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For Once, The Knicks Can Avoid An Offseason Existential Crisis

Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart look up during the Knicks' Game 7 loss to the Pacers
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Back in December, Las Vegas Aces coach Becky Hammon appeared on an ESPN basketball shouting program to make a deflating but honest claim about the Knicks: A small guard like Jalen Brunson could not be the best player on a championship team. Hammon later doubled down on that claim with a respectful and lightly deep-fried JPEG. Seeing as how the only contemporary exception to her claim was Steph Curry, the best shooter who ever lived, the history of the NBA was broadly on her side. It's not a knock on Brunson—just a pragmatic view of how hard it is for a player without physical advantages to find reliable offense against postseason defenses that are competing harder and scheming more deliberately. At the time, I agreed with Hammon. I loved this thumb-shaped demigod, but I didn't think he could carry this team all the way.

How quickly I changed my mind. A few days after Hammon's remarks, the Knicks completed a long-rumored trade to pick up big wing OG Anunoby from the Toronto Raptors. From the jump, his presence gave the team a spooky internal coherence. I'd underestimated Anunoby before watching that imposing wingspan and brawn on a nightly basis. Then I noticed just how many teammates' mistakes he could offset with an outstretched hand of the mere threat of muscle, the variety of opposing first-options he can snuff out by himself, the unglamorous utility of his corner threes and athletic finishing.

With him, the Knicks' identity was clear: viscous sludge on both sides of the ball. That's how head coach Tom Thibodeau liked it. Kick off every possession with a drive by Brunson or Julius Randle, ceaselessly hump the offensive glass, don't turn the ball over with too much of that "passing" nonsense, and scrap everything out on defense. They spent January putting together a 14-2 record. In that span, the Knicks beat the Sixers, who they would eliminate in the first round of the playoffs; they blew out both the Timberwolves and Nuggets, who just spent seven games demonstrating that they're the most dangerous teams in the West. With a little more time, why couldn't the Knicks be a contender with Brunson as its best player?

Brunson can be the Knicks' best player, but as they slowly proved over their now-concluded postseason, he could not be the only healthy player. The attrition began at the end of January, with Randle's season-ending shoulder injury. As reviled as Randle has been at times in his Knicks tenure—slumpy, sour, overwhelmed—he is still a sledgehammer who can crack a defense and create a solid look for the team. Randle's minutes could be staggered to get Brunson some rest, but he'd also done an admirable job of fitting alongside a fellow lefty who likes to inhabit similar regions of the floor. Brunson feasted on catch-and-shoot threes off the Randle drive-and-kick; those easy looks were about to dry up.

But Brunson just kept scoring in his ground-bound and guileful way. He didn't need size, speed, or even another offensive creator to get his—just a shoulder bump, sudden pivot, and a decent dose of free-throw grifting. He got some help from Hartenstein's rim protection and playmaking, Josh Hart's brash rebounding, and Donte DiVincenzo's volume threes, and the team survived. These Knicks did not meet all aesthetic needs—I am guilty of enjoying ball movement—but it did meet the spiritual ones. There's something gruesomely captivating about seeing Thibodeau distill his basketball philosophy into its purest and most potent form yet. He was rewarded with a top-10 offense and defense, the slowest pace in the NBA, and the two-seed in the East.

After the Knicks won their first-round series against the Sixers, they lost defensive anchor Mitchell Robinson and sixth man Bojan Bogdanovic to season-ending foot injuries. Beating the Pacers in the second round was doable, but the team's real postseason hopes dissipated with OG Anunoby's hamstring injury in Game 2. The final injury report of the Knicks season, fittingly, was pure carnage. Hart picked up an abdominal strain in Game 6, bad enough that it hurt to cough and breathe. Because it was Game 7, he started anyway. So too did Anunoby, gritting through his first minutes since his hamstring injury, even though he could not actually run or jump. He showed up with strapped-up left leg and sank both of his shot attempts in five minutes of play before he was benched.

"I didn’t feel like he was moving well. It didn’t make sense," said Thibodeau, a coach not particularly known for his mercy. The Pacers met little resistance and ran up the score. The Knicks briefly threatened to make a game of it, but the Pacers squashed them again. By the time Brunson fractured his hand in the third quarter, it almost arrived as a relief. This team of zombies could finally rest.

It's the season for spiraling overreaction among all freshly wounded fanbases, but in this rare instance for the Knicks, the future is encouraging and the questions are all pretty measured in tenor. Can Thibodeau, up for a contract extension, manage minutes wisely enough to preserve the health of his team beyond the second round? While I'd defend most of his personnel decisions in this postseason, the man is 66 and not exactly the verge of any life-changing breakthroughs.

Just as Brunson is the Knicks' first competent starting point guard in my adult life, so too is this the first competent front office. There's peace in knowing that team architect and productive nepotist Leon Rose won't be tempted by a dumb quick fix. Can Randle be shipped off for something shinier at the wing, maybe Paul George or Lauri Markkanen? The standard for any upgrade should be set about that high. Can the team keep Hartenstein, fresh off a career year and certainly about to see some contracts sweeter than what the Knicks can offer? That could get tricky.

But there's nothing urgent on the horizon. Enough pieces are in place that the Knicks almost made the conference finals while missing three starters. Brunson met nearly every challenge set out for him this season, up until the point when he could not physically dribble anymore with his dominant hand. As deluded as it might seem to base a team-building vision on a single month of strong play, it's hard to forget how good this roster looked when intact. As the Knicks sink into their offseason, there should be no bug-eyed proclamations about star trades, or embarrassing rejections in free agency. For once, it'd be just fine to stay the course.

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