Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives past New York Knicks' Jalen...

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives past New York Knicks' Jalen Brunson during the second half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, in Milwaukee. The Bucks won 146-122. (AP Photo/Morry Gash) Credit: AP/Morry Gash


The Knicks found themselves in the national spotlight this past week — but not for the right reasons.

While they were humiliated in a 146-122 loss to the Bucks in Milwaukee in the knockout round of the In-Season Tournament, the Knicks’ failure that night ignited a discussion that centered around what the franchise doesn’t have.

With the one-sided loss, the “NBA on TNT” crew took turns bashing the Knicks’ roster.

“Every game they play, they always have the second-best player,” Kenny Smith said.

Then Charles Barkley weighed in, noting, “They haven’t added anything new. Thinking the movie is going to end differently, it’s not going to end differently. The Knicks need to make a trade.”

Finally, Shaquille O’Neal added, “When you have that New York attitude, we want championships. Do you see championship future with this team? No. They definitely need another guy.”

The Knicks’ ugly performance in Boston on Friday did nothing to silence the talk. It’s familiar talk around Madison Square Garden, where the chase for a superstar has gone on since Patrick Ewing was traded. Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were good, but never on the level of LeBron James and his assortment of star friends. The front office has changed repeatedly but the promise that stars would come has led to disappointment.

The only thing is that maybe the argument is the wrong-headed talk by people who don’t watch this team night in and night out. These Knicks are not the roster of previous regimes, searching for an identity. This team didn’t swing trades for any superstars — not for lack of trying — but has managed to build around Julius Randle, who is a two-time All-NBA player, and Jalen Brunson, who has emerged as an All-Star-caliber point guard.

“Me personally, I don’t really care what anyone says,” Brunson said. “Sometimes I don’t even care what my dad says to me. So I mean I focus on what I can control only. Those are those people’s opinions. I don’t let it affect me.”

“First we were never going to be good,” RJ Barrett said of the criticism. “Now we’re good and now we’re not good enough. I think we do — for not having the best player — we do very well for ourselves.”

It’s the usual script for Tom Thibodeau-coached teams, an insistence that they have enough to win. But this time it might be true. For all of the rumors, there is no deal out there right now to lift the Knicks to the next level, a contender with more than a fighting chance against Boston, Milwaukee or Philadelphia.

With Brunson, Randle and Barrett, the Knicks already have trouble finding enough offensive opportunities and minutes for the role players around them. Quentin Grimes was the latest player to express frustration as he struggled to find his place, a familiar complaint voiced previously by Josh Hart, Cam Reddish and Obi Toppin. So unless one of those top three players goes out in a deal, how does Zach LaVine or DeMar DeRozan get their typical usage? Where does Karl-Anthony Towns’ offense come from?

The Knicks aren’t assembling a fantasy basketball team. They’re faced with the reality of building a team of not just talent but also fit. And that fit — at least right now with this level of player available — doesn’t include room for a high-usage player who doesn’t mesh with the Knicks’ formula of a defense-first, sharpshooting player, and that’s even before weighing the contracts some of these players would bring to the salary cap.

The Knicks have a level to reach to catch the better teams in the NBA. Maybe it will come from internal improvement. If it’s a trade, it would need to be one that clears out one of the three main pieces and provides an upgrade.

“Honestly, myself and Julius, we have never talked about needing a star or being a star or anything like that,” Brunson said. “We just focus on the little things and how we can focus on winning. Everyone talks about stars and all that stuff, but how can we win now with what we have and not really focus on anything on the outside? So keep everything in-house and know what we can do, hold each other accountable, and that’s all we can focus on.”

The Knicks will continue to check in with Evan Fournier’s expiring contract and a stockpile of draft picks as bait. Maybe one day it will be Donovan Mitchell getting to come home or Joel Embiid leaving Philadelphia. But for now, this is the team. The Knicks are gambling that by the time this season shakes out, they will grow enough to move a step forward from last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals.

Is Brunson injured?

The Knicks’ 12-9 record may cover up some of their obvious flaws, as they are 10-0 against sub-.500 teams and 2-9 against teams with winning records, but what is obvious is the importance of  Brunson to the offense.

Brunson limped to the locker room with 21.3 seconds left in Friday’s game after turning his left ankle badly when he stepped on the foot of Boston’s Payton Pritchard. While it can be questioned why Brunson was on the court at that point — Boston had emptied the bench on the previous stoppage with a double-digit lead —  Thibodeau dismissed that concern.

What he can’t gloss over is that the Knicks, with a home game Monday against Toronto before a five-game road trip, need Brunson. His status is a mystery because he was taken out of the locker room through a side door before postgame access began and Thibodeau said he hadn’t spoken to any medical people yet, which might be the least credible claim of the night. The team did not practice Saturday.

“We’ve got a couple days off, so we’ll see,” Randle said. “Right now I don’t know anything. Just trying to recover from the game and reset. We’ll figure it out.”

Usage problem

When the Knicks replaced Quentin Grimes with Donte DiVincenzo in the starting lineup, Grimes benefited from a swap to the fast-paced, more free-flowing second unit, scoring 13 points and shooting 5-for-10 after scoring only 16 points in his last seven games as a starter. But that move meant taking the team’s best perimeter defender out of the starting lineup.

The result was that the Knicks' defense was awful again. Add in that DiVincenzo looked as if he struggled with the same issue in the starting lineup, scoring just six points.

While some players were choices of various factions of the front office, Grimes was a Thibodeau choice — pushed for before the draft and inserted in the starting lineup over high-salaried players. So the frustration is understandable, but patience might be the better solution.

Familiar faces

 Thibodeau has put together lineups with three Villanova alums — Brunson, Hart and  DiVincenzo — and they have worked smoothly together.

“I think I know them pretty well and I think our chemistry goes back a long way,” Brunson said. “It’s obvious we’re very comfortable when we’re on the court. It brings back old memories and we kinda understand what each other likes to do. It’s familiar, and when you have chemistry like that, it makes things a little easier.”

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