For Leon Rose, the day of reckoning may be near at hand

For Leon Rose, the day of reckoning may be near at hand

Since 1973, every generation of Knicks fans warned the next of becoming jaded. It’s hard not to when the inept eras of Isiah Thomas and Phil Jackson were only separated by six years. When Leon Rose took over the Knicks front office as President of Basketball Operations in 2020, the Knicks had just survived the reign of Steve Mills. Rose started this off-season hotter than his last two, signing Jalen Brunson and Isiah Hartenstein and trading away older veterans. Of course, the potential Donovan Mitchell trade will ultimately be the barometer for Rose’s performance this summer. Will he get fleeced, as so many Knicks executives have in the past? Will he hold firm and get Jazz president Danny Ainge to cave in to his wishes? That seems like a tall task. Is Rose up to the challenge?

To understand where the Knicks are going, let’s trace where they’ve been. Mills was the perfect example of basketball leadership since James Dolan was handed the franchise by his father in 1999. Mills had worked in various executive positions with the Knicks for almost 20 years. The only time the team succeeded was when he left for a period in 2010—2013. The Knicks made the playoffs three times during that stretch. After the disastrous Jackson Era, Dolan elevated Mills to the top job, putting him in charge of all basketball decisions.

What followed was a three-year succession of overpaid free agents, washed-up vets, young busts, and some of the worst losing seasons in franchise history (65 losses in the 2018–19 season). When Rose was hired after Dolan fired Mills, there was little room for hope. Rose had spent the last 20 years as a player agent, representing some of the best players of the modern era: LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, and Chris Paul. Ironically, he was the agent for James during “The Decision,” the first time Knicks fans thought they had a chance at LeBron.

This summer is Rose’s third off-season at the helm. Thus far, his moves have been calculated and underwhelming. He has brought in veterans to foster culture and accountability: Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson, and Alec Burks. He’s also worked with General Manager Scott Perry and Executive Vice President William “World Wide Wes” Wesley to build a young core through the draft: Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and Quentin Grimes.

This method of team-building has led to two very different seasons. The Knicks shocked everyone in 2020-21 by making the playoffs, earning the fourth seed in the East We witnessed Julius Randle win Most Improved Player and head coach Tom Thibodeau win Coach of the Year. The following season, reality cam crashing down. The team missed the playoffs, winning only 37 games while failing to translate new additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker into wins.

The wild ups and downs have forced fans to wonder what the hell is going on. At times it has been hard to decipher Rose’s master plan. Does the Knicks’ young core have a bona fide first option? Will Obi Toppin ever get to start, or will he forever be buried behind disgruntled Julius Randle? Speaking of Randle, the malcontent forward went from the pride of New York to enemy number No. 1 to Knicks fans. Rose’s refusal to regularly speak to fans or media forces the fanbase to draw its conclusion. What are fans supposed to think the plan is with Randle still on the roster and the Knicks back in the Lottery?

This off-season, Rose made the strongest swings of his short career. First, he traded the 11th pick in this year’s Draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder for three 2023 protected picks. This potentially gives the Knicks five first-round picks in next year’s draft. The picks have the following protections:

  • 2023 first-round pick via Detroit (protected 1-18 until 2024, protected 1-13 in 2025, protected 1-11 in 2026, protected 1-9 in 2027)
  • 2023 first-round pick via Washington (protected 1-14 in 2023, protected 1-12 in 2024, protected 1-10 in 2025, protected 1-8 in 2026)
  • 2023 first-round pick via Denver (protected 1-14 until 2025)
  • 2023 first-round pick via Dallas (protected 1-10 in 2023)
  • 2025 first-round pick via Milwaukee (protected 1-4 in 2025)

Days before Free Agency the Knicks made a trade to dump enough salary to offer free-agent point guard Brunson a hefty contract. Brunson accepted, with perhaps some tampering between two sets of fathers and sons. (Jalen’s father Rick is an assistant coach with the Knicks while Rose’s son, Sam, is Jalen’s day-to-day agent with CAA) The signing gave the Knicks their best point guard since Stephon Marbury.

