With Knicks stuck in middle of NBA pack, only path forward is via trade

Oct 21, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) celebrates with New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) after a timeout against Detroit Pistons during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden.
Oct 21, 2022; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley (5) celebrates with New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) after a timeout against Detroit Pistons during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden. / Tom Horak-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic about this Knicks team, you found a few on Sunday night.

New York moved the ball well (30 assists), shot it well (50.6 percent from the floor) and protected it (eight turnovers).

Julius Randle (14 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists) and RJ Barrett (22 points, seven rebounds, four assists) were effective. Jalen Brunson was brilliant (30 points, nine assists).

Brunson couldn’t connect on two potential game-winning shots late in the fourth, but he and the Knicks showed evidence that their best basketball is ahead of them.

The club was fully healthy for the first time this season. Their depth was a strength against the Memphis Grizzlies. They moved well off the ball. And they were a few plays away from a home win against one of the league’s top teams.

Afterward, Brunson was asked to assess the Knicks (9-11) after 20 games.

"We’ve shown we have flashes of greatness in us. And we’ve shown that we’re just one play away," he said. "…. We have a lot of room to continue to get better."

There’s no reason to doubt Brunson. But there’s also a hard truth about this Knicks team after 20 games. Even in the best-case scenario, they’re stuck in a place no NBA team wants to be: the middle of the pack.

New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson celebrates against the Memphis Grizzlies during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden
New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson celebrates against the Memphis Grizzlies during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden / Dennis Schneidler-USA TODAY Sports

They don’t have the cap space to improve the roster in free agency. They probably won’t lose enough to end up with a top pick in the 2023 NBA Draft.

The most realistic path to improvement is still via trade. Leon Rose’s Knicks have – and will continue to – hunt out opportunities to trade for top-end talent. They have a surplus of draft picks and some young players to offer teams. The Knicks have has also taken calls from teams about trades involving Immanuel Quickley and Derrick Rose, evidence that they’re open to more incremental deals.

Will they make a move prior to the February trade deadline, or will they hold off until the 2023 offseason? No matter how they approach it, the Knicks probably know that they can’t stand pat. The roster, as currently constituted, leaves them in the worst possible piece of NBA real estate.

BULLISH ON BRUNSON

Brunson took Sunday’s loss to heart after he missed two shots late in the fourth quarter that could have won the game.

The end result was another home loss, but Brunson’s night was impressive. Before the game, Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins said Brunson has "unlocked a lot of things" for his new team.

"The pace of play, the frequency in transition, the ability to get in the paint at will," said Jenkins, who coached against Brunson regularly when he was on the Dallas Mavericks. "It doesn’t matter if you’ve got strong guys on him, tall guys on him, length on him – he’s just got a unique ability to go left, go right, low center of gravity. He’s got quick shiftiness with the handle in pick and roll, iso situations, he can get to any spot on the floor. Obviously can match that with knocking the ball down from the outside.

"He’s got all these tricks, sweep throughs, pump fakes, he’s gonna keep you off balance. But that just adds another dimension here. Last year, someone told me that this was a team that really wanted to hunt the three-point line. They still can do that with a lot of guys capable of shooting the three, but now they’re thriving in the paint and he’s a big force for that with early attacks in transition, attacking through the 45, pick and roll game. You add that with what (Julius) Randle and (RJ) Barrett can do – it’s pretty lethal offensive weapons."