The New York Knicks have Jalen Brunson, now what?
July 1 by Sean Carroll
The New York Knicks have finally won a free agency battle, all it took was overpaying and employing his dad. Now what are they going to do?
After signing Jalen Brunson, how far can the New York Knicks go in the playoffs? (Sean Carroll illustration)
Jalen Brunson is an undersized scoring guard with a knack for getting to the rim and embarrassing defences. Not only does he have a knack for it, he’s an excellent scorer and after flourishing as a complement to Luka Doncic, he’s now ready to take on a more prominent role on the biggest stage there is.
Instead of attacking closeouts and snaking his way around a spread-floor pick-and-roll, he’s going to be dribbling into a congested paint filled with one-dimensional big men, cutting wings who can’t shoot and whatever you think of Julius Randle.
But hey, ‘bing bong’.
This past season, Brunson put up 16.3 points per game alongside 4.8 assists while shooting 50 percent from the floor and 37 percent from behind the arc with a true shooting percentage of 58 percent. Following the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Jalen was part of one of the more effective guard rotations in the league next to Luka and Spencer Dinwiddie.
The Dallas Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals with that tandem leading them. While they were abruptly stopped by the eventual NBA champions, the Conference Finals berth was enough to prove this team has what it takes to do some serious damage in the playoffs.
One of the elements of their success was their ability to spread the floor and let their smaller players work. Their plays usually started with Doncic gaining an advantage against his defender, kicking it out before starting the beautiful drive-and-kick decision-making process.
The Knicks don’t have this same rhythm and consistency in their offence.
Even in the 2020-21 season, when the Knicks made a surprise playoff appearance, it had a lot to do with individual player performances and a sturdy defence coached by Tom Thibodeau. The hope with this signing is that Brunson can be more of an offensive engine in Madison Square Garden and less of a complementary player.
But for Jalen Bruson to be the straw that stirs the drink, he can’t just be thrown into a Knicks jersey: the front office and coaching staff need to help him out.
Dallas has the luxury of playing a five-out or four-out system with the big men mostly setting screens or sitting in the corner while the primary actions are on. Thibodeau loves to play two traditional big men at the same time, and even though Randle has a respectable jump shot, he’s more comfortable taking shots off the dribble after sizing up his defender for an entire possession.
If Brunson is driving into the paint, Randle’s man will either be in the paint with him or ducking down for help at the rim since Julius isn’t an elite catch-and-shoot scorer. Add that to the fact that Thibs is probably playing a traditional big man like Mitchell Robinson and the paint is a lot more cramped than in Texas.
Not all hope is lost, it’s not as though diminutive point guards are a complete write-off under Thibs, in fact, he doesn’t have a bad track record. Derrick Rose obviously won an MVP trophy under him in Chicago and his late-career resurgence has been with the Minnesota Timberwolves and now Knicks. So how has Rose played effective basketball in this system?
In 26 games last season, Rose averaged 12 points per game while coming off the bench, a slight dip from the 14.9 with the Knicks after the trade deadline the season prior. 59 percent of his field goals are unassisted, according to NBA.com's stat tracking, and 74.1 percent of his two-point field goals are unassisted; he's generally breaking down defenders himself and getting his baskets.
This season, he nearly doubled his three-point shot frequency, up to 32 percent compared to 31 percent at the rim and 37 coming from the mid-range, which are both above average for guards, using Cleaning the Glass' metric. What has been interesting about Rose’s revival is that he isn’t doing it by changing who is he, he just seems to be forcing the issue and hitting a lot more of his shots in the paint as he did in the glory days.
Like all Knicks in 2020-21, Rose hit an exorbitant amount of his mid-rangers, knocking down over half of them and was proficient in the long mid-range (a deep two, if you will). This threat from mid-range definitely opens up his inside game, but I can guarantee no fan was surprised when he regressed to a below-average level this past season.
What’s kind of exciting about the fit with Brunson is that he isn’t afraid to snake into the mid-range as well. Jason Kidd gave him the freedom to take any shot he thought he could make and as a smaller guard, a lot of the best shots for him are pull-up middies and high-arcing floaters over big men.
Brunson was unassisted on 63.6 percent of his field goals per NBA.com's stat tracking, higher than D. Rose’s mark, and Jalen is one of the best mid-range scorers in the entire NBA according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s shooting 54 percent from the mid-range, eighth in the league among all guards and just in front of Trae Young and Stephen Curry.
This is on top of the fact that he shoots a cool 37 percent from behind the arc and 68 percent at the rim (what number does that start with?!).
Kidd has referred to him as “The Machine” and I think that’s an apt name, while he is essentially freelancing when he gets out there, attacking off closeouts and finding his own shot, he’s as efficient as they come.
Don’t let his mediocre regular season averages scare you off, either, against the Utah Jazz in the second round, Brunson averaged 27.8 points, including a fat 41-point explosion with several embarrassing clips on what should be defensive studs.
Despite all this, I still worry.
Brunson is an excellent offensive player and the Knicks still have the defensive personnel to paper over his shortcomings on that end (side note: I rarely worry about point guard defence when watching, as long as you’re trying, you’re the least important position out there).
That Dallas offence is just too fruity and explosive, I’m afraid we’re taking it for granted. Being next to Doncic helps, of course, but JB gets to dribble into the paint with excellent shooters on the perimeter like Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, Spencer Dinwiddie and serviceable bigs like Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell.
Compare that to New York right now and I’ll try and keep it to who I think will definitely be there on opening night:
Julius Randle: Maybe he’s a better shooter next to a real point guard like JB, but you’re not going over on screens
RJ Barrett: Okay, I guess it’s real but like, I’d like to see him do it on a cold night at Villa Park
Evan ‘Don’t Google’ Fournier: Washed, mid, fell off, touch grass
Immanuel Quickley: Even if it’s real, he shot under 40 percent from the floor and I don’t know how he’ll mesh next to Brunson (and he looks like Anne Hathaway in The Witches)
I understand that’s not the most hard-hitting analysis, but this isn’t an excellent shooting team, plus after signing a $110 deal, the Knicks only have the taxpayer mid-level exception and a few middling first-rounders to upgrade their roster.
It’s a case of the chicken and the egg. Are these lacklustre shooters a result of playing without a real initiator and shooter thus far? Or are they not shooting well because the floor is too cramped?
If Leon Rose and the Knicks front office believe it’s the second half of that equation, then they’ve done an excellent job at identifying the most available guard creator on the market and going out and getting him.
If Leon Rose wanted to sign the best player he could with the cap space he created, then I guess well done, I hope you eventually figure it out. If the signing fails and it turns out JB couldn’t make the impossible happen, then he’ll just be another name in a long list of failed NYK signings.
However, if Jalen Brunson finds a way to make it all work and start something special in New York, he won’t just be a successful signing, he’ll be a literal god at the Mecca of basketball. And that’s worth the risk.