How the Knicks turned a criticized signing into one of the best free agent deals in basketball

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Madison Square Garden
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Following an ugly 2021-2022 season that saw the New York Knicks miss the playoffs entirely, it was clear that they needed to take a massive step forward. They finished as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference the year prior before being bounced by the Atlanta Hawks in five games, and it was clear that their style of basketball wasn’t going to allow them to compete in the modern NBA. In the 21st Century especially, incompetence was the one word that remained a constant with the organization, and yet once Leon Rose took over, that narrative began to quietly shift.

The under-the-radar decisions to draft players like Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride were hints at his eye for basketball talent, but his crowning achievement is the signing and development of Jalen Brunson. An under-utilized guard in Dallas, the Knicks made the then-controversial decision to sign him to a four-year $104 million contract. To say it’s been everything New York hoped for is an understatement, as Brunson has exceeded and surpassed all expectations.

Jalen Brunson Has Blossomed Into a Number One Option With the Knicks

NBA: Utah Jazz at New York Knicks
Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Finding a number one option in the NBA is one of the hardest things to do, and that’s because so few exist, and those who do have chosen to stay with their team or go to more established organizations. LeBron James chose the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers when he departed Cleveland in free agency, Kawhi Leonard bolted for the Los Angeles Clippers a year after they had a surprise surge into the playoff picture, and Kevin Durant went across town to the Brooklyn Nets when they emerged out of the cellar in 2019.

New York has always been a place for stars, but in recent years, that hasn’t been the case because of the consistently poor play in the 21st Century. Since the 1999-2000 season, only the Wizards (1,180) have more losses than the Knicks (1,140), but over the last two seasons that trend has reversed, as the Knicks have the seventh-most wins in basketball (97), and the leader of those two teams has been Jalen Brunson. His first season in New York was stellar, averaging 24 points per game while improving his volume and efficiency from downtown.

When it seemed like he had made his big leap, the 2023-2024 season would come around and completely dwarf everything he accomplished the year prior. He’d finish fourth in the NBA in points per game (28.7), joining Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic as the only other players in basketball to finish top 10 in both total points and assists on the season. It was a magical year for Brunson, but the leaps he made go beyond just the surface-level stats.

READ MORE: Knicks All-Star PG not worried about being left off Team USA’s 2024 Olympic roster

Something that you’ll notice from his 2022 to 2023 season is that on a per-rate basis, the value he provided on the court didn’t increase much, but considering that came with a Usage Rate spike from 21.9% to 27.2%, that meant he still took a huge leap. Increasing your volume can hurt your efficiency, but the opposite occurred for Brunson, resulting in 8.1 Efficiency Wins on the season, which ranked in the 90th Percentile for players that season. What hurt him was his poor defensive value, as the Knicks took a huge step back with him on the court defensively.

The Knicks lacked the defensive personnel to mask the lack of size Jalen Brunson brings as a smaller guard, as Quentin Grimes was tasked with the toughest defensive assignments in the NBA that year according to Matchup Difficulty. RJ Barrett and Julius Randle are not the kind of defenders you want guarding a team’s co-star either, meaning they relied heavily on their bench unit to provide them with strong defensive minutes.

It’s not surprising that the quartet of Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett, Quentin Grimes, and Julius Randle ran a -0.5 Net Rating as a group, the fit just didn’t make sense with three ball-dominant scorers with below-average defensive value. When you substituted RJ Barrett for Immanuel Quickley, the Net Rating shot up to +7.6, but since the majority of his minutes were with RJ Barrett and Julius Randle as secondary defenders, the Knicks had a 118.8 Defensive Rating with him on the court and a 110.3 with him off of it.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New York Knicks
Jan 25, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward OG Anunoby (8) during the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

That poor fit explained the decision to trade both RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to the Toronto Raptors, but better yet, it perfectly explains why OG Anunoby was such a hit with this starting five. The Knicks only saw a -1.8 hit to their Defensive Rating with Jalen Brunson on the court, and his Defensive EPM would see a massive spike as well. In his first season, Brunson ranked in the 6th Percentile in D-EPM (-2.2), but this year he was in the 51st Percentile (-0.5), taking him from one of the worst defenders in the league to a mediocre one.

Complimented with improvements to his Assist-to-Turnover% and scoring volume, Jalen Brunson is one of the most improved players in all of basketball. One could argue that he should at least be a finalist for that award, as he’s gone from roughly a top-30 player in the NBA to a top-five player this season. According to Estimated Wins, which uses the aforementioned EPM but accounts for volume, Jalen Brunson was the fifth-best player in all of basketball and he’s sixth in Win Shares as well.

NBA: New York Knicks at Sacramento Kings
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Team success is often levied against players like Jalen Brunson who are having breakout seasons on teams that haven’t been historically very successful. Think of the public perception regarding Giannis Antetokounmpo before the Bucks won the NBA Finals, or how Nikola Jokic essentially lost a chance at winning three-straight MVPs because people used his lack of playoff success against him. Both players have long track records of being great in the postseason and are easily going to be remembered as top-15 players to ever play this great game.

Despite long stretches without Mitchell Robinson, OG Anunoby, and Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson led the New York Knicks to the second seed in the Eastern Conference. It wasn’t like the Knicks had held the spot and coasted the rest of the way, as on March 5th they were five games back of the Bucks and Cavs, tied as the fourth seed with the Orlando Magic. It was the stellar play of Jalen Brunson that led the charge, as the Knicks would go 14-6 over their final 20 games to rally and have their first 50-win season since the 2012-2013 campaign.

Being a top-five player in terms of production while having the second-best record in the Eastern Conference should make you a lock for a top-five finish in the MVP race and a spot on First-Team All-NBA. Nobody saw this coming when Jalen Brunson initially signed with the Knicks, even as someone who believed it was a great contract, I didn’t think he’d ever have a legitimate case to have a top-five finish in MVP voting.

From all the numbers in this article, what makes Jalen Brunson more than just a breakout star is the unquantifiable ability to rise above the expectations previously placed upon him. He wasn’t supposed to win two National Championships, become Player of the Year, become a consistent starter, step up when Luka was hurt in the playoffs, sign a nine-figure deal, lead a team to a playoff series win as the number one option, or have the greatest season by a New York Knick in 21st Century.

Jalen Brunson has made one thing abundantly clear; he dictates how high he’s going to fly, and every time someone’s tried to limit what he can be on the court, he’s made them a free bookmark for Knicks fans. A year ago, it would be laughable to suggest that he’s a better player than Donovan Mitchell or Trae Young; now it’s a consensus opinion in NBA circles. Can he lead a team to an NBA Finals? Will he bring a championship to a city that has yearned for a banner since 1973?

No one knows for sure, but if there’s one thing I know for sure about Jalen Brunson, it’s that he was born to play basketball.

Mentioned in this article:

More about: