3 stars the Knicks could target that could give them elite performance

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Clippers, knicks, paul george
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the Knicks looking to make the signing of Donte DiVincenzo official on July 6th after coming to an agreement on a four-year $50 million deal, they still remain in pursuit of a star.

Jalen Brunson has proven himself to be worthy of the star label, as he was incredible in both the regular season and the playoffs. While Julius Randle is a two-time All-NBA forward, there are serious questions he has yet to answer regarding whether he’s the guy to pair with Brunson or not.

Early indications would suggest the Knicks need to look externally for that running mate for Brunson, as while they can certainly win plenty of regular season games, their style of offense and the lack of defense in the starting lineup did them in against Miami in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.

The Knicks, who won 48 games and finished fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, are eager to take that next step after their first playoff series win in a decade, and these three players provide compelling cases to be that final piece to the puzzle.

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Bringing the Beard to the Garden?

The Knicks were one of the teams linked to disgruntled star point guard James Harden, who will likely be on his fourth team in four years. Harden is one of the most polarizing figures in the NBA, as his career is certainly one of a first-ballot Hall of Famer, but the lack of postseason success coupled with his recent stretch of demanding trades has hurt his legacy. Entering his age 34 season, Harden isn’t the prolific scorer he once was, as his scoring dropped all the way from 36.1 PPG in the 2018-2019 season to just 21.0 PPG in his most recent campaign.

Shifting more into a playmaker role, the Knicks are viewing Harden as a solution to their isolation-heavy offense that was grounded to a halt in the playoffs by Miami. The Arizona State product led the NBA in assists per game (10.7), and while he missed the All-Star Game for the first time since he was with the OKC Thunder, the on-court impact on offense was still prevalent. Philadelphia had a 121.2 Offensive Rating with him on the court and a 115.8 Offensive Rating with him off of it, all while having just a +1.7 improvement in Defensive Rating with him off the court.

New York performed poorly in many playmaking and ball movement metrics, tied for last in assists per game and 23rd in assist-to-turnover ratio. While Jalen Brunson has been an unbelievable get for the Knicks, he’s a score-first point guard, and the Knicks lack of reliable playmaking in the starting lineup with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle also looking to create their own shot led to a great regular season offense that didn’t translate when it mattered most.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers, knicks, james harden
May 7, 2023; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard James Harden (1) against the Boston Celtics during the fourth quarter of game four of the 2023 NBA playoffs at Wells Fargo Center. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the issue with James Harden; for all of the Knicks’ playoff woes, Harden has made a career off of poor playoff performances. Most recently, the 76ers had a mere 110.4 Offensive Rating with Harden on the floor and a mind-boggling 120.1 Offensive Rating with him off of it.

The Knicks, who had a historically poor 82.4 Offensive Rating with Brunson off the floor, probably don’t want to hand the reigns of their offense from a young guard with a building resume of playoff success to an aging star on the downturn who sees his game regress mightily in those bright lights.

This isn’t to say the Knicks can’t curb these issues Harden has, but rather that these flaws could rear their ugly head, and Harden’s history of demanding trades and leaving organizations can make it hard to give up serious assets for a player who could leave after a season. There are no questions about the talent here; Harden is a high-volume high-efficiency sniper from beyond the arc with unbelievable playmaking skills, but the defensive fit makes little sense as well.

The Knicks, who already have poor defenders in Brunson, Randle, and Barrett, would have to trade both of Brunson’s running mates offensively and add another power forward in order to make this fit work. Brunson’s defensive impact is his biggest flaw, as the Knicks were just a marginally better team with him on the court before the arrival of Josh Hart. With a 1.8 Net Rating before the trade and a 9.2 Net Rating after, it revealed a fundamental flaw with how the Knicks assembled their lineup around the star guard.

Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, New York Knicks
Dec 13, 2016; Villanova, PA, USA; Villanova Wildcats guard Josh Hart (3) gets congratulations from head coach Jay Wright and guard Jalen Brunson (1) after leaving the game late in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion. Villanova defeated Temple, 78-57. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Acquiring James Harden would require the Knicks to reconstruct their lineup around two score-first guards, a strategy that doesn’t have much historical success. While the Warriors have won titles led by an undersized guard, that guard happens to be the greatest shooter in NBA history and in the discussion for being one of the 10 greatest players to ever play the sport. Two of those rings, he had two of the greatest teams ever with Kevin Durant there, but the foundation of that core was Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson.

Thompson was a strong perimeter defender in his prime, and Draymond Green is one of the best defenders in NBA history, something the Knicks do not currently have. The formula that you’d have with Harden and Brunson doesn’t seem like the one that has success when it matters more. Could the Knicks hypothetically work around their issues with different lineup construction? Absolutely, but as currently constructed, Harden would feel like an addition that raises your floor but not your ceiling.

