Edwards, one of the league’s brightest young stars, is precisely the kind of strong and physical scoring wing that Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s teams have struggled to contain throughout his tenure.
But prior to Monday, Thibodeau’s Knicks hadn’t had a player like OG Anunoby. And, as the game tipped off, it was Anunoby who was glued to Edwards. (Anunoby defended Edwards for a team-high 34 half-court matchups, allowing just four shot attempts.)
Then, just over two minutes into the game and New York on offense, the ball found itself in Anunoby’s hands in the corner. In the league’s top five in made corner 3s, he let it fly, with the shot nestling in the bottom of the net to a huge ovation from Madison Square Garden fans.
As was the case in his victorious Knicks debut, there is nothing flashy about Anunoby’s 3-and-D game. Unlike most players who populate NBA trade machines this time of year, Anunoby has never come close to averaging 20 points. His production over his first couple of games as a member of the New York Knicks — 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds — isn’t overwhelming. His biggest strength — his defense — remains difficult to quantify.
“It’s extremely easy,” Knicks star Julius Randle said, when asked about the process of learning to play alongside Anunoby, who was a game-high plus-19 in his New York debut.
“He just plays basketball the right way — that’s the best way I can put it.”
Friday night, Anunoby and the Knicks will hit the road for the first time together, heading down I-95 for a game at Wells Fargo Center against the league’s reigning MVP, Joel Embiid, and the Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). A little over a month before the trade deadline, the matchup will offer a glimpse into how legitimate the Knicks are as Eastern Conference contenders.
And after Anunoby’s acquisition officially kicked off what is now a five-week sprint to the NBA’s Feb. 8 trade deadline, the Knicks — and the rest of the league — are waiting to see what dominoes will fall as a result.
BEFORE TRADING FOR Anunoby, the Knicks’ roster problem was twofold.
They simply weren’t good enough defensively. For a team coached by Thibodeau, long known for his defensive acumen and focus, New York ranking 19th in defense in consecutive seasons was proof New York needed help to become a true contender in the East.
And league sources said there was an internal recognition that, after losing to the Miami Heat in the East semifinals last season, and fighting for a top-6 spot in the conference this season, Thibodeau had maximized the team’s existing group.
New York believes adding Anunoby is a step toward fixing both problems. With elite perimeter players like Boston’s Jayson Tatum, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey, potentially standing in their way this postseason, adding a wing-stopper was paramount.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Anunoby has credibly guarded all five positions and is the kind of defensive option Thibodeau hasn’t had with the Knicks: Anunoby, 26, has allowed the fifth-fewest points per chance on isolations over the past two seasons, among 116 players to defend at least 200 such plays, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Toronto was 8.1 points better per 100 possessions with Anunoby on the court this season.
“The positional size, I think that’s important, [and] the versatility defensively to guard multiple positions,” Thibodeau said of why the Knicks prioritized the forward.
“We think there’s still a lot of room for growth, he fits our timeline. That’s why we did it.”
But while Anunoby’s arrival addresses several issues, Quickley’s departure creates others. While it got far less attention, a few hours after the trade was consummated the Knicks made another move: inking Miles McBride, who had been the team’s third-string point guard, to a three-year, $13 million contract extension.
Doing so was a clear sign that Thibodeau and the Knicks value the upside of the third-year guard out of West Virginia and believe he can become the team’s long-term replacement for Quickley, league sources said.
But during wins over the Timberwolves and Bulls, New York was outscored by 25 in McBride’s 17 minutes, leading to questions for Thibodeau after Wednesday’s win over Chicago Bulls about the future of his second unit. “We have to try and find a rhythm. They need a little bit of time, but we’ll figure that out,” he said.
Thibodeau has begun to address the changing roster by sometimes splitting up Randle and Brunson, who have played more minutes together (1,079) than any two-man combination in the NBA this season. The Knicks have had at least one of their two stars on the court at all times over the past two games.
As the next five weeks play out, there is also the expectation more deals are coming in New York.
IT WAS ONLY a matter of time before Quickley was moved.
Last season’s Sixth Man of the Year runner-up and a favorite to win the award heading into this season, Quickley wanted to be paid starting point guard money. Doing so was never financially viable for the Knicks.
Quickley, 24, and the Knicks swapped extension offers before the October deadline, league sources said. But with him looking for more than $20 million per year, and with Brunson dominating minutes at the lead guard spot, a new deal would have made building out the roster difficult under the new luxury tax rules.
The two sides’ failure to agree to an extension signaled to rival teams that Quickley’s name would surface in trade discussions.
As a result, New York and Toronto revived Anunoby trade talks that had dated to last season. In doing so, it was a win-win for both teams, as Toronto procured its point guard of the future to play alongside rising star forward Scottie Barnes — the deal also brought in Canadian National Team star and Toronto native Barrett — while New York nabbed the wing defender and 3-point shooter it desperately needed.
And it’s likely the Knicks aren’t done.
Even after dealing for Anunoby, the Knicks remain armed with all of their own future first-round picks, plus four others (the Dallas Mavericks’ top-10 protected pick in the 2024 draft, the Milwaukee Bucks’ top-4 protected pick in the 2025 draft and future protected first-round picks from the Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards) and close to $40 million in expiring contracts.
League sources said New York will explore its options heading into the trade deadline in hopes of improving this team’s chances at a deep playoff run. The Knicks would love to throw that mountain of picks at a franchise-changing star, but that would require one to come available. They rarely do.
If such a deal once again doesn’t materialize over the next five weeks, New York will keep looking to make the kind of incremental improvements it repeatedly has over the past year.
At last year’s trade deadline, the Knicks added Hart, now the team’s top reserve. This summer, they acquired free agent DiVincenzo — now their starting shooting guard — using the midlevel exception. And now they’ve landed Anunoby, who immediately slots into a heavy-minutes role as the starting small forward.
So where else could the Knicks add a smaller piece to augment the roster? One particular area of need is at backup center — Thibodeau wants a true center protecting the rim — after Isaiah Hartenstein successfully took over for Mitchell Robinson as the team’s starting center after the latter suffered an ankle injury in December that will likely end his regular season. Another scorer or ball handler off the bench could also become a priority if McBride fails to seize the backup point guard job Quickley’s departure has opened.
While the Knicks continue to search the market, the Raptors will too. League sources expect Toronto to move on from two-time All-Star forward Pascal Siakam before the trade deadline. The Bulls, New York’s opponent Wednesday, are attempting to move All-Star guard Zach LaVine, but as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported, there isn’t a market for the three years and over $135 million remaining on LaVine’s contract. The Atlanta Hawks, sitting five games under .500 in what has been a disappointing season, could move Dejounte Murray between now and the trade deadline.
And Cleveland, despite losing starters Darius Garland (jaw) and Evan Mobley (knee) to injuries, has shown no interest in moving star guard Donovan Mitchell, league sources said. Mitchell is 18 months from unrestricted free agency and the Cavaliers sit tied with the Knicks and Orlando Magic for sixth place in the East at 19-15.
With 12 teams in each conference within one game of the 10th and final play-in spot, there will be plenty of teams motivated to make moves to try to improve their chances of making the postseason — and attempting to recreate the run the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers made last season in advancing to the NBA Finals and Western Conference finals out of the play-in, respectively.
Just don’t expect much to happen soon. According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, 64 of the 84 in-season trades over the past five seasons that started in October happened in February — with the Anunoby deal, which took place on Dec. 30, marking only the sixth deal to happen by the end of December.
New York, though, didn’t wait to get their man.
“[Anunoby is], I guess you can say, a perfect fit,” Brunson said. “He can be very special here.”