Knicks have aced methodical march toward contention, and Mikal Bridges puts them over the top

In the summer of 2019, the New York Knicks thought they were going to get Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They didn’t get either. But rather than take the money they had set aside for that duo and start spraying it around irresponsibly on less worthy free agents that would tie up their books for years to come, they pulled back. Gathered their emotions. Signed Julius Randle to a three-year deal, and started filling out their roster over the next few summers with shorter-term contracts that would maximize flexibility moving forward. 

Along the way, they signed Jalen Brunson to what turned out to be the best contract in the league while accumulating eight trade-eligible draft picks for a war chest as richly stocked as any team outside of the Thunder. They tried to use a bunch of those draft picks on Donovan Mitchell, but it didn’t happen. Lucky. Mitchell is great, but the Knicks likely wouldn’t have built the team they have today with him and Brunson battling for creative rights. 

They kept plugging away. Signed Josh Hart. Isaiah Hartenstein. Donte DiVincenzo. Re-signed Mitchell Robinson on another smart contract. Traded for OG Anunoby without giving up any of those treasured picks, leaving more than enough in the bank for a big swing when the right opportunity presented itself. 

It happened late Tuesday night, when the Knicks sent five of those first-round picks (four of their own, all unprotected, plus Milwaukee’s 2025 pick protected for spots 1-4) to the Brooklyn Nets as part of a huge package for Mikal Bridges

In a vacuum, Bridges, who’s a very good player but has never made an All-Star team, isn’t worth five first-round picks plus another pick swap. But in the context of this Knicks team, he is. The fit is incredible, and now that OG Anunoby is re-signed, New York looks like a legit contender.

Honestly, look at this defensive lineup: Anunoby, Bridges and Josh Hart/Donte DiVincenzo on the perimeter, pressuring the ball, switching all over the court, backed up by Robinson, an elite rim protector. Where have you seen this formula before? 

The Celtics just rode it to a championship, with Jrue Holiday, Derrick White and the Jays choking off just about all penetration and Kristaps Porzingis filtering out what little action did slip through at the rim. 

The Timberwolves made the conference finals and knocked out Nikola Jokic with the same formula: Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, all these guys smothering ball handlers with a free pass to play the perimeter as aggressively as their heart desires because Rudy Gobert is always there to back them up. 

In today’s league, especially with the way the new rules — or the way the old rules are being enforced in new ways — have curbed the offensive advantage, it is increasingly clear that to win a championship, it’s pretty much a prerequisite that you be able to defend all over the court. 

One or two good defenders isn’t enough. A rim protector tasked with plugging multiple holes won’t work. You can’t have multiple holes in the first place. It might be too much to even have one hole. Offenses are simply too good at preying on any weakness made available to them.

Even as great as Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving are offensively, they were exposed all over the court in the Finals. There was no way Dallas was winning that series with those two guys playing that kind of defense. 

We’ll see if Julius Randle is on the team when the season starts (he feels like a potential trade candidate), but even if he is, you’re talking about an All-Star offensive player. He and Brunson are out there for their creation and scoring, but they’re still not true targets on the other end. And they’re surrounded by these monstrous defensive wings. Again it is impossible to overstate just how high Bridges and Anunoby, and Hart to a slightly lesser degree, sit on the shelf of NBA defenders. 

DiVincenzo is a hound, too. Brunson impacts the defensive end on his smarts alone. Miles McBride can guard. Randle is one of those guys whose defensive value can rise dramatically the better and the more accountable the defense around him is. It’s going to be hard not to guard on this team. 

Now let’s look at the offensive side, where, importantly, Brunson’s top billing remains unchallenged. Again, as Brunson has evolved into an MVP-level superstar, to bring in another player of that stature — the type of player that’s typically sought for this kind of trade package — would muddy the creative clarity. That’s often one of the costs of putting a superstar stamp on a young, fun team. Oklahoma City has resisted that option even with all its available capital. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the guy. They don’t need to muddy that. 

So what do you do? You bring in a guy who has some 1A ability but it ultimately better suited as a second option. Bridges was overtasked as a No. 1 guy with the Nets. With the Knicks, he’s absolutely perfect as a secondary scorer and another knockdown shooter who will space the floor for Brunson’s paint work even more. 

Also, Bridges, at least for the next few years, will cost less than the typical superstar that would go for this kind of trade package. Let’s look at Paul George again: If he comes in on a sign-and-trade, it’s probably on a max deal starting around $50 million a year. Even if he were to opt in to his $48.8M this season with the idea of signing an extension later, that’s $27 million more on the books this season than Bridges makes.

You think keeping Anunoby is going to be tight with Bridges on board? Try it with a max player clogging your books. New York’s depth would be severely impacted. How many teams have you seen build a top-heavy roster by bringing in max-contract mercenaries only to end up with a first-round loss and a payroll that could choke a hippo? Here’s looking at you, Phoenix. 

Add all this up — the defense, the offensive juice without compromising clarity, the bargain contract that preserves depth, and suddenly it makes a lot more sense that a zero-time All-Star would be worth five first-round picks. It’s all about the context of this Knicks team and the particular position of its current payroll as it applies to all levels of next season’s roster. 

Now, New York’s payroll will be nuts in a few years. Brunson is eligible for an extension. Bridges can extend for three years, $113 million in six months, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks. Anunoby is going to get a major payday with all the leverage he has now. If somehow they keep Hartenstein, that’ll be a pretty big number, too. 

But it’s only about these salaries this season as far as any hard caps go, and in that regard, Brunson and Bridges making a combined $48 million this season is gold. The Knicks are essentially getting two max players for the price of one. After that, it’s the freaking New York Knicks. Money is not a problem. They can go deep into the luxury tax all they want once they have their team ready to roll. And these Knicks indeed look ready to roll.

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