The New York Knicks Finally Have All the Pieces to Win

Detroit Pistons v Brooklyn Nets

Photo: David L. Nemec/NBAE/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Knicks made it official: They announced their acquisition of Mikal Bridges, the Brooklyn Nets swingman and yet another former Villanova Wildcat to join the Nova Knicks crew of Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, and Josh Hart. The details of this trade have altered several times since ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski initially reported it a while back — wait, Keita Bates-Diop is involved? Who knew someone named Mamadi Diakite was even on the Knicks? — which serves as a good reminder that a transaction is not final until a team actually finalizes it, Woj-Shams NBA scoop-industrial complex be damned. But the deal is finally done. So what comes next?

Make no mistake: This is the big move the Knicks and team president Leon Rose have been building toward since he took over in March 2020, just before the pandemic hit. The most impressive part of the Knicks’ turnaround over those four-plus years is how patient they’ve been — a very out-of-character trait for this franchise. They have held onto their draft picks and have been aggressive about acquiring other teams’. They have valued young players. They have resisted going after the veteran big names they always fell prey to in the past, restraining an itchy trigger finger that led them to Eddy Curry or Jerome James or, God forbid, whatever this was:

That this photo, taken eight years ago, feels like such ancient history speaks to what Rose and his front office have been able to accomplish since taking over. The Knicks were an OG Anunoby injury away from making the Eastern Conference Finals last year, and now they’ve added Bridges, who fits the team so perfectly it’s a little surprising he wasn’t already a Knick. Rose & Co. have been strategic and prudent, but they have also been lucky: No one, perhaps not even Brunson himself, thought he’d turn into the all-NBA player he has become since the Knicks signed him away from the Mavericks. (It also helps that owner Jim Dolan has clearly been distracted by his Sphere investment in Vegas; former Knicks GM Donnie Walsh should have been so fortunate to have Dolan living out his opening-for-the-Eagles fantasies ten years ago.)

Brunson’s ascendance opened the door for Rose to maneuver in a way he likely hadn’t been expecting to be. The plan, in many ways, was to wait: Build up assets and salary-cap space and be ready to attack when a superstar — Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, maybe even Giannis Antetokounmpo — became frustrated with his current team and defected to the Garden. But as it became clear that such a superstar wasn’t going to become available ( largely because of new NBA cap rules that discourage high-profile defections), Rose pivoted to a profoundly un-Knicks position: He decided to trust the team he had. So all those assets he compiled, potentially as bargaining chips for a Doncic or Giannis, were instead shipped to Brooklyn for Bridges, a player brought in specifically for his potential to mesh with the current roster. (Bridges is a terrific player, sure, but also one who has never made an All-Star team.) The last of the five Knicks first-round draft picks they sent to Brooklyn will change hands in 2031, when my 12-year-old son will be a sophomore in college. So all the Knicks’ front-office chess moves, all the work the players have put in, all the fan excitement, all that patience — it was all building toward this. This is the Knicks pushing their chips forward.

Will it all be worth it?

Obviously, the Knicks are in a better place than they were when Phil Jackson was standing on a dais with Joakim Noah, or when Isiah Thomas was in charge, or when Zach Randolph put together the worst possession in NBA history. Seriously, it is absolutely astounding basketball once looked like this:

And the Knicks will be better than last year, even without center Isaiah Hartenstein, who left for Oklahoma City in free agency. Bridges really is the perfect fit, a terrific wing defender and reliable scorer as well as a player who obviously knows Brunson, Hart, and DiVincenzo and shouldn’t require much of a transition at all. Factor in the return of Anunoby and the forever-underappreciated Julius Randle, two players who dominated when they were on the floor together last year, and you have the most complete Knicks team since the Patrick Ewing–Pat Riley squads of the ’90s. Depending on your thoughts about the 76ers’ addition of Paul George, New York might be the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Celtics. This is going to be very fun.

The question, though, is whether it’s going to be enough. Which brings us to the only thing that really matters: Can these Knicks win a championship?

I’ve long thought that the Knicks winning an NBA title would be one of those transcendent sports stories that crosses over to the general public in a way the Cubs and Red Sox winning the World Series did, in a way that the Bills or Browns winning the Super Bowl would. The Knicks are one of the most valuable, beloved franchises in the world, and the one, among those franchises (the Yankees, the Lakers, the Cowboys, Real Madrid, so on), that has gone the longest without winning a championship. If they did it after a 50-plus-year drought, it would be an earthquake of joy: It would be something that the NBA would dine out on for years.

And as nice as it has been to not feel embarrassed to be a Knicks fan lately, that is always supposed to be the goal for the Knicks: win a title. That’s why Rose felt comfortable being so patient: He understood, like few before him had, that Knicks fans would go along with him as long as they trusted it was all building up to something big. That’s why he was waiting for Giannis and Luka and Embiid. He wasn’t going to get those guys, alas, and he pivoted at the right time. But now the Knicks’ cards are on the table. This is the team; there is no more building for the future. Now we see if it works.

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