The Knicks Could Finally Land Their Two-Way Star Wing

Paul George is one of the NBA’s best wing players, and that’s been the case for over a decade. George has been known as a strong perimeter defender with great instincts for a while, and it’s allowed him to remain a strong defender despite a myriad of injuries and older age, with the most notable one being his season-ending knee injury with Team USA. He’s battled back from it all, and it shines through in his work ethic and on-court excellence, as the future Hall of Famer was named to his eighth career All-Star team last winter.

George is the exact fit the Knicks are looking for, as unlike Harden, who would benefit a team lacking offense from the guard position, he’s capable of helping the Knicks on both ends of the floor. While that compliments Jalen Brunson’s style of play beautifully, it could also have a serious impact on one of the Knicks’ young budding players in Quentin Grimes.

Last season the Knicks placed a massive burden on the Houston product to cover challenging defensive assignments, leading the NBA in Matchup Difficulty and still holding his own. The issue? The Knicks don’t have much in terms of help defense on the perimeter, leaving Grimes on an island to try to stop some of the game’s most dynamic scorers. RJ Barrett was projected to fill that help-defender role, but his struggles placed an even larger burden on the Knicks.

quentin grimes, knicks
Feb 2, 2023; New York, New York, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) controls the ball against New York Knicks guard Quentin Grimes (6) during the third quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Lowering the defensive pressure on Grimes and allowing him to have a quality help defender could lead to better team defense, and the Knicks could really take advantage of how effective they were at defending the interior. Isiah Hartenstein and Mitchell Robinson both were strong defenders for the Knicks at the center position, but with the addition of DiVincenzo for the bench, Josh Hart opting into his contract, and Immanuel Quickley’s massive leaps as a defender, the Knicks just need to make the tweaks to their lineup to add defensive help.

Paul George is a four-time All-NBA defensive player, and his ability to handle the perimeter is remarkably impressive. He ranks in the 78th Percentile in Isolation Defense at the perimeter, meaning he performs extremely well when left on an island out there against a top-level scorer and can reliably take on tough defensive assignments. In terms of Matchup Difficulty last season, he ranked in the 71st Percentile while ranking in the 99th Percentile in Defensive Versatility.

This is the perfect defensive wing to add to the Knicks, and that’s not even mentioning his incredible offensive skills, which would improve the Knicks’ spacing and give them a potentially explosive offense. Last season, the Knicks weren’t efficient in their offense, but they were still a solid offense, and they truly took off after the acquisition of Josh Hart.

  • 120.5 Points Per Game (5th)
  • 122.7 Offensive Rating (T-1st)
  • 60.2% True Shooting Percentage (7th)

Adding Paul George, who averaged over 23 a night on above-average efficiency, would not just add some must-needed scoring but also a reliable shot-creator who ranked in the 88th Percentile in Shot Creation but has also taken a step forward in terms of creating looks for others. The Knicks as a team struggled with ball movement and playmaking, and while George isn’t an elite-level playmaker, he averaged over five assists a game and has incredible On-Ball Gravity (96th Percentile) that allows him to create open looks for others.

George can drive to the basket with his 6’8 frame and get foul calls, kick out to an open shooter in the corner, or even pull up for a mid-range shot with his offensive skill set. He’d be the perfect scorer to put next to Brunson, who’s a smaller guard that relies on crafty floaters, deep threes, and excellent physicality for his size to generate points. As a duo, these two would form one of the most efficient offenses in the NBA, but how would it look in the postseason?

The 2020 playoffs severely damaged Paul George’s playoff reputation, as the infamous shot that hit off the side of the backboard in the 3-1 collapse served as the cherry on top for what was a disastrous postseason. George cited mental health issues in the years following as a serious issue in the bubble, as players were away from loved ones for weeks to prevent an outbreak of COVID and further affect the season.

It overshadowed the incredible peaks he had in the postseason with Indiana, battling more talented Miami teams and going toe-to-toe with peak LeBron James, although those Pacers teams never captured an Eastern Conference title. He hasn’t participated in the previous two postseasons, but in his most recent run back in 2021, he helped guide a team without Kawhi Leonard to the Western Conference Finals, marking the Clippers’ first WCF appearance in franchise history, and it helped to restore his playoff legacy.

The issue? He can rarely stay healthy.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Clippers, new york knicks
Mar 21, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; LA Clippers forward Paul George (13) dribbles the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

From a basketball perspective, Paul George is a perfect fit for this Knicks’ team. Their worst starter last season was RJ Barrett who played Small Forward, the exact position Paul George plays. He can shoot, he can drive to the basket, he can guard anyone, and he’s the superstar the Knicks have long awaited to add to their lineup. With that being said, his mounting injuries are concerning, and it leaves genuine worry that the Knicks could lose him for a playoff run and suddenly stare down another early playoff exit.

