The arrival of Jalen Brunson brought up his history with Knicks president Leon Rose and the reunion with his father, Rick, a former Knicks player and now an assistant coach. But the most important pairing is with someone he’s known almost as long as those two — Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau was a Knicks assistant coach when the elder Brunson arrived with the team as a second-year guard, and they paired up as pieces of the franchise’s last appearance in the NBA Finals. Both were in the early stages of their NBA careers but already were displaying hints of who they would become. And outside of their duties, they began teaching the game to Brunson’s young son.
After practices at Purchase College, where the Knicks conducted their workouts in those days, the court would be taken over by the young children of Patrick Ewing, John Starks and others, including Rick Brunson.
“I’ve been hearing that deep voice for a long time and it still scares me,” Jalen Brunson joked in his introduction in New York as a free agent last week.
It may have started with an assistant coach rolling a ball to a child, but the younger Brunson has picked up lessons all his life on how to handle the task that he as much as anyone was born into: leading the Knicks on the floor.
Speaking on J.J. Redick’s “Old Man and The Three’’ podcast this past week, Brunson spoke about playing for Thibodeau and again hearing that raspy voice.
“Yeah, it’s definitely going to be different,” Brunson said. “I mean, it’s the same thing with my dad and he’s never really pushed me like that as a coach, so he’s always been like a trainer/mentor.
“Honestly, I’m excited for it, because this is a different type of accountability. Like they know I’m the type of person who likes to be coached and likes to be pushed. And so to have something like that where you can possibly cross lines but knowing that it’s all out of love and all out of respect, I mean, they know what type of person I am, how I’m made up. And so I don’t think I have to worry about anything like that, but I just know that they’re going to push me to try to get the best out of me.”
Brunson may not fit every part of a Thibodeau wish list for a point guard — he’s a few inches shorter than he’d prefer and not the switching defensive stopper he might like. But a living embodiment of the toughness that he seeks? That is Brunson.
The Donovan Mitchell-to-the-Knicks rumors started, oh, about 10 minutes after Rose was officially in place as the Knicks’ president. After the previous regime’s failed attempts to bring a star to New York, Rose arrived with an expectation to bring stars through his connections as the head of the CAA basketball division, one of the most powerful agents in basketball.
And Mitchell, a former Rose client who is 25 years old with New York roots and the ability to score at will, is just the sort of player Rose was tasked with delivering.
That seemed unlikely to transpire when Mitchell signed a five-year extension worth as much as $195 million with the Utah Jazz in 2020.
But times change and the Jazz, after a run of good seasons — including all five of Mitchell’s years in Utah — are breaking up the band and seem set on a restart, already dealing away Rudy Gobert. And every source indicates that the Knicks are the most likely landing spot if the Jazz move Mitchell, something they admittedly are open to now.
Rumors flew this past week that a deal was done, but multiple league sources squashed that notion, saying no deal was imminent. But they have spoken and the Knicks turned down the first ask from Utah. Will they engage again? Likely. Who will blink is the question.
What’s a fair price for Mitchell? The Knicks don’t need him as much as they might have before signing Brunson. They can send Utah as many as eight first-round picks — so not surprisingly, there are reports that the first ask from Danny Ainge was seven or eight first-round picks, along with a quartet of the Knicks’ young, inexpensive pieces.
Credit to the Knicks’ front office for putting their affection for stars (Mitchell in particular) aside and pushing away from the table at that request. Mitchell may not be a perfect fit as the star the Knicks need, but he is a star and they’re not wrong to pursue him and worry about it later. But the cost is not something they should worry about later.
Just because the Knicks can give up all of these picks and all of these young players doesn’t mean they should. Find a fair price and make it happen — and save some of those chips for the next deal. There will need to be a next deal for the Knicks to become more than a place trying to attract stars and become a real contender.