I had a full-blown, Attitude Era-style wrestling promo ready to cut about Jalen Brunson and everything he’s done for the Knicks, but no one notices.
Instead, I’m sitting here at a rickety old laptop with no clue where to even begin. It could be when Brunson signed with the Knicks two years ago and there were questions about him fitting with Julius Randle and RJ Barrett. One just made the Eastern Conference All-Star team with Brunson, while the other is now starring for his hometown Toronto Raptors.
However, despite the media voting for him as such, the fans didn’t view Brunson as a starter. The East’s two starting guards will be Damian Lillard and Tyrese Haliburton. Brunson and Randle are reserves, so they answered the only way they knew how:
Blowing out the defending champion Denver Nuggets 122-84 at Madison Square Garden, of course.
Yes, you read that score correctly. Yes, the Nuggets were fully healthy and two-time MVP Nikola Jokic finished with 31 points and 11 boards. Unfortunately for him and the Nuggets, he also committed seven turnovers and had no support otherwise.
Meanwhile, Brunson had a modest 21 points and four assists, but shot an efficient 7 of 10. He made all six of his free throws, letting the newly acquired OG Anunoby take the wheel with 26 points and six steals. He didn’t make a show of it, but this was Brunson putting the league on notice that he’s an elite point guard too.
Granted, this isn’t to put down Haliburton and Lillard. Haliburton might be the most athletic point guard in the game, averaging double-digit points and assists while posting a true shooting percentage (TS%) of 63.2%.
Lillard is also enjoying his first season in Milwaukee, despite a recent coaching change. He’s 33 and still averaging 25.3 points and 6.8 assists per game. Not bad at all given his struggles with injuries the last two seasons.
Except, and not to rain on the parade, Lillard’s season isn’t that special in the big picture. He’s meeting his career averages almost exactly. No disrespect, but he’s on autopilot.
Not Jalen Brunson. No, he’s following up his first breakout season with another. The former Villanova star is averaging a career-best 26.5 points and 6.4 assists per game. He’s as efficient as ever, making nearly 48% of his shots and nearly 42.5% of his threes. His TS% is nearly 60%.
Not to mention, Brunson is proving himself more valuable than Lillard this year. His Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), basketball’s equivalent of baseball’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR), is 2.5. Convert that to WAR, and he’s worth about 6.5 Knicks wins thus far in 2023-24.
Lillard’s VORP is 1.6, making his WAR around 4.3. That’s not awful, and largely from him having Giannis Antetokounmpo as a teammate, but starting him over Brunson? Really?
The media sees Jalen Brunson as an All-Star starter, so there’s no West Coast bias carrying over from Lillard’s Portland days. The players, in the meantime, picked Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey, whose numbers are fairly close to Brunson’s.
That leaves the fan vote, which clearly reveals a sad truth. For all of president Leon Rose and coach Tom Thibodeau’s efforts, nobody seems to be watching the Knicks. That’ll happen if a team spends over two decades being a punchline instead of a contender.
Well, their loss. Jalen Brunson has transformed the Knicks to the point where Madison Square Garden has her Eden-like aura back. Every game seems like one where he could drop 40 points out of nowhere. Randle is his loyal go-to guy whose capable of his own surprises, usually in triple-double form.
The most disrespected team in the league, whose leader is the most disrespected point guard in the game. Jalen Brunson is almost like the NBA’s Lamar Jackson, except he hasn’t had to endure such criticism even after winning an MVP.
Well, his Knicks just beat the defending champions and have won eight of their last ten, going 11-2 in January. They’re the No. 4 team in the East and aiming higher. Getting as far as Game 6 of the East Semis last year was just the beginning. Jalen Brunson and these Knicks want more, and some respect on the side would be nice too.
Then again, maybe it’s easier waiting, hoping, wishing for Damian Lillard to not disappoint. Again.