The Knicks' Jalen Brunson high-fives Josh Hart in the fourth quarter...

The Knicks' Jalen Brunson high-fives Josh Hart in the fourth quarter against the Indiana Pacers in Game 2 at Madison Square Garden on May 8. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

As the Knicks were making their way through the postseason, the rumors would still pop up. Donovan Mitchell might ask out of Cleveland, Devin Booker could be had from Phoenix and maybe even LeBron James and his son, Bronny, could join the Knicks. And those rumors are certain to rise again now that the season ended Sunday in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

But what if I told you the Knicks could add a two-time All-NBA talent and the best offensive rebounder in the game who also is a top rim protector? And how about if I told you that you didn’t have to trade away any assets to get them?

The easy players to spot there — Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson — were among the laundry list of injured players lost for the Knicks through much of the season. Adding to that were OG Anunoby, Bojan Bogdanovic and finally, Josh Hart and Jalen Brunson who were injured in the final games of the playoffs.

And with the players now done for the season and getting time to heal, the Knicks front office takes over and has perhaps the hardest task of its tenure in rebuilding the franchise. Does the front office trust in this group, a team that overachieved as injuries wore them down? Or do they use this opportunity, perhaps the best opportunity, to chase a star once again?

“It’s hard to say right now because it’s raw and you haven’t had a chance to dig into everything,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We’ll get a chance to do that. We have draft picks, there’s free agency. But also to dig into our team and lock into how we can get better and take the next step. So there’s the internal development, then there’s the draft and you can always add talent there. Then free agency and trades. So we’ll dig in deep. But usually what we do is take a couple weeks to recharge and then do the deep dive and figure the plan out.”

But what about Thibodeau — does he want this group back?

“I love the group,” he said. “As a coach you couldn’t ask for a better group.”

There are complications though. The Knicks have managed to put together a clean cap, allowing them room to make moves, compiling reasonably-priced contracts and even doing the same with trade assets. But this summer the team had to sign unrestricted free agents Anunoby (who will almost certainly decline his $19.9 million player option for next season) and Isaiah Hartenstein. And Jalen Brunson is eligible for a four-year, $156 million contract extension that sources have indicated he would take rather than wait another year, while Randle is also eligible for a contract extension.

Those deals could lock the Knicks in the more restrictive zones of the salary cap. So do they swing for the fences right now or bring back the majority of this group and tweak around the edges?

“You can answer that,” Donte DiVincenzo said. “How many guys do we have out? OG, Josh played in a Game 7 to give everything they possibly had. My respect for both of them is through the roof. But like I said, there’s only so much you can overcome. You have to tip your cap to them, give them the respect and credit they deserve. But at the same time as we know in this locker room, we have a very special team. We have a very special organization. A lot of the main guys have been down throughout the entire season. I think all of us feel good about the chemistry in this locker room and feel good about the next step.”

“I think it’s very bright,” Hart said. “I think there’s hope for what we’re building, and I think that’s the biggest thing. Obviously the offseason is a business. There are decisions that are going to be made. There’s guys going to be going in and out, whatever it is, but I think we built a foundation of a franchise that’s going to be fighting. A franchise that’s moving in the right direction. Obviously like I said it’s tough to end it this way, but we’re going in the right direction. I think we’re giving this city and Knick fans something to hope for.”

Hope hasn’t always been evident, but the Knicks might be able to add in the draft with the 24th, 25th and 38th picks. And veteran players who long avoided the Knicks might see a chance to hook on to a winning team with a leader in Brunson. So as painful as end of the season was, the future might be less painful to imagine.


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