Josh Hart is sending out the invitations.
Julius Randle should have received his already. Same with OG Anunoby and Mitchell Robinson. Quentin Grimes’ delivery is in the mail as we speak.
Hart is calling on all of them to return to the court — and not necessarily for basketball reasons. This is about a player battling to survive the long season.
Following the New York Knicks’ first defeat in nearly three weeks, a 113-105 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Hart sat at his locker. He looked up at the few reporters surrounding him but was bent over, each of his elbows resting on their corresponding thighs.
If this was not a man drained, it was one trying his hardest to appear that way.
Every comment, even ones about innocent topics such as Randle returning to the bench for the first time since dislocating his right shoulder, seemed to come back to the never-ending amount of minutes the starters were playing.
“(Randle) dapped me up with his right hand, so that was good,” Hart said, before detailing a plea. “I would love for him to be out there (Tuesday) night. That’d be nice for him. Quentin, throw Mitch in there and OG, man. Have everyone back. We can all reduce the minutes and have a party.”
Hart played 42 minutes Saturday against the Lakers. Four of the five starters on the injury-depleted Knicks crested 40 minutes that night, including Jalen Brunson, who ran for 45. It was no coincidence that their legs turned to Play-Doh in the fourth quarter when New York went nearly seven minutes of game time without scoring a point and let go of a lead in the process.
Even with injuries to the four aforementioned players, the Knicks continue to win. They are 15-3 since the New Year. Second place in the Eastern Conference is within shouting distance. But the way the past few games have gone is a reminder that they could use an innings eater, someone to burn 20 to 25 minutes so that the rest of the group isn’t gassed by February’s fourth quarters, let alone May’s.
If the Knicks had their druthers, they would find their innings eater before the Feb. 8 trade deadline.
New York’s priorities haven’t changed much since January when The Athletic reported, via league sources, that it was actively fielding calls about Grimes. The Randle injury hasn’t forced the Knicks to adjust their approach. The organization is optimistic the three-time NBA All-Star can return to his usual self before the end of the regular season.
The hope remains to bring in someone who can hold up the offense behind Brunson and play alongside him if needed. That player would preferably be under contract into next season on a salary in the high teens into the low 20s (in millions, of course), which would make him a worthwhile trade chip if the Knicks wanted to flip him for a star next summer.
Of course, that’s a specific archetype. The perfect player, as The Athletic detailed two weeks ago, may not exist. The market has been quiet. And the Knicks are experiencing the effects of that.
Momentum has skewed away from the possibility of a Grimes trade, league sources have said. Though one is still possible, not much has enticed New York. The goal, as it has been for weeks, is not to trade Grimes no matter what the best offer is. It’s to use him to acquire someone worthwhile for the long term. The Knicks haven’t found that player, yet.
If they don’t move Grimes, they could revisit his trade market this upcoming summer, when they are targeting a big move for a star and when Grimes is eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension.
The Knicks have spoken with the Toronto Raptors about Bruce Brown, league sources have said, but Grimes hasn’t been part of those conversations. Instead, discussions have centered around Evan Fournier and draft compensation for Brown, who could eat innings like a Liván Hernández impersonator.
The Knicks also have dipped and dabbled with the Detroit Pistons’ Alec Burks, according to league sources, who also would not command Grimes in return. The Athletic’s James Edwards III has reported that Detroit is “leaning toward keeping” Burks, a veteran on an expiring contract who has fans in New York including Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau.
Intuition says the 32-year-old Burks could be attainable for one- or two second-round picks along with a matching salary, but it’s difficult to decipher the Pistons’ priorities. They’re 6-43 but they have held onto vets for longer than expected.
Efforts for bigger names haven’t been abundant. The Knicks have chatted with the Atlanta Hawks about Dejounte Murray, but their conversations have been informal.
New York’s front office approaches trade discussions in different stages. The Knicks are known for calling other teams and throwing loads of concepts at them, trying to gauge the opposing organization’s priorities and who it may or may not like.
Think of those situations as brainstorming sessions, not negotiations. The Knicks aren’t making hard offers at that time, and they’re not looking for whomever they’re conversing with to say yes or no. Instead, they want to witness what reaction their concepts inspire.
In one phone call, they may mention more than half their roster, and if the details of that discourse were to trickle out, it could sound like the Knicks were making offer after offer to one team. But in reality, sometimes, they are just tossing hypotheticals at other executives to see what sticks.
To my knowledge, they have not gotten past the concept stage with Murray, who the Hawks could deal before Thursday.
Fournier would provide the vehicle to bring in someone on the salary the Knicks prefer: eight figures and into $20 million. But based on the way New York has operated, it would be shocking if it dealt Fournier for an upcoming free agent. The Knicks want that new player to be under contract for next season, ensuring that they could include him in a larger trade for a star four or five months from now. Fournier earns $18.8 million this season and has a team option for 2024-25.
