For as much as the New York Knicks remain steeped in uncertainty, both now and over the long term, they have finally found a stabilizing force to ferry them through whatever unknowns still await.
The Knicks' steadying lifeline just so happens to be the "non-star" they "overpaid" during the 2022 offseason and had zero business signing—a career sidekick unfit to shoulder the usage of an offensive hub without a superior safety net alongside him.
The man is Jalen Brunson.
The 26-year-old has spent most of this season overturning first impressions and exposing misconceptions. His latest shoutout-to-the-haters masterpiece: a 30-point, seven-assist surgical takedown of the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, replete with a win-wrapping three that sent Alex Caruso to the floor...
...and left us with a screenshot worth meme-oralizing:
Mind you, Brunson entered Wednesday night as questionable to play with a foot contusion. He ended by validating, yet again, the money ($104 million) and lengths (trades, tampering charges) New York traveled to get him.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have now rattled off five straight victories, their longest winning streak of the Tom Thibodeau era and, well, basically the last decade:
This run by New York features a bunch of different exclamation points, many of them experimental and, therefore, cathartic. Some even predate the winning streak, stretching all the way back to when yours truly made a plea for the Knicks to fire Thibodeau.
Julius Randle has been on a (predominantly early-game) offensive heater. RJ Barrett is hitting threes (37.9 percent during the winning streak). Quentin Grimes is starting—and defending his ass off.
Deuce McBride and Immanuel Quickley are getting real, live, actual backcourt minutes together. And New York is annihilating opponents when they team up with Grimes.
Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose aren't playing. Cam Reddish isn't, either. Which is weird when you consider Obi Toppin's right knee injury means there's one more vacant rotation spot floating around.
I don't know how to feel about the Isaiah Hartenstein-Jericho Sims frontcourt the Knicks are trotting out. Then again, anything remotely experimental from Thibs is a bold-text W. And he is seemingly resisting some of his most damning impulses—mainly leaning on veterans who don't help the Knicks win over youngsters who are actually good.
If he ever tables the urge to empower and allow hourslong Julius Randle iso possessions, then hot damn, I might just have to issue a full-fledged retraction of my early-November ethering.
New York's winning streak has also featured #TheReturn of its opposing-offense-frying defensive identity. And really, this is a reemergence weeks in the making. The Knicks are eighth in points allowed per possession since Nov. 15 and have the league's best defense during their five-game winning streak.
Some level of unlucky opponent three-point shooting must be baked into these returns. Rival offenses won't knock down 32.5 percent of their triples forever. (Probably.) But save for a few predictable individuals, the Knicks are defending with ball pressure and energy and an omnipresence on the glass and, yes, still fouling too often.
Through it all, there is Jalen Brunson.
His scoring and shooting splits have actually slumped during New York's winning streak. Part of his value, though, lies in functional equilibrium. His lows are never rock-bottom plunges, and he will continue to maximize and uplift the offense even when he's not scoring.
Nobody on this roster has been as consistently good this season. And that's saying something when you consider the scale at which the Knicks depend on Brunson. His usage rate is far and away a career high, but his true shooting percentage continues to hover around the league average.
Brunson's overall efficiency stands to climb if he starts hitting threes at a higher clip. New York admittedly isn't built to decongest the half court and tee him up for gimmes away from the ball, but he has offset the drop-off with a career-high free-throw-attempt rate and personal-best conversion rate at the charity stripe.
The in-between havoc Brunson incites also remains intact. Defenses react when he ventures inside the arc, where his quirky footwork and body movement and overall cadence is absolutely lethal. Brunson leads the NBA in field goals made between five and nine feet and is shooting a combined 49.3 percent between five and 19 feet overall.
This all says nothing of his capacity to manage the game. It isn't just that Brunson's attack mode opens up opportunities for his teammates; it's that he protects possession with his poise.
New York's turnover rate improves by 5.5 percentage points with Brunson on the floor—the single largest bump in the league, bar none. This control isn't situational. It translates to even the highest-leverage moments.
Low-percentage jump shots and possessions to nowhere have permeated the Knicks' crunch-time operations since, like, forever. Brunson doesn't subscribe to habitual settling. It happens, because duh. Generally speaking, though, he can put set defenses into rotation on any given play, no matter how much time is left. And because he can, he does.
Though the Knicks aren't what you would call a clutch powerhouse, Brunson's stylistic dependability is paying huge dividends. He's notching a true shooting percentage of 61.4 on 32.9 percent usage in crunch time—with a turnover rate south of five. Just two other players are doing the same through at least five appearances: Kevin Durant and Jimmy Butler.
The Brunson discourse will soon start to shift toward the All-Star conversation and whether he belongs in it. He probably does. Devin Booker, Luka Dončić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Damian Lillard are the only other guards averaging 20-plus points and six-plus assists while hitting over 50 percent of their twos and matching Brunson's free-throw-attempt rate. And they all hail from the Western Conference.
NBA Math @NBA_Math
2022-23 Eastern Conference All-Stars, per TPA<br><br>Starters<br>Donovan Mitchell<br>Tyrese Haliburton<br>Kevin Durant<br>Giannis Antetokounmpo<br>Jayson Tatum<br><br>Bench<br>Jalen Brunson<br>Trae Young<br>Joel Embiid<br>Jimmy Butler<br>Pascal Siakam<br>Brook Lopez<br>Dejounte Murray <a href="https://t.co/gAUgpEzaa7">pic.twitter.com/gAUgpEzaa7</a>
To be clear: This doesn't render Brunson an All-Star formality. But it does demand that he enter the running.
Not that it particularly matters. Brunson's performance for the Knicks is bigger than a one-off achievement. It's more like a vindication for both parties.
Skeptics panned New York for signing Brunson. Select folks suffered from sticker shock when they saw the four-year, $104 million agreement. That was always shortsighted. Brunson is the 24th-highest-paid guard in the league, his contract declines before leveling off in years three and four, and the salary cap only goes up from here. The deal was fine then, and let's be honest, it's a friggin' steal at the moment.
Others got caught up in the pretzel-twisting New York did to get here. That includes me. I rated Brunson as the fifth-worst contract from a front office perspective after the first week of free agency. Perhaps the opportunity costs of dredging up cap space to get him was fine (it was), but there was and still is something unsettling about a franchise knowingly making Brunson its best player. It is a move that screams "Addicted to the middle."
That concern endures today. That also doesn't mean I nor anyone else who framed the Brunson contract in that light was right. We were not. I was wrong. I'd like to think it was a nuanced miss, but it was a miss all the same.
Brunson does little to clarify the Knicks' present or future. They are not on the fast track to title contention nor acquiring another star or two because of him. He is not that player.
What Brunson has done, though, is offer New York scalable stability. He gives the offense direction, an equal parts scoring hub and distributor, without infringing upon the development or opportunity of those around him.
And this is blanket security without condition. Brunson may need to shape-shift depending on what path and form the Knicks take next. That's fine. His is a style wired to optimize rather than monopolize.
Call him a floor-raiser if you must. To the Knicks, specifically, he's something more: certainty amid a long line of unknowns.