The New York Knicks had quite an offseason.
President Phil Jackson gave Joakim Noah a four-year deal worth $72 million. He flipped Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant to the Chicago Bulls for Derrick Rose, Justin Holiday and a 2017 second-round pick. “The Zen Master” also signed Courtney Lee, rounding out what should be a much-improved starting lineup alongside Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.
New York, ever a hotbed of conversation, has been overflowing with predictions ranging from cynical to utopian.
They’re a super-team! / They’re not going to make the playoffs!
They overpaid for Noah and D-Rose is washed up! / Those guys are well worth it!
This is the Knicks. Good, bad or middle-of-the-road, they inspire conversation. But nobody seems to be talking about what could easily go down as the best move of the summer: signing Brandon Jennings.
The 26-year-old Compton, California, native agreed to a one-year deal worth only $5 million. For context, Matthew Dellavedova will average $9.5 million over his four years with the Milwaukee Bucks.
That’s outrageous value.
But, like most bargains — whether it’s a printing error on a cheap jersey or a scratch on a disc — there’s a reason. Jennings, then with the Detroit Pistons, ruptured his left Achilles tendon on Jan. 25, 2015, and was sidelined for about 11 months. Then, 23 games into his comeback, Jennings was traded to the Orlando Magic.
A career score-first floor general (15.5 points per game), Jennings struggled mightily following his injury. He scored just 6.9 points in 18.1 minutes in 2015-16.
That’s why he came so cheap to New York. But six solid years — which featured a cumulative 16.6 points, 6.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals — overshadowed one down one for the Knicks, who were actually one of Jennings’ dream destinations as a rookie.
Here’s what he told MSG Network’s Rebecca Haarlow in July when asked about a source of motivation in 2015-16:
“It goes back to the draft, because I didn’t get drafted here. I always wanted to be a Knick. It took about seven years to get here, but I’m here now, so I can’t wait.”
Now, seven years later, Jennings will get to play for the Knicks under Jeff Hornacek, instead of Mike D’Antoni. But he’s not the star of the show he might’ve been had New York not made the mistake of taking Jordan Hill two picks prior in 2009.
And he knows that.
“[Rose]’s coming off of a year where he probably didn’t have his best year—me, him or Joakim. So, we’re all hungry. And that’s the best thing.”
Last season, with Jose Calderon and Jerian Grant, the Knicks had arguably the worst offensive backcourt in basketball. Using John Hollinger’s ESPN Player Efficiency Rating stats, Calderon ranked 55th and Grant ranked 62nd.
Defensively, the duo was just as bad.
Using Defensive Real Plus-Minus, which estimates a player’s impact on his team’s performance “measured in points allowed per 100 defensive possessions,” Calderon and Grant were both in the negative. Calderon ranked 26th with -0.4 while Grant finished 46th with -1.54, one spot above 40-year-old Andre Miller and one below Marcelo Huertas, known more for his shattered ankles than anything else.
The numbers don’t lie. New York’s point-guard play was painfully bad last year.
Last season, by far the worst of his career, Jennings was 41st in PER. In 2014-15 — the year he was injured after 41 games — the former Oak Hill Academy star was on pace to finish No. 10:
“I’m feeling good,” Jennings said on The Stashed’s podcast. “Feeling good. You know, I was able to have a full summer where I was able to work out every day, get better and actually play. So that was my whole thing, just being able to play all summer.”
Jennings might not be the 16-point-per-game guy he once was. But he’s still a significant upgrade over what the Knicks had last season. He’s not locked up long-term, either, so this is a bit of a “prove yourself” deal:
“[Jackson] said he expects me to be sixth man of the year,” Jennings said at his introductory press conference, per ESPN New York’s Ian Begley. “So I’m definitely gonna embrace that role. I don’t see why I can’t be in that conversation, and I’m fine with it. I’m definitely fine with it.”
While Jennings will open the season coming off the bench, it remains a possibility that he could wind up as the starter.
Rose is not known for his stellar health, and there’s also the sexual assault civil suit with a former romantic partner that seems to get uglier and more cringe-worthy by the day. (The Ringer’s Jason Concepcion discussed the case here.) The trial begins Oct. 4, which is the same day the Knicks begin training camp.
This isn’t to say Rose will be proven innocent or guilty, of course. But the potential is there for the former MVP to miss time, which would throw Jennings into the mix as a starter.
Back in July, he sounded more than willing to accept the challenge, if given the chance:
“I just want to prove that I’m back to who I am and that I can still play, I can still go and I’m healthy. I think the main thing is just showing people that I’m healthy and I’m back, and that I can still run a team.”
He might just get that chance.