Five teams have traded for All-Stars since the beginning of the 2022 offseason: the Atlanta Hawks (Dejounte Murray), Minnesota Timberwolves (Rudy Gobert), Cleveland Cavaliers (Donovan Mitchell), Dallas Mavericks (Kyrie Irving) and Phoenix Suns (Kevin Durant). What do those five teams have in common? Since Dec. 4, all of them have been worse than the New York Knicks.
OK, that might be a bit unfair. Durant has only played three games in Phoenix, after all. But since that mythical date when the Knicks shortened their rotation to nine and committed to their young players, New York has been among the best teams in the NBA. Only the Nuggets, Bucks and 76ers have won more games. Only Denver has a better net rating. The Knicks have the NBA's third-best offense and eighth-best defense since that date.
You've surely heard this story before. After all, weren't we here just two years ago, when a surprising Knicks team earned the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference only to get unceremoniously eliminated in the first round before fading back into the lottery? Well, yeah, but this team doesn't have much in common with this one.
The 2021 team won largely through a smoke-and-mirrors defense that ranked fourth in the NBA, but did so on the strength of unsustainable shooting luck. Knicks opponents shot just 34.7% on wide-open 3-pointers that season, the second-lowest figure in the league. This season, they're at 37.6%, which is tied for ninth and largely in line with the league average.
Speaking of unsustainable shooting, much of their 2021 success offensively relied on Julius Randle making jumpers that, to that point in his career, he'd never made. Randle hit 171 mid-range shots that season. In his entire career prior, he'd made 178 in total. The same trend played out in his 3-point shooting: 160 makes on 41.1% shooting in his Most Improved Player season, 168 makes on 29.5% in his entire career beforehand.
Randle is down to more reasonable percentages on his jumper this season, but more importantly, he's relying on better shots. He's cut his mid-range attempts in more than half from 5.8 per game to 2.6 this season, and in exchange, he's added three 3-pointers. Only 16.2% of his shots came within three feet of the rim in 2021. He's up to 21.6% this season. Randle is making better decisions with the ball, and that's not just limited to the shots he's taking. He's also down to just 3.9 turnovers per 100 possessions, the lowest figure he's posted since the 2015-16 season, which was his de-facto rookie year.
Of course, it helps that the entire playmaking burden isn't falling on his shoulders this season. Good shots are easier to come by with Jalen Brunson in town. Since Dec. 4, Brunson has looked like the star the Knicks keep failing to trade for. His numbers since Dec. 4 compare quite favorably to Mitchell's in the same time period.
|Jalen Brunson||Donovan Mitchell|
Points per game
Assists per game
Field goal %
This is perhaps the biggest difference between the 2021 and 2023 Knicks. Without Brunson, the 2021 Knicks largely lost the minutes their starters played. Randle, Reggie Bullock, R.J. Barrett, Elfrid Payton and Nerlens Noel was New York's most-used lineup that season at 554 total minutes… and it was outscored by 4.6 points per 100 possessions. Swap in Mitchell Robinson for Noel and the net rating improves to a pedestrian plus-1.9. Their next three most-used lineups, all built around bench sensation Derrick Rose, outscored opponents by at least 14.4 points per 100 possessions. The 2021 Knicks won games with their bench.
But the 2023 team? They win with their starters. Their most-used lineup of Randle, Brunson, Barrett, Robinson and Quentin Grimes outscores opponents by 8.6 points per 100 possessions. Swap Sixth Man of the Year favorite Immanuel Quickley in for Barrett and that figure drops to just plus-7.2. This approach is inherently more sustainable. The former relies on beating the opponent's worst players. The latter demands excellence out of your best players. Those players have delivered.
And for the most part, those players are quite young. Their 10 most-used players are all 28 or younger, and aside from Randle and Brunson (as well as deadline acquisition Josh Hart, who hasn't been around long enough to hit the threshold), they're all 24 or younger. Add all of this together and the Knicks not only have a winner that appears sustainable, but assuming they keep it together, is probably going to get better in the coming years.
