Utah Jazz guard and New York native Donovan Mitchell Credit: Bill Moore photo

Will the Knicks’ signing of former Dallas Mavericks point guard Jalen Brunson to a four-year, $104 million free-agent contract, which became official yesterday, be their major summer move? If it ultimately is, then the Knicks will once again have an arduous path to being in the upper half of the Eastern Conference’s 15 teams.

The Knicks finished as the 11th seed last season at 37-45 and did not make the playoffs nor the Play-In Tournament, which is composed of the 7th to 10th seeds in each conference. But their objective, after ending the 2020-2021 campaign as the East’s No. 4 seed, should be to contend for the conference title. Realistically, as currently constructed, their roster is not built to battle the big dogs, the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics most prominently among them.   

Maybe team president Leon Rose has a strategically prudent four-year plan that Knicks owner James Dolan will allow him to execute. However, two-plus years into his tenure, the vision isn’t clear to those outside of the organization’s inner circle. The Knicks’ free-agent signings last summer of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier didn’t engender trust among Knicks fans that Rose and his front office staff are capable of acquiring the requisite pieces that will drive a sustained high level of success.

So the 25-year-old Brunson’s signing has been justifiably met with skepticism by some that see him as another good player who will not substantially improve the ball club. Although Brunson could indeed be the Knicks’ answer in their seemingly perpetual quest for a proficient lead guard, his addition is not the solution to the team’s essential need—a star who can by his sheer talent raise the overall production and capability of the collective group.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler and Kevin Durant, if he returns to a stable situation with the Nets, all are under that classification. Last February, speculation morphed into extensive discussions on various platforms that Westchester County, New York, native Donovan Mitchell, who partly honed his game as a youth in the city summer leagues, desired to play for the Knicks.

The conjecture hasn’t dissipated and has intensified after the Utah Jazz traded All-Star center Rudy Gobert to the Minnesota Timberwolves and starting forward Royce O’Neale to the Brooklyn Nets last week, leaving the impression that Danny Ainge, the Jazz’s CEO of Basketball Operations, is tearing down the team and Mitchell is the next to be dealt.

There is plausible debate among basketball insiders and the general NBA fan base as to whether Mitchell is a game changer. It is irrefutable that at 25 he is already a three-time All-Star with a cumulative scoring average of 25 points per game over the last three seasons on 44% field goal shooting. Most importantly, Mitchell is a late game closer and lethal shot creator that the Knicks have desperately lacked since Carmelo Anthony’s departure as much as they have a stabilizing point guard.

The Knicks haven’t been able to obtain a player of Mitchell’s caliber through the draft or free-agency in decades. Therefore, the trade route appears to be the most viable option. They’ll have to part with key assets but that is simply the art of the deal and the price of doing business. What has been evident going back to the Celtics dynasty of Bill Russell and before that the legendary Harlem Rens, no team becomes a serious contender or champion without a roster anchored by a singular or multiple All-Star and Hall of Fame figures.

Perhaps Rose sees next season or next summer as the occasion to execute a franchise altering maneuver. Thus far this summer, he has not acted with all deliberate speed.

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