Where signing Jalen Brunson ranks, Knicks’ CAA connections and more

right arrow

There is more to discuss than just wacky trade hypotheticals.

Part 1 of our mailbag touched on some of the big names the New York Knicks could target this summer. But we’re not done talking hoops.

You sent in questions. I’ve got answers.

Here is Part 2, discussing where the Jalen Brunson signing ranks over the past half-decade, the Knicks’ Creative Artists Agency connections, if the team’s top three players can work together and more:

(Note: Questions have been edited for brevity and clarity.)

As I watch the Miami Heat dismantle the Boston Celtics, how might that impact the Knicks’ outlook on what they need to do in the offseason? The Heat are proving to be just outstanding at finding and attacking any opponent’s weaknesses. I think the Knicks should not overhaul their roster too much and prioritize adding one or two floor-spacing, 3-and-D-type shooters. But they might not need the huge shake-up many fans craved after losing to Miami. — Matthew F.

I do think it’s worth noting that the Heat have played three teams and so far (a necessary qualifier since the series against the Celtics isn’t over yet) the Knicks have played them the tightest.

Matthew F. is spot-on with his analysis. It was difficult to figure out the Heat’s identity during a mundane regular season. But during this playoff run, it’s become obvious. Their greatest trait is their ability to shapeshift.

The Knicks wanted tons of offensive rebounds. Well, Miami found a way to keep the battle on the glass even.

The Knicks wanted to get to the paint. Well, Miami figured out how to wall that off.

The offense has gone from lethargic to lavish. It’s overlooked that not having Tyler Herro has meant placing the ball in Butler’s hands more, which would explain some of the scoring upticks. A greater number of the Heat’s possessions are initiated by a top-10 player. Kyle Lowry has been a revelation coming off the bench, too.

The Knicks did not embarrass themselves against Miami. They don’t deserve to be ripped, which is why I wrote such a positive story after their season-ending loss in Game 6.

But I do think, when we talk about championship-level composition, their roster has flaws, and I’m not sure a couple of role players fixes them enough to vault New York into the title conversation. The Knicks aren’t saving up all these draft picks for nothing. If a star becomes available this summer, they will get in on it — even if this season, including how it ended, represented a step forward.

Where do you think (Julius) Randle and Brunson’s signings rank league-wide over the past few years? With stars hitting free agency less often and the Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving experiment failing in Brooklyn, it seems like the Knicks may be the biggest outlier for building outside of the draft. — Cole S.

I’ll take you one step further. We’ll make a list of the best free-agent signings over the past five seasons and see where Brunson and Randle end up. But before we start, let’s discuss the parameters.

First, a player has to change teams for him to be eligible. Giannis Antetokounmpo signing a maximum extension with the Milwaukee Bucks can’t be in the same category as a free agent like Brunson moving from Dallas to New York. Otherwise, the list would just be guys like Antetokoumpo and Nikola Jokić re-upping with the same squads. Sign-and-trades still count, though.

Second, let’s judge the signing based on how it helped or hurt the team that signed him. For example, Spencer Dinwiddie makes a fair salary, but the Washington Wizards used him in a bad contract swap half a season into his three-year deal. Lauri Markkanen is probably the most extreme example of this. He signed a four-year, $67 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers two summers ago, and while that’s cheap for the All-Star he’s become now, he didn’t blow up until after he got traded to the Utah Jazz, which is why he won’t be on this list.

Third, signing an undrafted free agent who turns into a big-time player does not count toward this, either. Otherwise, the list would just be Miami Heat players.

Fourth, the signing had to occur in the offseason. No buyout guys.

Essential role players who helped their teams win titles

Brace yourself, because there will be Bucks. Lots of Bucks.

Bobby Portis, who signed for a cheap contract with Milwaukee in 2020, turned into one of the league’s best role players and regularly shows up on NBA Sixth Man of the Year ballots now. Wesley Matthews, who signed with the Bucks the summer before, was a key cog on the 2020 title team, too.

In 2019, the Los Angeles Lakers signed Danny Green, who helped them get a ring that same season, to a two-year, $30 million contract.  The Lakers signed Dwight Howard to a minimum contract for their title season, too.

Oh, and let’s throw in one more Bucks signing: Pat Connaughon, another member of Milwaukee’s title team, signing for $3.4 million over two years in 2018.

And no, the buck does not stop here.