For an example of what not to look out for, let’s go back to the Detroit situation.
Dealing Fournier and a couple of second-round picks for Burks and Monté Morris could make some basketball sense for both teams, considering the money changing hands is similar. The Pistons receive future assets and the Knicks bring back a competent, no-nonsense point guard along with a known quantity in Burks. But contractually, it’s a no-no, considering both of those Pistons are on expiring deals.
The Knicks are still eyeing the upcoming summer for a big-star trade, league sources said. And they’d prefer to deal as little out of today’s rotation as they can to make that happen. Exchanging Fournier for expiring veterans could force them to include at least two of Robinson, Hart and Donte DiVincenzo along with Grimes in a deal this summer. That’s not what they want.
It’s why a buyout of Fournier, if the Knicks don’t trade him by Feb. 8, is unlikely. If he’s still on the roster past the deadline, picking up his $19 million 2024-25 team option is on the table, according to league sources, even though Fournier rarely ever plays — even when the group is missing nearly half of its rotation.
The nine-game winning streak and the 15-3 record in 2024 have changed the Knicks’ calculus, too. They’ve already made their biggest move of the season by bringing in Anunoby and Precious Achiuwa. New York has taken off since, and its rotation, when healthy, can trigger a playoff run.
The starting lineup with Anunoby is wrecking opponents at plus-19.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. The defense has been the NBA’s stingiest since the trade. The offense is good enough, as long as Brunson is in the game. Once Randle returns, the point guard will have his favorite outlet, which will make double-teaming him the way the Lakers did Saturday a riskier task.
The Knicks don’t need to fix a team that’s not broken. But they also don’t want injuries or exhaustion to cause their collapse.
If they don’t pull off a move before the deadline, they could scour the buyout market for a veteran who can provide bench help. For now, they could use one more guy, especially someone Thibodeau is willing to play.
Make no mistake: The culture that has emerged in this locker room is not lost on the organization. The Knicks have piled up competitive players, people who approach grit as if it’s glory. Diving into the stands is like a yawn. If one Knick does it, the rest of them follow. What the front office doesn’t want to acquire is someone whose personality doesn’t mesh.
They also understand their coach attracts dedicated, motivated maniacs — players like Brunson, who will take charges against anyone or Isaiah Hartenstein, who struts away from every game with scrapes and bruises covering his arms and face.
The Knicks would be best off acquiring a player with that same mentality, even if he’s not of an elite talent level. Brown certainly fits the description, as does Burks. And surely, there are other players out there who are smart, defend and will do whatever it takes to win — including playing until ankles fall off.
Exorbitant playing time may continue for the time being. Anunoby, Grimes, Randle and Robinson are all out for Tuesday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Knicks have continually said Anunoby is day to day but this is his fifth missed game due to elbow inflammation, meaning he will go at least 12 days between playing. It’s not clear if the inflammation is occurring because of an injury or overuse.
Can someone be day to day forever? If so, aren’t we all day to day?
When asked if he planned on playing his regulars this many minutes moving forward, Thibodeau said he would do “whatever the game calls for.”
In Thibodeau’s defense, the Knicks aren’t putting as many miles on their body these days as the minutes totals would imply. Considering the injuries and increased playing time, they aren’t practicing as much. They had two consecutive off days Sunday and Monday with the normal rule of thumb being that they would have been off Sunday and practiced Monday. But this time, they practiced neither day.
That is a way to conserve the guys who are flinging around the court for 42 to 45 minutes every other evening. But an innings eater would help, too.
And Hart, whose inconsistent jump shot has fallen flat of late, may come to work anyway. The 28-year-old knows that he has to rest to keep his body sharp but also understands that when the jumper, as he puts it, is “broke,” you have to repair it.
“Maybe at this point, I just gotta focus on just getting more reps,” Hart said. “Hopefully, my body can take it. If not, it is what it is. But I just gotta focus on being in the moment. Playing 40 (minutes), try to put the effort (and) work in and hope the body holds up and lets me finish the season.”
Hart was abnormally tired coming into autumn. He made the playoffs for the first time in his career, which added a month to his 2022-23. He played with Team USA over the summer, which was new. Once he finished in the Philippines, he headed straight to Knicks training camp, where he said that his body didn’t feel as fresh as it normally does in October.
He’d played all season and then all summer. His break wasn’t nearly as long.
Now, the minutes are increasing, and he feels he has to choose between his production and his health.
Of course, the Knicks could ease the situation for him and the rest of the roster. Thibodeau could sprinkle in a few more minutes of Miles McBride or Malachi Flynn. He could insert old, reliable Taj Gibson. Or the front office could bring a player, who might not even help them once rotations shrink in the playoffs but could keep them afloat for the regular season’s final 30 games.
(Photo of Bruce Brown and Julius Randle: Sarah Stier / Getty Images)