East. But as Sixers fans know well, record leaps from 21 to 41 wins, when not led by true stars, are simply fool’s gold. The much anticipated subsequent Bing Bong season wasn’t nearly as fun for fans as they went just 37-45 last go round.

The 2022 Knicks missed the playoffs, and missed the top end of the lottery, again, and things seemed to be back in their rightful place.

Until....the Knicks executed a draft day trade (turning their 11th pick into three well-protected future firsts from the Thunder). Reports were that they really wanted to trade up for (CAA client) Jaden Ivey, but Detroit wasn’t budging. But it’s possible that could work out since they then successfully recruited the ascending Jalen Brunson from the contending Mavericks.

That move generated more than a few say what you want about New York’s overall goals but they got what they set out to get half-praises from pundits, who don’t think Brunson was worth a full court press and $104M offer sheet.

Also, that whole thing still vibes a certain way.

But where was I? Right! They may not actually mind whiffing on Ivey since they now have the additional picks and then it wasn’t long before we got ESPN’s Brian Windhorst’s instantly legendary “what’s going on in Utah” soliloquy.

And basically ever since, the Knicks have been regarded as favorites to acquire newly available star Donovan Mitchell.

Under Rose, the Knicks have long coveted three CAA dudes. Chiefly, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, and Mitchell. The first two names find themselves on ascending and contending teams. But Utah, blown away by the Timberwolves’ offer for Rudy Gobert, went the other way. Reportedly, the Knicks are the team (at least among currently known suitors) with the biggest potential offer. They can offer four of their own unprotected picks, and up to four protected picks from other teams, as well as some promising young players, and perhaps one possible All-Star in RJ Barrett. But they don’t want to offer him, and who knows if Utah would want to pay him anyway.

Why the Oklahoma City Thunder (and their 40 some-odd draft picks) wouldn’t throw their hat in the ring for a 25-year-old stud like Spida here is a mystery for Windhorst to solve on another day.

Still, the Knicks may be playing some hardball.

Mithchell is a three-time Jazz All-Star, hailing from Queens, New York. He has yet to formally request a trade, and Shams Charania has recently added that both he and Jazz exec Danny Ainge are prepared to head into the season without a second summer blockbuster. But the famously salty Rookie of the Year runner up does a better job stirring the pot than he does dispelling any notions he’d love to play nearer to where he grew up, doesn’t he?

In my opinion the Knicks as currently constructed are not very threatening to the Sixers. If they were to land Spida they’d certainly become friskier, but they’d still likely hover just above or within the play-in group between seeds six through ten. As creative as Thibs can be, defense would be a major issue with a starting backcourt of 6-foot-1 Mitchell, and 6-foot-1 Brunson. And without Mitchell, there’s even less hope.

So any concerns we might have with the Knicks feel further away than this coming season. I’ve even seen some fans muse that the division rival landing Donovan would make the Christmas Day game a bit more fun. That’s how little Sixers fans fear this team.

But while I get all of that, I also refuse to underestimate them as a long-term threat, even with the whole multiple decades of futility thing going.

While there is very little evidence that the Knicks are a free agency destination, I do think that could potentially change if they landed a player like Mitchell. He and Brunson could wipe away at least some of the stink of post-Patrick Ewing years past.

And I think that would change even more, if James Dolan ever sold the team. The fact of the matter is some stars do like the idea of living and playing in New York, (we saw that once upon a time with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, we’ve seen it before with Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony) and as one of the most lucrative, valuable, and historic teams, in one of the biggest markets, they may only need to stay out of their own way for a few years before someone new decides to take the plunge.

So, we still have time before we have to really worry about the Knicks. If they get Mitchell, they’d still need to find a way to shed Julius Randle’s salary to make a splash in 2024 or 2025. Randle made the same All-NBA second team as Joel Embiid and LeBron James in 2021. Now he’s regarded as an albatross contract. That’s a New York minute for you.

Mitchell Robinson is still promising. He’s never posed a major problem for Joel Embiid, who draws plenty of fouls against him. They have some nice young pieces like Cam Reddish, Quentin Grimes, Obi Toppin, and Tyrese Maxey’s former Kentucky teammate, Immanuel Quickley. I’d love if the Sixers could just swipe Grimes for free.

But their top asset now is RJ Barrett. He’s been working with Embiid’s trainer Drew Hanlen for several years, and is looking at a hefty raise heading into a huge fourth year. It won’t be surprising if he continues to have efficiency woes. But he’s still only a few months older than Maxey, despite another year of experience under his belt.

Finally, if they do or don’t get Mitchell, there have been rumors that the Lakers might sniff a reunion with Julius Randle if they can’t snag Kyrie Irving. That dream looks like it has vanished, if it ever existed. I wonder if the Lakers missed the boat on a chance to swap Russell Westbrook for Kyrie. If the Knicks took on Westbrook’s expiring salary, foisting bad contracts onto LeBron James and co. it might at least illuminate for us a future path back towards Knicks relevance if not immediate contention. They could dream of trading for Mitchell, and opening up a max contract in 2024 or 2025.

So for now, I’m rooting for Mitchell to stay put in Utah, or wind up somewhere “safer” like the Thunder. All things being equal, I’d rather the Knicks remain irrelevant forever with Dolan chiefly at the helm. I think the Sixers should be able to get it done on Christmas Day and steal some headlines for a cold winter’s night. Whatever keeps the Knicks on their perennial hamster wheel of bad is better than major change, I always say.