Kemba Walker, Eflrid Payton, Allonxo Trier, Trey Burke, Ramon Sessions, Jose Calderon, Pablo Prigioni and Raymond Felton.
These are just a few names the New York Knicks have tried to use over the last decade to solve their point guard crisis. In the city known for its “Point Gods,” it’s been a surprising run of futility and incompetence at one of the deepest and most important positions in the game.
Finally, after years of failing to place the band-aid over the leak in the sinking ship, the Knicks decided to repair the whole boat in the offseason and give Jalen Brunson a four-year, $104 million contract. The deal was met with a lot of skepticism about paying someone who isn’t an all-star over $100 million. There’s some merit to that, but through four games, Brunson looks like the best point guard the Knicks have had since Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and at least the most competent and stable since Mark Jackson in 1989. The value of that may be priceless.
It’s a small sample size, but the Knicks have gone from a bottom-10 offense in the 2021-22 season to a top-five unit to start this season. Across the board, the numbers are improved and it’s simple things that a good point guard makes better. Last season, the Knicks were dead last in both assists per game and two-point field goal percentage. This season, they’re 13th with 25.5 assists per game and fifth in two-point field goal percentage, sitting at 56.3 percent. The Knicks as a team shoot 48 percent from the floor (coincidentally one spot below Dallas, where Brunson left the last offseason).
On film, the eye test tells a similar story. Things just look more in sync this season than last for New York, with Brunson handed the keys to the bus. He’s averaging 20 points per game and if he continues this play, could make his first all-star team this season. The biggest addition he’s added to the Knicks is in the pick and roll.
Brunson currently ranks fifth in the NBA with 1.22 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball handler. That trails only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. That’s a pretty good company to keep, especially when he’s one spot ahead of Stephen Curry as well. What Brunson does so well in pick and roll is seemingly never picking up his dribble, manipulating defenses by keeping them guessing constantly.
It’s also made life much easier for Julius Randle, whose combination of isolation possessions and long two-point field goals carried much of the Knick’s helpless offense the last two seasons. It worked a lot during the 2020 season when New York reached the playoffs but was a disaster last season. He was one of the least efficient scorers in the league in 2021, with just a 50.9 true shooting percentage. Quickly, Knicks fans turned on him.
So far this season, Randle’s looked like the perfect partner to Brunson’s shifty offensive game. The former all-star needed to prove himself this season after things went backward in 2021. So far, things have looked better.
While the vertical stretching Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein provide great versatility, Randle is scoring 1.09 points per possession as the roll man in a pick-and-roll, and it’s something the Knicks could probably utilize more. He has the threat to pop out and score or finish in a variety of ways including a floater.
The other part of Brunson’s game that’s utilized effectively is Brunson’s ability to close out games down the stretch. Through four games, Brunson has been the best clutch-time scorer in basketball, which the NBA defines as any game time when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or any overtime period. As we saw down the stretch of the Knicks’ overtime win over the Charlotte Hornets, Brunson’s creative abilities came to the forefront as he helped seal the game down the stretch with 27 points and a career-high 13 assists.
New York still isn’t a perfect basketball team. They’re still one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the NBA and Brunson isn’t going to fix that. He’s a serviceable shooter, but not great. The biggest hole on the team, right now, is the shooting guard position, where Evan Fournier is averaging 11 points on 9.5 shots per game. Unless that increases, it’s likely the offensive numbers were currently seeing will begin to decrease.
The Knicks had the opportunity to move all their chips to the center of the table and get Donovan Mitchell but held off on striking a deal with the Utah Jazz. While we can’t live in the world of hypotheticals, it’s tough to think what might have been if a deal got struck, especially as Mitchell has been lights out to start the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who did go all in.
Regardless, there’s renewed energy and optimism in the Big Apple. For the first time in 30 years, the Knicks have a player they can call their Point God.