They also signed free-agent center Hartenstein, who brings elite passing, defense, and shot-blocking to the backup center position behind newly resigned starter Mitchell Robinson. This flurry of moves has solidified the starting line-up for next season. In addition, Thibodeau can give Brunson the keys to run the offense, allowing the Knicks to finally play functional offense instead of Randle playing point-forward. Brunson’s contract might have been a three to four million a year overpay, but the Knicks needed to pay a premium to solve their 20-year positional problem.

So what’s the plan? Rose is building a team with two starting line-ups worth of talent. With Brunson, RJ Barrett, Fournier, Randle, and Robinson, he now has an above-average player at every position. His young core is filled with promise and perhaps an All-Star or two in Barrett and Toppin. Re-signing Robinson breaks the “Charlie Ward” curse — the Knicks had not extended one of their rookies since Ward in 1994. The roster is balanced with guys who play both sides of the court, love to hustle, and fit into the culture built by Rose and Thibodeau, two long-time friends and colleagues. Rose was Thibodeau’s agent for many years and the first major move with the Knicks.

Rose has accumulated a collection of young players with upside, including Cam Reddish, Jericho Sims, and Miles McBride, on valuable, highly tradeable deals. That’s not to say he plans to trade any of them soon. He has mostly kept the young core in place. The remaining question mark is Randle, who the fans desperately want out of New York. His disgusting attitude towards the team and the fans fractured the former All-NBA forward with the team’s die-hard supporters. Rose needs to decide whether he will build around Randle or Toppin. The majority of the fanbase overwhelmingly agrees it should be Toppin who stays.

Last season fans screamed on every platform for Thibodeau to play the kids. Rose knows his head coach as well as anyone. He knew the only way for this would be to trade the coach’s precious veterans. Now that Noel, Burks, and Kemba Walker are gone, Thibodeau has no choice but to play the kids, as only veterans, Rose, Randle, and Fournier, remain on the books. Gibson is not expected to be retained.

Dumping the vets shows Rose is either low-key listening to the fans or at least on the same page with them/ Randle is not the player to lead you into the promised land, this summer, Rose has signaled he is pivoting to building around Barrett’s timeline. Randle is 27-years-old. The oldest young core player is Toppin at 24-years-old. Solving the two-decades-long point guard chasm was great. Deciding which power forward to build around is Rose’s next big decision.

Burks was the Knicks’ best three-point shooter last year at .404%. The team will need second-year wing Grimes to pick up the slack should he move into the starting unit to bring more defense than Fournier. They will also need better shooting performances from their top dogs, Randle and Barrett, who both regressed in that area last season. But the Knicks have gotten younger and more dynamic this summer.

So far, Rose has committed to the kids and solved the point guard issue. He’s also accumulated 16 picks in the next four drafts. All this was accomplished through shrewd wheeling and dealing, with patience toward the endgame. So what’s next?

Perhaps the time has come to finally bring in a superstar, something the team has been missing since Patrick Ewing. We’re talking about a proper first option on a championship team. Not what we got from Amar’e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony, or even Randle two seasons ago. To do that, he will likely have to sign-and-trade pieces of his young core and draft capital.

For the first time in decades, the Knicks have the assets to pull off a home run trade. This summer (and perhaps into the regular season), Rose’s most important task is to decide whether Donovan Mitchell is the right target and how many of their assets to throw into the deal. Everyone has their own opinion of what Mitchell is worth, but the opinions of fans and ESPN talking heads are irrelevant. This comes down to basically two guys: Rose and Ainge. Ainge has the track record in these type of deals; Rose does not.

At the very least, Leon Rose has put the Knicks into position to make a splash. When he arrived at MSG, the Knicks had RJ and a whole lot of nothing. Unlike his predecessors, Rose has not put all of his chips in either free agency, trades, or the draft…at least not yet. But the time to put up or shut up is likely approaching fast. Is Rose the man for this job? Knicks fans wait with bated breath for the answer.

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