Jalen Brunson’s absence exposes a weakness for the New York Knicks

Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Jalen Brunson #11 of the New York Knicks (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) /

Jalen Brunson has been the driving force of the Knicks’ success this season, carrying the team back into the playoff race after finishing a lottery team last year. Like with Julius Randle in the 2020-21 season, the team is highly dependent on Brunson to generate offense when nothing’s there; so much so that following a nine-game winning streak, the team has lost three straight games with Brunson having missed them due to a left-foot injury.

He did play in the first half of a game against the Kings and showed no signs of injury, scoring 19 points in 19 minutes. However, he re-aggravated his injury on a drive to the basket and would have to leave the game. The Knicks lost 122-117, the first loss of their now three-game skid.

Clearly, the Knicks’ struggles are a direct result of Brunson’s injury, which reveals a fatal flaw New York must fix and one that will likely keep them from contender status this postseason.

Brunson’s absence revealed a flaw in the New Knicks’ armor:

The 2020-21 season was an exciting one for Knicks fans like myself. Finally, a competent team had been assembled in New York. However, just a squad of solid veterans and some youngsters wasn’t enough to win games consistently; that was proven the previous year when the Knicks finished 21-45 before the pandemic put an end to the season.

It would take at least a true all-star-level performance for New York to make its long-awaited return to the playoffs. Luckily, Julius Randle met the challenge. And I mean luckily. The excitement brought to the Garden crowd by Randle hitting countless contested fadeaway jumpers was met with skepticism after a first-round exit that saw Randle struggle to perform at the level he did in the regular season. Was he for real, or was Randle’s success fraudulent after all?

It was fraudulent. That’s not to say Randle was a bad player, though he certainly looked like one often in the 2021–22 season. When met with double teams, instead of spinning to hit a tough shot, he would either turn the ball over or chuck it up and miss badly. That season proved Randle wasn’t built to be “the guy” who would lead the Knicks into the playoffs. But that’s where Jalen Brunson came in.

Brunson can’t carry the Knicks to contention alone.

No one expected Brunson to be New York’s savior when he was brought in on a lucrative contract, which led many to consider it an overpay. Those people (including myself) were wrong. Since the start of 2023, Brunson has averaged 28 points per game, helping the Knicks to a 20-9 record in the games he’s played during that time. Even without an all-star appearance, he’s making a legitimate case for an All-NBA team. Brunson’s dominance has allowed his teammates, including Randle, to thrive.

However, under the spotlight, Randle and his teammates have struggled, meaning that in the postseason, once teams lock in on Brunson, it will be up to his teammates to make big plays, a task they’ve struggled with the past two years.

Labeling the Knicks as contenders in the midst of their nine-game winning streak was a dangerous trap to fall into. As a Knicks fan, I was not lulled into thinking this, though many unbiased spectators were.

New York is far from contention. Being as optimistic as I can, the team’s ceiling is a second-round appearance. The more likely outcome is a first-round exit, and that’s ok. Regardless of where the Knicks finish, simply making it to the postseason is a success for this season, whether fans want to admit it or not.

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However, in the not-so-distant future, the front office will need to put more reliable pieces around Brunson. Does Randle fit into that category? The answer will likely become clear when the Knicks’ playoffs come to a close.