Mitchell Robinson Credit: Bill Moore photo

Although NBA teams and free agents can begin negotiating at 6 p.m. today, one would be naive to believe that discussions haven’t already begun through back channels. 

If the letter of the rule regarding free agency was being adhered to, then the Knicks would not be intently and strategically clearing salary cap space, uncertain that a player or players they’re targeting will sign with them when contracts can become official on July 6. 

Beginning in 2008, under the direction of then general manager Donnie Walsh, the Knicks began  the purging of big contracts from their roster and achieved the objective of having cap space by the summer of 2010 to sign two max players. Their hearts were rightly desirous of LeBron James, the gem of the free agency class. Instead, they settled for Amar’e Stoudemire. 

The rest is history.

Fast forward and the Knicks traded Kemba Walker to the Detroit Pistons last week, and Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks to the Pistons this week to once again clear cap space to sign free agents. There are no transformative players like James available in this free agency cycle, but it is apparent the Knicks have targeted point guard Jalen Brunson and the optimistic feelings are mutual.  

Several news outlets have put Brunson’s anticipated deal at four years and $100 million. Given their reactions on social media platforms, it is somewhat gut-wrenching for many Knicks fans to accept their team’s seeming desperation to sign a player who hasn’t had All-Star consideration in his four years in the league or been viewed as a top 10 player at his position. In fact, Luka Doncic was the Mavericks’ primary ball handler for the past three seasons.

However unreasonable fans may view the Knicks’ coveting of Brunson, evidently, their key decision makers, headed by team president Leon Rose, see him as a critical piece to them being competitive for a playoff spot and not just the play-in tournament. The counter argument is that Brunson, at 25, the 2018 National College Player of the Year and two-time NCAA champion at Villanova, is just beginning his prime playing years, and should provide stability and steady production at the point. Alleviating much of the playmaking responsibilities in setting up teammates that fell on Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett last season, a skill that is not among their strengths. 

Brunson had an impressive postseason with the Dallas Mavericks, averaging 21.6 points, 3.7 assists and 4.6 rebounds for a team that lost to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals in May. His father, former Knick Rick Brunson, was hired earlier this month by the organization to join head coach Tom Thibodeau’s staff. Brunson was on Thibodeau’s staffs with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, and was Rose’s first client when Rose was an agent. Rose’s son Sam is Jalen Brunson’s agent so the connections are long-standing.

Yet it is unlikely that Brunson alone, or in conjunction with the re-signing of center Mitch Robinson, who is reportedly inking a four year deal for $60 million, will lift the Knicks beyond being a challenger for seeds 7 to 10 in the formidable and rugged Eastern Conference landscape. The Knicks finished 37-45 last season, 11th in the East.

So perhaps the Knicks have what will amount to basketball’s version of an October surprise and will land a major player who no one saw coming. Probably not, but such a player is needed to make them significantly better.

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