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Did NBA Draft Seal Knicks Management's Fate?

The Knicks' vanishing from the 2022 draft board hints at a free agency splurge this summer. Is that the right way to go?

Anyone who has entered the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden for purposes of supporting the resident New York Knicks is subject to a "Knicks tax" of sorts. 

Rest assured ... such a charge doesn't appear on your tickets, nor are any players docked pay. It's more of a mental tithe, one where every move you make is scrutinized, the simplest mistake amplified by an unforgiving basketball comedy world that uses the Knicks as a reliable, if not tired, punchline. 

These would-be jesters often prominently surface during the NBA Draft: at this point in time, Stephen Curry's most notable claim to fame might be the fact the Knicks made the egregious sin of not picking him in the seventh slot in 2009 ... when the Knicks actually sat in the eighth. 

Piling on the Knicks is, again, a tired exercise. Their crosstown rivals in Brooklyn could lose to the Washington Generals and RJ Barrett stubbing his toe would be more relentlessly covered by Twitter's comedy amateurs. But that's the bed one's franchise must lie upon when it's won a single NBA playoff series in the past two decades. The fact that most of their mishaps are broadcast across national airwaves only makes the jokes more acceptable: who among us, for example, hasn't opened Christmas presents to the soundtrack of a Knicks loss? 

Though they've struggled to stop the bleeding, there's something a tad different about the front office that the Knicks have chosen to align themselves with as they inch toward an uncertain, if not slightly optimistic future. 

Contrary to the headline-grabbing legends of the game that wound up falling victim to the monstrous cesspool that is the new-century Knicks (i.e. Phil Jackson, Isiah Thomas), the team has instead offered new names that are expected to put players at ease. Their current front office is populated by names like "World Wide Wes" (Executive V.P. William Wesley) and Leon Rose, basketball power brokers who have indirectly decided countless hardwood happenings through their influence. The group is partly responsible for the team's most recent and highly publicized NBA Draft gambit. 

Using one or no picks on draft night is often the strategy of a champion or a contender that sits the proverbial "one move away" from a Larry O'Brien Trophy hoist.

But this is Knicks basketball ... did you really expect the status quo?

The Knicks began the evening with the 11th overall selection drafting French-born paint threat Ousmane Dieng before shipping him to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Memphis center Jalen Duren also became a brief Knick through another trade with the Charlotte Hornets two picks later, but he, along with veteran Kemba Walker, was dealt to the Detroit Pistons. It left the Knicks dormant until the latter half of Thursday night, when they took Trevor Keels with the 42nd pick.

The moves garnered a mostly negative response: Rose's de facto attempts at damage control waited until late Friday morning when he touted the benefits of holding 22 draft picks over the next seven years, evenly split between the two rounds. Maybe if Rose conjured a catchy slogan or philosophic one-liner for the endeavor ... something about a process, perhaps? ... the Knicks could've avoided some bad publicity. 

Had these moves been made elsewhere, there'd at least be some nuance to the debate. New York's prudence of being prepared for this offseason with plenty of draft chips, as well as unloading the contract of a future "Wait, he played for the Knicks?!?!" team member could at least partly be lauded.  

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One thing's for sure in the midst of this chaos, for better or worse: the Knicks have developed another plan to get their franchise back on the right path. In doing so, Rose, Wesley, and countless others have sealed their metropolitan fates, attaching them to the summer roster shifts. 

It's a tale as old as time, one documented through the photo editing apps of Knicks fans: the offseason begins with visions of a starting five resembling an All-Star Game and ends with that same unit looking more like the lower tiers of the Sixth Man of the Year voting. Sometimes a surprise emerges, like the 2020-21 efforts of Julius Randle. 

True to form, countless names have been proposed to lead the latest rejuvenation project. The latest is none other than Jalen Brunson, the current Dallas Maverick who is well-accustomed to winning at Madison Square Garden through several Big East conference tournament titles. The theme of postseason heroics continued in the most recent edition, averaging 32 points in three Luca Doncic-less games while they built an early lead over Utah en route to a six-game series win that begat a conference finals visit. 

New York's interest in Brunson, and management's subsequent attaching their fates upon him, has been the worst kept secret in basketball. Sure, there's also lingering interest in names like Donovan Mitchell and Anthony Davis. But the Knicks' interest has reached familial levels this time around: the team has hired Jalen's father Rick to sit on the bench as an assistant coach (over decades after he previously came off of it as a reserve). Rose's son Sam also reps the younger Brunson, echoing the connection their fathers had at the turn of the century. To that end, the Knicks are reportedly ready to bestow a nine-figure contract to create a family reunion. 

In addition to their Brunson dreams, the team has made little effort to hide the fact that they want to work their way back into the relevant portions of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, an effort that's not going to be an instant fix. Boston, Miami, and Milwaukee show no signs of fading any time soon and the tide is starting to turn in places like Chicago, Cleveland and Atlanta.

Is this the way the Knicks want to go about this? That appears to be their intention though another question arises in whether it's the right way. New York has been burned by a recent postseason hero-turned-big contract before (i.e. the cursed Jerome James era after the final postseason stand of the Seattle SuperSonics), but this is a new breed of strategy entirely. If the Knicks bring in Brunson (which, as anyone who bought a LeBron James Knicks jersey in the summer of 2010 will tell you, is no guarantee), it's clear that'll be the new name to lead the team into the future.

The Knicks could've used that 11th choice to continue to foster their young group on the rise. Dieng, the team's cursed history with French first-rounders notwithstanding, could've been an interior replacement in the event of Mitchell Robinson's departure, for example. Trading some of the big contracts was more than understandable. Walker's departure was, frankly, an inevitability. Now, the Knicks have a bigger offseason budget to work thanks to the $20 million-plus gained from trading Walker and forgoing on an 11th pick's contract. 

Sure, there's a chance to yank New York supremacy (whatever little that's worth) away from Brooklyn. But should they re-sign themselves to such a fate, that of handing a blank check to a postseason breakout in the hope he'll save a crucial area of the franchise, namely the long-suffering point guard role? 

There's no use in arguing about the moves in the present: immediate draft grades are often a pointless exercise, as it's impossible to grade any move before the ball is tipped. It's clear, however, that the draft activity (or lack thereof, with respect to Keels) just shaped the Knicks' 2022-23 season and beyond. 

That's the fate the Knicks have made for themselves and everyone's fate is on the line in a make-or-break season. Can Rose work his familiar connection to make the Knicks look like an attractive destination? Can Wesley and general manager Scott Perry help seal the deal while adding complementing talent and building the budget via farewells to Randle and others? If/when Brunson does make it to New York, can Tom Thibodeau, a coach on the hot seat whose finest hours have come through triumphs at the one, properly harness Brunson's talent to ensure that the playoffs weren't just a mirage?

Knicks management sealed its fate at the draft. Time will tell how long it lasts.