Of course, we know that the goal is explicitly not to keep it together, which is why we opened this story with a comparison to the teams that recently traded for stars. That is exactly what the Knicks are currently built to do. New York has 10 first-round picks at its disposal. While many of their veterans have fallen out of the rotation, they still have mid-sized contracts with valuable team options on players like Rose and Evan Fournier to easily match dollars in a trade. When the right deal presents itself, the Knicks will pounce.
But that "right deal" qualifier is critical here. Teams like Minnesota and Atlanta rushed into the first star deals they could find last summer. How's that working out for them? The Knicks were discerning, drawing a line in the sand when it came to the price they were willing to pay for Mitchell. Plenty of people criticized them for that (myself included!), but their faith in the current roster has been rewarded. The Knicks might not have a championship team yet, but they have a very, very good one, and when their inevitable pursuit of that ideal superstar resumes this offseason, they're going to have to ask themselves which players are really worth breaking that team up for.
Take the two most rumored superstars of the past decade to not be traded. Two years ago, the Knicks would've sold the farm for Damian Lillard or Bradley Beal. At this point in their trajectory, it makes absolutely no sense to surrender significant value for a player as old as Lillard or as injury-prone as Beal. At this stage, Brunson may be better than Beal, and assuming the typical age curve holds, he might be better than Lillard before long. Pairing either with Brunson would be an odd choice as well. Mitchell is young enough and athletic enough to grow into a strong defender. That ship has sailed for Beal and Lillard. Quickley and Grimes are inferior players, but far more complementary ones.
The other variable we need to account for here is why the Knicks were so dead-set on limiting the price in a hypothetical Mitchell trade. By all accounts, they wanted to preserve the assets to trade for a second star. Well, here's the rub: if Brunson and Randle are already either All-Star-caliber players or something relatively close, do you really need to trade for two? Would it not make more sense to go all in for the first player if that player is the right player?
Who would that right player even be? There are a number of viable answers. An upgrade on the Barrett slot, given his inconsistency and the general importance of wings, would probably be ideal. Of course, star-caliber wings are rare and even the few who exist probably aren't getting traded any time soon. Maybe the Clippers break up if they have another disappointing postseason. Maybe Jaylen Brown has a wandering eye with free agency looming in 2024. These are possibilities, but remote ones. If the Knicks want this sort of player, they probably have to land the non-star version and hope for development in their infrastructure as Brooklyn has experienced with Mikal Bridges. The Knicks explored O.G. Anunoby at the deadline likely hoping for similar growth.
And then there are the players that transcend fit, those that are so good and so young that teams should be willing to fundamentally reorient themselves should they become available through trade. The Knicks probably don't need another high-usage ball-handler, but if the Kyrie Irving situation combusts in Dallas, they'd drop everything to reunite Brunson with Luka Doncic. If James Harden leaves Philadelphia and (CAA client!) Joel Embiid gets antsy, the Knicks would take the same approach. Who cares if Embiid is an iffy fit with Randle and a bad one with Robinson? It's Joel freaking Embiid.
These players almost never hit the market. When they do, the entire league takes notice. That's especially relevant now, as the teams who traded away such players several years ago begin to mature into buyers on the star trade market. As many assets as the Knicks have accumulated, they simply cannot win a bidding war against Oklahoma City or Houston. Players of that caliber dictate their destination more often than not, but we've seen teams take franchise-altering risks on great enough talent. Toronto won a championship doing it on Kawhi Leonard.
If all of this sounds confusing, well, that's modern roster-building. There aren't easy answers, and for all of the deserved flak Atlanta and Minnesota have gotten for making the wrong deals, Cleveland and Phoenix deserve credit for making deals that, for now, appear to have been the right ones. Trading for stars is an inherently risky proposition.
But it's probably worth noting that Phoenix made the Finals two years ago and Cleveland was already being hailed as perhaps the NBA's best young team. Acquiring and integrating stars, whether they're the right or the wrong ones, becomes significantly easier once you've established a winning foundation.
The Knicks have done that. This team isn't the flash in the pan that 2021 was, nor is it such a fixer-upper that the entire thing needs to eventually be torn down to accommodate two external stars. It's a sustainable winner that should be both proactive and picky as it seeks to make the leap from good to great. As difficult as that jump is, it's much shorter than the ones some of the less successful blockbuster traders in recent memory have taken, and far more realistic than the aspirational leaps the Knicks have tried in the past.