There have been some missteps. Those are on the record. Kemba Walker was always more of a happily-ever-after shot in the dark than a smart acquisition. Evan Fournier has been hiding in plain sight on the Knicks’ bench for the last two years.
GMs are always forced to own their mistakes more than they’re celebrated for their triumphs. And Leon Rose has allowed himself far more exposure on the former charge than the latter. Whether by his own discretion or by ownership fiat he’s vanished from public sight, a basketball Howard Hughes operating inside a mythical fortress of solitude.
But this is fact:
Mostly, he has been proven right.
He was right to re-sign Julius Randle at relatively team-friendly terms. He was right to grease whatever boulevards needed to be greased to make Jalen Brunson a Knick, and capped that maneuver by getting Brunson’s signature at a bargain rate. He was right about Isaiah Hartenstein, way ahead of the curve identifying his strengths.
He was right about Josh Hart, whose energy is an essential brick in the Knicks’ foundation, right to seek out Donte DiVincenzo who is so much better on both ends of the floor than anyone knew, right to acquire OG Anunoby despite Anunoby’s lingering elbow woes, even right in first identifying Deuce McBride as a player who could mostly replicate Immanuel Quickley, and then locking him up to another smart deal.
He was right to hire, and then to stand by, Tom Thibodeau.
That’s a lot of right.
And the result is a Knicks team that owns the city’s heart right now in a way no Knicks team has since June 1999. The result is a team that is 33-18 and tied for third in the East, sniffing at second, and somehow manages to keep winning on the fly even as key elements of the team wear street clothes.
That’s a lot of goodwill, a lot of credibility, a lot of benefit-of-the-doubt generated. Sometimes he has seemed maddeningly deliberate in his craftsmanship, but that patience has paid dividends. He has been selective. Dejounte Murray is still a Hawk, Jrue Holliday still a Celtic, Donovan Mitchell still a Cav. He could’ve overpaid for all of them, didn’t.
“Sure, sometimes even I think he comes across like a mad scientist,” one longtime NBA executive said Wednesday afternoon. “But you tell me when he shows that he’s heading down the wrong path. I haven’t seen that yet.”
Still, the Knicks feel incomplete, even if they were whole, even if Randle, Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson were healthy, even before we know the status of Brunson or Hart the next few days. We can agree that Rose’s Ruthian swing, the one pursuing an FPP — Final Piece to the Puzzle — is likely to be postponed until summer, and that whatever the Knicks accomplish this spring will go a long way toward clarifying and identifying that target.
But this is no longer strictly a futures game. The Anunoby acquisition — and the resulting surge the Knicks experienced with him — has redefined what this year can be. Rose knows that the whatever the prevailing wisdom was before — mainly, that the fourth seed was the team’s ceiling — the stakes have changed. The Knicks aren’t flirting with the 2 seed out of dumb luck, it’s because when healthy they can look the Bucks and the Cavs in the eye.
And the Celtics? Well, they remain the class of the conference. But as the Knicks saw in Philadelphia with Joel Embiid — and, soberingly, in their own backyard, too — all it takes is one sprained ankle or one banged-up knee to alter the whole constellation. If the Knicks can get healthy by April — big if — the possibilities are endless.
But they need something else. Bruce Brown would be an immediate fit if the Knicks can get him from Toronto. Malcolm Brogdon would provide needed shooting if he could be pried away from the Blazers. But both of those would almost certainly involve one of the Knicks’ future No. 1 picks, assets Rose wants to keep in his arsenal until July.
More and more, the addition that makes the most sense is Kyle Lowry, assuming he makes it to the other side of the deadline Thursday without getting traded away by the Hornets and decides to work out a buyout with Charlotte instead. It was 11 years ago when the Knicks came awfully close to acquiring Lowry from Toronto. He profiled as a growth stock then, and that’s what happened: perennial All-Star, NBA champion and last year a key element on an NBA Finalist in Miami.
He is near the end of his shelf life. But in so many ways he is exactly what the Knicks crave: big-game experience, a fearless shooter, someone who can responsibly spell Brunson for eight-10 minutes a game without the Knicks’ offense suffering a nervous breakdown. Also, he is product of the Jay Wright Villanova Pipeline, so he already knows the secret handshake.
If there really is big game to be hunted, that will have to wait until summer. But if the key is to maximize the ’24 Knicks before turning his attention toward ’25, Leon Rose needs to maintain his DiMaggio-esque streak.