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Point guard Jalen Brunson was “a helluva addition” but not enough to make the Knicks a surefire entrant to the NBA “play-in’’ tournament.
That is the sentiment of former Knicks coach Jeff Gundy, ESPN’s star analyst who speaks his mind and is close with Tom Thibodeau.
Though Van Gundy says it’s too early to condemn the Knicks for whiffing on Donovan Mitchell, he feels they still need “a star to build around’’ to become a playoff team.
In the NBA’s newish format, the 7-10 seeds in each conference compete in a play-in for the right to enter the playoffs.
“The Knicks have good players, but you line it up against the competition in the East, and this roster is not on the same level,’’ Van Gundy told The Post in a phone interview from his Houston home. “They could shock the world and be a playoff team, but I look at the East and I’d have to say eight to 13 is where they should be predicted. They’re not even close to a lock for the play-in. A lot has to go right.’’
Last season the Knicks finished at 37-45 for 11th place — straight into the lottery’s pingpong-ball hell. If they do so again, Thibodeau, who was an assistant on Van Gundy’s Knicks and Rockets staffs, likely will be on the unemployment line.
Las Vegas is cautious about the Knicks’ improvement. At the Westgate SuperBook, the Over/Under for wins dropped from 40.5 to 39.5 the day after Mitchell was traded to the Cavaliers.
Despite hefty, $100 million-plus contracts for Brunson, power forward Julius Randle and guard RJ Barrett, he of the new $120 million extension,
”The one thing everyone can agree on, if the Knicks are to make a jump in the standings, they have to have a guy — or two guys — to build around,’’ the Rochester native said. “They still don’t have that building block, from a star player’s standpoint.’’
The Knicks will likely field a starting lineup of Brunson, Evan Fournier, Barrett, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, though second-year-man Quentin Grimes could beat out Fournier at shooting guard.
Van Gundy said at best, Randle, Brunson and Barrett are “fringe All-Stars.’’ He said Brunson’s intangibles with his “great character’’ is pivotal.
“I’m not being negative about those guys,’’ Van Gundy said. “Randle made an All-Star team, Barrett they hope continues to become a more efficient player. Jalen is in that category of fringe All-Star.
“That being said, if you’re going to make a significant jump in the Eastern Conference — when you have [Boston’s Jayson] Tatum, [Jaylen] Brown, [Brooklyn’s Kevin] Durant, [Milwaukee’s Giannis] Antetokounmpo , [Miami’s Jimmy] Butler, and [James] Harden and [Joel] Embiid in Philly, you need a top-20 player in the league. That’s what you build around. They’re still searching for that.”
If the Knicks advance to the eight-to-10 range, it might be because Randle is back to being a winning player.
“Randle bounce-back is the No. 1 factor and it’s how he addresses last season,’’ Van Gundy said. “Has he looked inward or he still going to be funky?’’
The Knicks’ failure to land Mitchell — mostly because they wouldn’t fork over three unprotected first-round picks — has polarized the fan base. Van Gundy thinks it’s a solid move for the Cavaliers to add Mitchell with Darius Garland and Evan Mobley — all three guys who can be considered building blocks.
“For the Knicks, it’s disappointing, but on all these trades. the rush to judgment for the better or worse sometimes misses what actually happened,’’ Van Gundy said. “We really don’t know what the exact offers were. It’s hard to judge trades this quickly. We’ll eventually see how Cleveland did in the trade, how Utah did and how the Knicks did by not participating in the end. To rush to judgment and start pointing fingers of blame, that’s premature.’’