Excellent value deals

No. 1 in this tier, indisputably, is Brook Lopez’s initial contract with Milwaukee, which signed the veteran center to a one-year, $3.4 million deal in 2018 and has kept him in-house ever since. No player has transformed his style more than Lopez, who has become one of the league’s premier defensive centers and 3-point-shooting big men during his stint with the Bucks.

He’s not the only role player who has excelled.

Bruce Brown signed a two-year, $13.3 million deal last summer and is four wins away from entering the “essential role players who helped their teams win titles” tier of this list. Malik Monk popped up on the NBA Sixth Man of the Year radar after signing for two years, $19.4 million last summer. He was a major contributor to the Sacramento Kings’ turnaround this season, too.

Let’s throw a few more out there, too:

• Alex Caruso: four years, $37 million contract with the Chicago Bulls in 2021
• Derrick Rose: two years, $15 million contract with the Detroit Pistons in 2019
• T.J. McConnell: two years, $7 million contract with the Indiana Pacers in 2019

He’s very good and we’d do it again

This is self-explanatory.

• DeMar DeRozan: three years, $85 million in 2021 (Bulls)
• Malcolm Brogdon: four years, $85 million in 2019 (Pacers)
• Bojan Bogdanović: four years, $73 million in 2019 (Utah Jazz)
• Bogdan Bogdanović: four years, $72 million in 2020 (Atlanta Hawks)
• Jerami Grant: three years, $60 million in 2020 (Pistons)

And one more …

I’m including Randle’s first contract with the Knicks (three years, $62.1 million in 2019). Randle re-upped for a slightly higher average salary the summer after he made his first All-NBA team. He’s made another since. He’s had highs in New York, such as the two All-NBA seasons, along with lows, such as a couple of playoff runs as well as the 2021-22 campaign. But he’s done far more good than not. I do not doubt that if the Knicks could go back in time, they would sign him again.

If he were to hit the open market this summer (which he won’t, because he has three seasons remaining on his deal), he would probably receive a similar wage to the one he makes now. I feel good placing him here.

Kevin Durant category

The Nets signed a star. He wasn’t even just a star. There was a good argument he was the best basketball player in the world. And they fell flat on their faces so hard that months after trading away Durant and Irving they still have black eyes. But when you can sign Kevin Durant, you sign Kevin Durant. Period.

Wait a second, this guy is a star now?

Here’s where we get to Brunson, who signed a four-year, $104 million contract with the Knicks last summer and would probably get a max deal or close to it if he were to hit free agency again this offseason. For reference, his max last summer was $144 million over four years.

It’s reminiscent of Lowry’s first contract with the Toronto Raptors when he signed for four years, $48 million (back when NBA salaries weren’t what they are today) and then became a perennial All-Star.

This is the thought process after only one season in New York, too. If Brunson continues to improve, he could move up a tier. Either way, placing Brunson here makes him the best free-agent signing in the NBA since the wild summer of 2019, when Durant signed with the Nets and a couple more stars switched teams, too.

We can now win titles

Let’s reverse-rank the top three signings of the past five years:

3. Kawhi Leonard: three years, $103.2 million with the L.A. Clippers in 2019

Leonard has dealt with injuries aplenty. The Clippers have been to only one conference final since his arrival. They dealt away loads of draft picks as well as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to acquire Paul George, which was necessary for acquiring Leonard. And yet, when Leonard is at his best, there are few like him. Still, because of the injuries and all the capital the Clippers lost in the George trade, I can’t put him above either of the next two guys.

2. Jimmy Butler: four years, $140.8 million with the Miami Heat in 2019

How could the Dallas Mavericks let Brunson walk in free agency? “Imagine what Luka Dončić must be thinking” is a hypothetical Knicks fans threw around as Brunson dominated in the playoffs as Dončić sat at home. Philadelphia 76ers fans can yearn similarly about Butler. Imagine what Joel Embiid must be thinking as Butler sits one win away from his second NBA Finals appearance in four years.

1. LeBron James: four years, 153.3 million with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018

There is no other correct answer.

Do you think the Knicks’ front office puts more weight on “relationships” than others do? If so, how do you see that affecting this offseason? I ask because of Leon Rose’s history, Worldwide Wes’ rep, how they handled Randle after the 2021-22 season, hiring Tom Thibodeau and how they acquired Brunson. I recognize that relationships are very important in this business and can definitely be an advantage but can also slow down decision-making and encourage de-emphasizing data. I’d rather have a front office with a strong emotional IQ and assume that it will alter decision-making sometimes for the better and sometimes not. — Josh C.

