NBA

For Leon Rose, judgment day may be near

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Since 1973, each generation of Knicks fans has warned the next to become jaded. It’s hard not to when the incompetent eras of Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson were only six years apart. When Leon Rose took over the Knicks’ front office as president of basketball operations in 2020, the Knicks had just survived the reign of Steve Mills. Rose started this offseason hotter than his last two, signing Jalen Brunson and Isiah Hartenstein and trading older veterans. Of course, the potential Donovan Mitchell trade will ultimately be the barometer of Rose’s performance this summer. Will he get ripped off, like so many Knicks executives have in the past? Will he hold on and get Jazz president Danny Ainge to give in to his wishes? It seems like a big task. Is Rose up to the challenge?

To understand where the Knicks are going, let’s retrace where they’ve been. Mills was the perfect example of basketball leadership since James Dolan received the franchise from his father in 1999. Mills had held various leadership positions with the Knicks for nearly 20 years. The only time the team was successful was when he left for a spell in 2010-2013. The Knicks made the playoffs three times during that streak. After the disastrous Jackson Era, Dolan elevated Mills to the top job, putting him in charge of all basketball decisions.

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What followed was a three-year succession of overpaid free agents, failed vets, young busts and some of the worst losing seasons in franchise history (65 losses in the 2018-19 season) . When Rose was hired after Dolan fired Mills, there was little room for hope. Rose had spent the past 20 years as a players’ agent, representing some of the best players of the modern era: LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Chris Paul. Ironically, he was James’ agent during “The Decision,” the first time Knicks fans thought they had a chance at LeBron.

This summer is Rose’s third off-season at the helm. His moves so far have been calculated and underwhelming. He brought in veterans to foster culture and accountability: Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Alec Burks. He also worked with general manager Scott Perry and executive vice president William “World Wide Wes” Wesley to build a young core through the draft: Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes.

This method of team-building led to two very different seasons. The Knicks shocked everyone in 2020-21 by making the playoffs, earning the fourth seed in the East. We saw Julius Randle win Most Improved Player and head coach Tom Thibodeau win Coach of the Year. The following season, reality collapses. The team missed the playoffs, winning just 37 games while failing to translate new additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker to wins.

The wild ups and downs left fans wondering what was going on. At times, it’s been hard to decipher Rose’s master plan. Does the Knicks’ young core have a bona fide first option? Will Obi Toppin ever start, or will he forever be buried behind the disgruntled Julius Randle? Speaking of Randle, the disgruntled forward has gone from being the pride of New York to the number one enemy of Knicks fans. Rose’s refusal to regularly speak to fans or the media forces the fanbase to come to a conclusion. What are fans supposed to think of the plan with Randle still on the roster and the Knicks back in the lottery?

This offseason, Rose made the strongest swings of his short career. First, he traded the 11th pick in this year’s draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder for three protected picks in 2023. That potentially gives the Knicks five first-round picks in next year’s draft. Picks have the following protections:

  • 2023 first-round pick via Detroit (protected 1-18 until 2024, protected 1-13 in 2025, protected 1-11 in 2026, protected 1-9 in 2027)
  • 2023 first-round pick via Washington (protected 1-14 in 2023, protected 1-12 in 2024, protected 1-10 in 2025, protected 1-8 in 2026)
  • 2023 first-round pick via Denver (protected 1-14 through 2025)
  • 2023 first-round pick via Dallas (protected 1-10 in 2023)
  • 2025 first-round pick via Milwaukee (protected 1-4 in 2025)

Days before the Free Agency, the Knicks completed a trade to dump enough salary to offer freelance point guard Brunson a hefty contract. Brunson agreed, with perhaps some manipulation between two sets of fathers and sons. (Jalen’s father, Rick, is an assistant coach with the Knicks while Rose’s son, Sam, is Jalen’s day-to-day agent with CAA) The signing gave the Knicks their best point guard since Stephon Marbury.

