Examining Leon Rose’s off-season work to improve Knicks roster

The heavy lifting seems to be over. The Knicks’ offseason looks more or less settled following the signings of Jalen Brunson and Isaiah Hartenstein — and the re-signing of Mitchell Robinson — leaving them with only the exception for mid-level $5.2 rooms.

Zach Braziller of the Post shares five thoughts on President Leon Rose’s work up to this point:

Incremental progress made

The Knicks are better, but how much better? They filled their most pressing needs at point guard (Brunson) and added some versatility up front (Hartenstein), but that won’t get them into serious arguments. If all goes well — if Brunson and franchise cornerstone RJ Barrett make strides forward as stars, if the enigmatic Julius Randle rediscovers his 2020-21 form, if Hartenstein explodes with more opportunities, if the roleplayers behind them excel — is this is still a team that does not belong to the elite of the Eastern Conference. The loaded Celtics, Heat, 76ers and Bucks remain the teams to beat in the East. The Hawks, who are following Dejounte Murray’s trade, and the improving Cavaliers are both better on paper. And the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes could throw someone else into the upper tier mix, like the Raptors. Make no mistake, the Knicks should be more competitive. A place in the play-in round is very realistic. But anything beyond the seven seeds would be stunning for this squad as it currently stands.

Jalen Brunson
Jalen Brunson
NBAE via Getty Images
Isaiah Hartenstein
Isaiah Hartenstein
Getty Images

The Randle riddle

Two years after being one of the NBA’s best players, Randle is being asked to make major adjustments. He will play the ball less, which could limit his production. A playmaker like Brunson could relieve Randle, but it will also mean a new way of playing for the ailing forward, used to creating, albeit with a high turnover rate. There’s also the question of distance as Brunson, Randle and Barrett all excel below the 3-point line and non-shooting center Mitchell Robinson also plugs the paint.

shooting questions

The Knicks traded their top 3-point shooter percentage to Alec Burks to make enough room for the salary cap to land Brunson, and this is a team that finished 13th in the league in 3- Points Shoot Percentage Occupied. Brunson, a career 37.3 percent shooter who can create candid looks for his teammates, obviously helps. But the Knicks will need more from youngsters Quentin Grimes and Cam Reddish, assuming Reddish stays with the team, and they should be given more chances to perform. Immanuel Quickley, who is expected to play mostly off-ball next year, saw his shooting rate drop from 38.9 percent to 34.6 percent. So an improvement from him is not a crazy question. It may be a necessity for the Knicks.

Brunson was the right decision

I’ve noticed a lot of criticism of this move, that the Knicks overpay for a good — but not great — player. That Brunson, who agreed to a four-year, $104 million deal Thursday night, doesn’t make her a title contender. That he’s not a top five point guard in the league. I’m not here to disagree with any of these ideas. But he makes this team better. He probably jumps them into the play-in tournament. There’s this notion that if the Knicks don’t add a superstar, what’s the point? Well, unless you’ve been in a coma for years, you understand that the NBA is run by stars. They choose where to play, regardless of their contract status. I think Barrett can be #2 on a title contender and Brunson can be #3. The way to land a number 1 is to make yourself more attractive, create a winning culture, and you do that by adding good players. This is Jalen Brunson. He does the curtsies better. Perhaps his breakthrough postseason, in which he averaged 21.6 points in 18 games, was a sign a young player is ready to really show up. Either way, ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy told me, “He’s a big player in the NBA.” The Knicks need as many of these guys as possible.

Two trains left

The Knicks could use another wing after dumping Burks, and Barrett is now eligible for a rookie-max contract. That’s the activity I can see to end the off-season. Players in Barrett’s class — Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and Darius Garland — have reportedly agreed to Rookie Max expansions. The ever-improving Barrett could get a deal worth as much as $185 million over five years. As for wing position, the Knicks have Barrett, Reddish and little else at the moment. A veteran is required. Injury-plagued goalscorer TJ Warren, one of the top non-signed players in the free-agent market who appeared in just four games for the Pacers last year with a stress fracture in his left foot, could be a worthwhile gamble.