Knicks’ bet pays off: Built to win now, with flexibility to chase additional stars

The summer of 2020 was a contentious one for the New York Knicks. It was team president Leon Rose’s first offseason with the team — and, as a former agent, his first working in any front office — and two of his initial hires were clashing.

In one corner was Brock Aller, a former Cleveland Cavaliers cap expert who Rose had named vice president of basketball and strategic planning. Aller believed the best path forward for the Knicks, a team coming off a last-place season, would be tearing the whole thing down.

In the other corner was recently-hired head coach Tom Thibodeau, a former client of Rose’s. Thibodeau found even the idea of tanking to be offensive.

Meetings featuring Aller and Thibodeau often grew contentious. Thibodeau pushed Rose to pursue win-now veterans. Aller implored Rose to trade veterans for picks. (I originally reported these details in March 2021 for the New York Post.)

Rose took it all in, but never chose a single direction. He instead bet that the Knicks’ best path forward was by doing both, and that he could satisfy both camps. The Knicks didn’t tank, but didn’t sell out to chase immediate wins, either. They signed and traded for in-their-prime veterans. They took advantage of opportunities to add picks, especially on draft nights.

There were bumps along the way. The team won just 37 games in Thibodeau’s second season. Signing Evan Fournier to a three-year deal turned out to be a mistake. So was bringing in Kemba Walker. The Knicks were so bad at the beginning of last season that, as was previously reported by FOX Sports, Thibodeau believed he was on the verge of being fired.

But the Knicks were able to turn things around, winning their first playoff series since 2013, and this season, they came out even stronger. 

Jalen Brunson emerged as a borderline MVP candidate, with the rest of the roster absorbing Thibodeau’s hard-nose, no-quit, relentless mentality. Meanwhile, Rose’s group continued working the phones, dangling all those picks and young players they’d stockpiled. 

In late December, they traded two of them — RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley — for OG Anunoby. And in the lead-up to the NBA’s trade deadline Thursday, they turned Quentin Grimes and some second-round picks into Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovic, the latter of whom was the best player to be moved during a plethora of pre-deadline deals. 

The Knicks now enter this stretch just a game out of second place in the Eastern Conference, with a pair of All-Stars in Brunson and Julius Randle, and a roster that, when healthy (more on that in a bit), now runs nine, maybe even 10 deep. 

[2024 NBA trade grades: Knicks go all-in, Lakers stand pat]

They also have nine first-round picks they can trade in the offseason and, with Bogdanovic and his partially guaranteed $19 million expiring salary for next season, a contract tailor-made for a salary match in a potential deal for stars. 

We can now say Rose’s bet has paid off. The rebuild is complete. The roster is full of players outperforming their contracts — players such as Isaiah Hartenstein, Donte DiVincenzo, and, of course, Brunson, the rare All-NBA-level player not making max money — and who not only have bought into Thibodeau’s maniacal style but seem to embrace it. The cupboard is full of first-round picks. 

Forget about having your cake and eating it, too. The Knicks have their cake — and still have plenty left over to deal for more cake. 

The Knicks’ future is looking so bright that even the team’s announcement that Anunoby, who has missed six consecutive games, had undergone surgery this week to remove a bone fragment in his right elbow, couldn’t damper the mood around the team. Anunoby will miss a minimum of three weeks. He’ll join Randle, who has missed five games with a dislocated shoulder, on the sideline.

But the addition of Bogdanovic and Burks should give the Knicks, who are 16-4 since the Anunoby deal, more than enough talent to get through this stretch. And more importantly: When Anunoby and Randle do return, the Knicks will now boast one of the NBA’s deepest, most versatile rotations. 

“We like the experience those guys bring to the team, we like the way they complement both our starters, and our second unit,” Thibodeau told reporters Thursday before the Knicks’ shorthanded-loss to the Mavericks on Thursday night. “We think they’re interchangeable, they play multiple positions.”

Bogdanovic, in particular, is going to give the Knicks some much-needed help on offense. He can space the floor but also attack close-outs off the bounce and run pick-and-rolls. The 34-year-old veteran wing is a 20-point-per-game scorer who’s drilled 41.5% of his deep looks this season, while launching more than seven per game. And while he’s a poor defender, his 6-foot-7 frame keeps him from being a total liability on that end. 

His presence will allow Thibodeau to tinker with all sorts of different lineups. Anunoby is a shutdown corner and maybe the league’s best 3-and-D wing. Josh Hart — last year’s prized deadline acquisition — is a burst of energy. DiVincenzo is a knockdown shooter who works on defense and is an ace at disrupting passing lanes. 

Thibodeau can go big, he can go small. He can prioritize offense, he can prioritize defense. Depending on how certain groupings click, he might be able to find lineups that do it all. 

“Leon and his staff did a great job of looking at all the opportunities,” Thibodeau said.

With the Joel Embiid injury seemingly knocking the Sixers out of the top half of the bracket, the Knicks, at 33-19 and winning games even with players hurt, appear to be locked into a top-four seed. If they can climb up to No. 2, they’d get to play a play-in team in the first round and would likely avoid the Boston Celtics in the second round. In other words: A conference finals trip is now in play. And this team might be good enough for more. 

And if things don’t work out come playoff time, the Knicks will be at the front of the line for whatever stars shake loose. They’re a good team now, and built to add in the future as well. 

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports and the author of Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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