They also signed free agent center Hartenstein, who brings elite passing, defense and shot blocking to the backup center position behind newly resigned starter Mitchell Robinson. This flurry of moves has solidified the starting lineup for next season. Additionally, Thibodeau can give Brunson the keys to leading the offense, allowing the Knicks to finally play a functional offense instead of Randle playing forward. Brunson’s contract could have been an overpayment of three to four million a year, but the Knicks had to pay a premium to fix their 20-year positional problem.

So what’s the plan? Rose is building a team with two talented starting lineups. With Brunson, RJ Barrett, Fournier, Randle and Robinson, he now has an above average player in every position. Its young core is full of promise and maybe an All-Star or two in Barrett and Toppin. Re-signing Robinson breaks the ‘Charlie Ward’ curse – the Knicks hadn’t extended any of their rookies since Ward in 1994. The roster is balanced with guys who play both sides of the court, like to hustle and integrate into the culture built by Rose and Thibodeau, two longtime friends and colleagues. Rose was Thibodeau’s agent for many years and the first major move with the Knicks.

Rose has amassed a collection of young players with upsides, including Cam Reddish, Jericho Sims and Miles McBride, on valuable and highly marketable deals. That doesn’t mean he’s planning on trading any soon. He mostly kept the young core in place. The remaining question mark is Randle, whom fans desperately want out of New York. His disgusting attitude towards the team and the fans fractured the former All-NBA forward with the team’s die-hard supporters. Rose must decide whether to build around Randle or Toppin. The majority of the fan base overwhelmingly agrees that it should be Toppin who stays.

Fans last season screamed on all platforms for Thibodeau to play the kids. Rose knows her head coach as well as anyone. He knew the only way to do that would be to trade the coach’s prized veterans. Now that Noel, Burks and Kemba Walker are gone, Thibodeau has no choice but to play kid, as only veterans Rose, Randle and Fournier remain on the books. Gibson should not be held back.

Dropping the vets shows that Rose is quietly listening to the fans or at least on the same page with them / Randle is not the player to lead you to the promised land, this summer Rose has signaled that he pivots to building around Barrett’s timeline. Randle is 27 years old. The oldest young baseman is Toppin at 24. Solving the two-decade point guard chasm was great. Deciding which power forward to build on is Rose’s next big decision.

Burks was the Knicks’ leading three-point shooter last year at 0.404%. The team will need Grimes, a second-year winger, to take over if he moves to the starting unit to provide more defense than Fournier. They will also need better shooting performance from their top dogs, Randle and Barrett, who both regressed in that area last season. But the Knicks have become younger and more dynamic this summer.

So far, Rose has been committed to the kids and solving the point guard problem. He’s also racked up 16 picks in the next four drafts. All of this was accomplished through shrewd maneuvering and trading, with patience until the end of the game. So what’s next?

Now may be the time to finally bring in a superstar, something the team has been missing since Patrick Ewing. We are talking about a good first option in a championship team. Not what we got from Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony or even Randle two seasons ago. To do so, he will likely need to sign and trade pieces of his young seed and project capital.

For the first time in decades, the Knicks have what it takes to complete a home run exchange. This summer (and possibly in the regular season), Rose’s most important task is deciding if Donovan Mitchell is the right target and how much of their assets to invest in the deal. Everyone has their own opinion on what Mitchell is worth, but the opinions of fans and ESPN talking heads are irrelevant. It basically comes down to two guys: Rose and Ainge. Ainge has proven itself in this type of agreement; Pink no.

At the very least, Leon Rose has put the Knicks in position to make a splash. When he arrived at MSG, the Knicks had RJ and a whole lot of nothing. Unlike his predecessors, Rose hasn’t put all of his chips into free agency, trades or the draft… at least not yet. But the time to stand up or shut up is probably fast approaching. Is Rose the man for this job? Knicks fans are eagerly awaiting the answer.

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