I mentioned in Part 1 of the mailbag that there are questions I would love to ask team president Rose if I could. Alas, there is no avenue to do it. Rose has not spoken on the record to independent media since September 2021 and has not held a solo news conference during his entire time running the Knicks, which began more than three years ago. The Knicks declined a request from The Athletic last week for either Rose or another decision-maker in the front office to speak on the record to the media.

If Rose were to host a news conference, though, I promise you someone would ask about this.

Rose once ran the basketball branch of CAA, one of the largest agencies in the industry. Many of the Knicks’ biggest acquisitions are CAA clients. They signed Brunson, Randle and Isaiah Hartenstein. They drafted Obi Toppin. They traded for Josh Hart. They hired Thibodeau, his associate head coach Johnnie Bryant and assistant coach Rick Brunson — all of whom are with CAA.

The Brunson-related tampering charges from last summer included a cast of CAA characters. The stars from other teams the Knicks link to are Rose-adjacent, too. (See: Donovan Mitchell, who is a CAA client). It’s difficult to small talk with people from other teams about what moves the Knicks could make without someone making an obvious joke about CAA preferences. Non-CAA agents are aware of the dynamic, too, trying to make sure that their Knicks clients don’t get treated unfairly because they’re not part of the CAA culture.

What the team has to do is make sure that this dynamic doesn’t affect its locker room. It can’t favor the CAA guys over the non-CAA ones. And if it siphons money to unworthy players from CAA, that becomes a problem.

But let’s look at this objectively: Which acquisitions of CAA players have been disastrous?

It’s not the Brunson contract, which I just wrote was the best in the NBA since 2019. It’s not the Randle extension, which has yielded another All-NBA appearance, or the Hartenstein deal, which landed the Knicks one of the league’s best backup centers. It’s not the Hart trade, which was a catalyst for getting the team to the second round this season. It’s not the Thibodeau hire, which has turned the Knicks into a play-hard, well-molded squad. The closest thing to a blemish is the Toppin pick: No. 8 in 2020.

So yes, the CAA relationships certainly affect the Knicks, but it also has led to moves any front office would do.

You’ve written about potential fit imperfections with the current roster. Even so, it’s a strange and perhaps insufficiently feared fact that this team was excellent despite its three highest-usage, highest-minute players being bad together: minus-3.3/100 in a large 1,432-minute sample. And it wasn’t much different in the playoffs. This is far worse than the Bulls’ big three, who are almost universally viewed as problematically constructed. It’s also not shocking, given that they are three fairly ball-centric players with important and overlapping defensive weaknesses. So do you think these on/off numbers overstate the enormity of the problem relative to expectations, and what is your best guess as to how attuned the front office is to this dynamic compared to how they ought to be? — David R.

I assume the three players you’re referring to are RJ Barrett, Randle and Brunson. When they played together this season, the Knicks were in the red. But it wasn’t as problematic as the numbers David R. provides imply.

First off, once you remove garbage time, as the fantastic data-tracking site Cleaning the Glass does, it shows the Knicks got outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions with those three on the floor together — not what you want but only half as bad as the 3.3 figure David R. presented. But now, let’s dig into that minus-1.8 net rating.

The offense was tremendous in those moments. The defense, however, got lit up. But why?

Well, those three played more than 400 possessions during the regular season with Jericho Sims at center, and those lineups got slaughtered on the defensive end. They also played more than 200 possessions with Evan Fournier and others with Cam Reddish, neither of which helped. Remove those three from the equation (which is reasonable, considering Sims, Fournier and Reddish were either buried or on another team by the end of the season), and you see it worked during the regular season. The Knicks’ scoring differential was plus-3.7 points per 100 possessions with players of consequence (not Sims, Fournier or Reddish) alongside Brunson, Randle and Barrett. The starting unit, meanwhile, was dominant all season. Randle, Barrett, Brunson, Quentin Grimes and Mitchell Robinson were plus-7 per 100.

The Brunson-Randle-Barrett combination has flaws, as I’ve covered. There are spacing issues, which pop up more in the playoffs than over the first 82. They get exploited on defense — though Barrett’s postseason run proved he is a better defender than he showed during the regular season. But I don’t think the Knicks’ fit issues necessarily show in the on-off numbers.

(Photo of Brunson: Nathaniel S. Butler / NBAE via Getty Images)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top