Jalen Brunson and the Knicks are proof that having a Napoleon complex isn’t all bad

Jalen Brunson and the Knicks are proof that having a Napoleon complex isn’t all bad

It’s Oscars Week, which feels like as good a time as any to draw up the NBA storylines and characters which could double as Oscar nominees.

Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t quite nail Napoleon, but Jalen Brunson being cast as the pint-sized floor general spearheading a once-great powerhouse back to glory after James Dolan’s long reign of terror in the NBA’s production feels familiar. With Tom Thibodeau as his commander, Brunson’s strategic brilliance on 94 feet of hardwood has reinvigorated the New York Knicks.

Manhattan has always felt like it’s overcompensating for its size. It’s a densely populated metropolitan area that sandwiches a few million souls between sizzling concrete and a trillion tons of metal, but it’s never felt diminutive. You won’t find a larger collection of egos more overinflated than the price of real estate anywhere in the developed world than you will among the faithful who never wavered from their reverence of the Knicks.

Madison Square Garden is the NBA’s grandest stage, but not because of the product on the floor. It’s now been a half-century since New York’s last title. Knicks front offices have wasted two decades pursuing lavish free agents who matched the Big Apple’s lofty notions of itself. LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo, Amare Stoudemire, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving are just a few of the Hall of Fame hoops aristocrats that have snubbed the Knicks.

Stars aren’t concerned with becoming mainstream stars on Madison Avenue anymore. They’d rather bolster their reps by winning over the MSG crowd as conquering invaders. However, Napoleon Brunson snuck up on the league, welcoming the challenge as the first player in league history to sign a $100 million contract with a new team sans an All-Star accolade on his resume. In Dallas, Brunson left behind his Josephine, Luka Dončić.

Nearly two years after Durant and Irving refused to entertain the Knickerbockers during their free agency tour, the Brunson-led Knicks are supposedly in their Napoleonic Era, leading an unlikely assault on the Eastern Conference’s elite and returning one of the NBA’s most iconic franchises to prosperity.

However, in December, a soundbite from Becky Hammon on ESPN’s NBA Today, unlocked every Knicks enthusiast’s latent Napoleon complex.

“Can I tell you my philosophy? If your best player is small, you’re not winning,” Hammon explained on the broadcast. “John Stockton, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash. You could go down the list. Steph Curry is the only one — but also, he’s the greatest shooter to ever walk the planet. He’s in a different class.

“I’m saying this as a small person,” Hammon continued. “This a game that — the big and bold, it favors that God-given thing. And I love Jalen Brunson, but you’re gonna put him on the level of a 1A? You’re putting him with Giannis? KD [Kevin Durant]? Steph?”

Hammon speaks from a plethora of experience as a head coach, basketball historian, and as a 5-foot-6 six-time WNBA All-Star. Steph Curry at 6-foot-3 is an anomaly among franchise players who’ve piloted an NBA championship team. It’s been done before by the likes of Isaiah Thomas and Jerry West. Even Allen Iverson nearly finished the job in the 2001 Finals before he ran into a Los Angeles Lakers buzzsaw.

All those guys were top-five lottery picks — or top-10 in Steph Curry’s case — and given how the league has changed, the only reason Curry went that far is because the transition to three-point marksmanship as the primary skill set for an offensive virtuoso hadn’t popped off yet. Brunson was the third pick in the second round of the 2018 Draft.

Hammon’s analysis became a rallying cry for the second half of the season as they echoed the doubts about Brunson’s size, which he alluded to during his introductory press conference as a Knick.

“They said I was too slow, not athletic enough. Too small,” Brunson said. “All the things that don’t measure heart. And that’s what I have.”

Between Dec. 21, 2023 — when Hammon made her remarks — and Feb. 1, 2024, the Knicks went 16-5, climbing to second in the East. And after every win, salt was thrown in her direction. When healthy, Brunson is the vessel through which Knicks fans live vicariously and Hammon’s take hit a nerve. Probably because Knickerbocker Nation is also coming around to the realization that their franchise’s roster-building ethos should reflect the gritty, proletariat that populates New York City and its outer boroughs, not the gleaming skyscrapers downtown or the red carpet-walking interlopers hopping into courtside seats. At some point, the CAA influence led the Knicks to believe they could replicate the Lakers’ formula of chasing stars as their modus operandi. In the Leon Rose era, they’ve found success doing the opposite.

In an era where the pipeline of NYC-bred stars has run dry, they don’t have the option of luring Knick-loving New York-bred hoopers to Madison Square Garden. Brunson’s Knicks aren’t a big-budget epic. They’re an indie project using C-List talent giving A-List effort and proving that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thibodeau, who was an assistant during New York’s glory days of John Starks, Anthony Mason, and Patrick Ewing playing in the mud, had the Knicks locking down the rim as the league’s top defense when healthy. Meanwhile, OG Anunoby made the impact they hoped Donovan Mitchell would. Last summer, the expectation was that Mitchell was the next superstar yearning to be a Knick. That never came to fruition, but since Jan. 1, his +252 plus-minus as a Knick is third in the league though he hasn’t played in 16 games. Julius Randle is experiencing admiration he never found in L.A., joining Carmelo Anthony as the only three-time All-Star as a Knick since Ewing.

Eventually, Napoleon met his Battle of Waterloo. The Knicks’ Waterloo might be hastened by the injury bug. Brunson, Anunoby, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson have missed large chunks of the season since they rose to second in the East back on Feb. 2. They’ve been derailed to the point of brinkmanship with the play-in. Never fear though, Brunson’s return is near.

The Knicks All-Star was a participant in practice Thursday after sitting on the shelf for a week rehabbing a left knee contusion while Anunoby has returned to 5-on-5 action. If these Knicks are going to make a run out East, the rest of the cavalry is needed, but Brunson is the one worth 40,000 men.

Find DJ Dunson on X: @cerebralsportex

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About the Author

Anthony Barnett
Anthony is the author of the Science & Technology section of ANH.