That being said, he’s got an opt-out he’ll likely use to hit the market again and get more guaranteed money, making him a one-year rental for the Knicks. Using next season to evaluate him and their guard/wing depth to load-manage George, they could try their best to keep him healthy and place themselves in a position to get healthy at the right time. It’s a risk that I believe the Knicks will take if the price is right, and with this projected starting lineup, they suddenly become a Finals contender:

  • Jalen Brunson PG
  • Quentin Grimes SG
  • Paul George SF
  • Julius Randle PF
  • Mitchell Robinson C

The Knicks could move Randle if they feel as if they have too many mouths to feed on offense, but he’ll get his touches and shots the way RJ did, and he could also take a bigger role in the offense on games where Paul George will inevitably have to load-manage. This just feels like the best fit for the Knicks, although the Clippers’ interest in James Harden and the pricetag that George could have may sway the Knicks to look for a different two-way wing.

Continuing the Youth Movement in New York

One player that the Knicks have been linked to since the trade deadline is two-way wing OG Anunoby, who clearly has the least impressive career of the three, but also has the most youth and likely, the lowest price tag of the bunch. Anunoby is entering his age-26 season, as he was named to his first All-NBA Defensive team this season, but has yet to earn All-Star or All-NBA honors. Anunoby was part of that Toronto Raptors championship squad back in 2019, although an injury knocked him out for the playoff run, although he did suit up in the latter half of the Finals.

Anunoby has transitioned from a role player off the bench to one of the Raptors’ best young players, earning a starting role after the departure of Kawhi Leonard, as he would begin to find his three-point shot and develop his offensive skill set alongside his incredible defensive play. On a Raptors’ squad that lacked defensive support, he’s consistently attacked the toughest defensive assignments in the league, similarly to Quentin Grimes. He ranks in the 99th Percentile in Matchup Difficulty and in the 100th Percentile in Defensive Versatility.

To put it simply; OG Anunoby is one of the most talented, skilled, and battle-tested defenders in the sport, and if the Knicks view him as a player who can blossom with greater offensive responsibilities, this could be a great option for New York. He’s shown the ability to create his own shot and hit threes, but can he go from a slightly above-average offense to a really good one? That’s a question the Knicks will have to answer, and they’d have to promise him the touches on offense to allow him to progress as a scorer.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Toronto Raptors, knicks, og anunoby
Jan 10, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) dunks over Charlotte Hornets center Mason Plumlee (24) in the second half at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Just like with Paul George, you’d replace RJ Barrett in the lineup with Anunoby, which likely means he’d get the shot attempts that RJ did (16.1), and if he’s able to have his efficiency translate to a slightly larger scoring role, we could see him put up strong scoring numbers to pair with the elite-level defense. Anunoby is entering his seventh year in the league, so it’s hard to imagine his ceiling is much higher than the 17.1 Points Per Game we saw a year ago, but again that’s on low volume and not as a primary option in Toronto.

Anunoby’s PPG per 100 possessions is at 23.3, but that’s at 18.7 attempts a game, which would be higher than both Brunson and Randle. It’s more likely he’d be closer to RJ Barrett’s shot attempts, but he could still get to around 20 PPG on that shot diet. It depends on if his three-point shot remains as strong as it has in recent years and if he can take another leap in an offense that has much better spacing than the Raptors, who shot just 33.8% from three on the 21st fewest attempts a game, the Knicks might have a borderline All-Star.

OG Anunoby isn’t as good as Paul George or James Harden, but could he be good enough to push the Knicks into championship contention? That depends on his offensive profile in a more spacious offense, but projecting a player can often lead to disappointing outcomes or unexpected bad fits as we saw with DeJounte Murray in Atlanta, although the Knicks have better depth on their bench and in their lineup than Atlanta did at the time of the deal, and Brunson seems to be blossoming into a playoff star alongside a regular season one.

jalen brunson, knicks
Mar 31, 2023; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) celebrates after hitting a three-point basket during the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks have one of basketball’s youngest rosters while also carrying the expectations of making the postseason. OG Anunoby would help them in their playoff pursuit, and the Knicks would likely excel into one of the NBA’s best defenses, but will it be enough to stop a team like Milwaukee or Boston? Miami has shown that a team with one star-caliber player and great depth can go on a run, but they were outmatched and destroyed by a far superior Denver team.

Is the model for New York a two-star model, similar to the ones we’ve seen with Los Angeles in 2020 and Denver this past season? One would immediately contest that with the point that Nikola Jokic or LeBron James far exceed Harden, George, Brunson, or Randle as talents, and it could leave the Knicks with an injury-prone expensive player that bolts in free agency, leaving the New York faithful high-and-dry.

Can Paul George stay healthy enough to play at the All-NBA level he’s capable of? Is James Harden ever going to vanquish his playoff demons? Will OG Anunoby take that leap from a floor raiser to a star who elevates the play of those around him? These are the questions the Knicks will have to ask themselves as they prepare for a rumor-heavy and potentially franchise-altering offseason.