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Kristian Winfield: Knicks front office hits another mid-season home run with OG Anunoby trade

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images North America/TNS

NEW YORK — As Knicks president Leon Rose, senior vice president Gersson Rosas, and senior basketball advisor William Wesley watched their team romp over the defending champion Denver Nuggets at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, a sellout arena collectively came to the same conclusion.

Damn. That OG Anunoby trade worked out pretty well.

Less than a month ago, the Knicks were in freefall defensively and allowed 120 or more points in nine of the 13 games preceding the deal that sent RJ Barrett, Immanuel Quickley and a valuable second-round pick to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for Anunoby, Precious Achiuwa and Malachi Flynn.

My, how a few weeks can change a season outlook.

Thursday’s 122-84 victory over the reigning champs marked New York’s 11th win in the 13 games played since the Anunoby deal. The Knicks have the second-best defensive rating in basketball behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-2) during this stretch. Only one opponent has scored 120 or more (the Dallas Mavericks), and the Knicks have allowed a league-best average of just 102.6 points per game since the deal.

In short: Anunoby has transformed the Knicks, so much that the Knicks unraveled the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets without their two best centers: Isaiah Hartenstein (day-to-day, left Achilles tendinopathy) and Mitchell Robinson (ankle surgery, could return by end of regular season).

The Knicks are quick to downplay the significance of beating the Nuggets: Denver completed an 11-day, five-game road trip at the Garden and head coach Mike Malone suggested his team ran out of gas.

“That’s a really good team. I think we caught them on a bad night,” said starting guard Jalen Brunson. “Not typical of them. But a win’s a win.”

No one — neither within the organization or among those who have watched the Knicks since the trade — is downplaying Anunoby’s impact in the Big Apple.

“He makes life a lot easier. He can switch one through five,” Brunson said. “It looks effortless when he plays out there defensively. So what he’s been able to do has been special.”

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If there’s any stat that encapsulates a player’s impact for a team, it’s plus-minus, or net rating. This stat tracks how many points a team outscores an opponent by when any player is on the floor.

Anunoby finished Thursday’s matchup with a team-high 26 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field. He recorded six steals, and the Knicks outscored the Nuggets by 38 points in their three-and-D wing’s 29 minutes on the floor.

“It just seems like he’s always in the right place [at the right time],” Julius Randle said. “The thing I liked today was [that] OG was aggressive.

“He’s starting to figure it out for sure. He’s starting to pick his spots, like when he waved me off, I’m like ‘just f------ go.’ Just hoop. We’ll figure it out. I like him being in an aggressive mindset, coming off of dribble handoffs, and I think his shooting [helps us].”

“Well I think it’s two-fold: I think it’s what he brings to the team. but it’s also what the guys here are bringing to him,” coach Tom Thibodeau said after the victory. “When you get everyone invested in each other, good things come from that. And so, I don’t think it’s any one guy doing something that carries everyone else. It’s everyone playing to their strengths, covering up their weaknesses.”

The proof is in the pudding: prior to the deal, the Knicks owned just a 6-16 record against teams with a record currently .500 or better.

Since the deal, they are 3-2 and secured a 15-point victory over a Houston Rockets team currently one game below-.500.

The impact is mind-blowing considering Anunoby is still living out of a suitcase in a hotel and has yet to close on a new home. The newest Knicks starter said he didn’t give any thought as to how his new team would hold up after giving up two valuable rotation pieces in Barrett and Quickley.

“Did I know this would happen? When I came I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was just trying to get acclimated. But happy it is happening,” he said. “Whenever we get guys back, Isaiah, Mitch, it’ll be even better. They’re great players. They’ll help out even more.”

“[This is] what I always wanted to do. I expected it,” Anunoby said. “I expect to make a difference. You know?”

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Teams that make trades midseason can see a bit of a drop-off before they start stringing wins together.

The Los Angeles Clippers, for example, lost five in a row after trading for James Harden. They are 25-7 since.

Surprisingly, a losing streak wasn’t in store for the Knicks, a testament to how seamless a fit Anunoby has been on a defensive-minded team with two dominant on-ball playmakers and scorers in Brunson and Randle.

After the first game in the Anunoby era, Randle called him “the perfect piece that complements our team really well.”

The Knicks front office has a knack for finding such fits — and with the Knicks attempting to bolster their roster ahead of the Feb. 8 NBA trade deadline, you can be sure management won’t leave any stone unturned as it attempts to strike a deal for a player who can improve the team without taking away from chemistry and continuity.

The Knicks were 11-14 when they traded for Derrick Rose in the 2020-21 season and finished the season 41-31. They were 30-27 when they traded for Josh Hart in the middle of last season and immediately rattled off a nine-game winning streak.

They are now 11-2 in the Anunoby era with decisive wins over talented teams angling to compete for a championship.

The Knicks beat a Minnesota Timberwolves team tied for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, 112-106, in Anunoby’s Knicks debut. They held the Philadelphia 76ers below 93 points in a 26-point blowout victory and have now defeated the defending champions, albeit with a caveat: no one on the team believes the Nuggets were at full strength.

The Knicks now have a tough test ahead of them against a Miami Heat team, though the Heat are riding a five-game losing streak and just pulled off a trade for lightning-rod former Charlotte Hornets scorer Terry Rozier.

The Knicks, who are in need of a scoring punch off the bench, could have made a deal for Rozier but opted against one.

At this point, if the front office doesn’t think the fit is right, believe them — because history shows when the Knicks reach an in-season agreement on a trade, they usually take flight shortly after.

“It’s a credit to our front office. Any time we have made a trade midseason like that, the person coming in — a couple years ago it was Derrick Rose who came in and gave us a boost. J-Hart came in last year and gave us a boost. Now we’ve got OG,” Randle said. “They’ve got a great knack for finding pieces that come in and fit seamlessly, just kickstart our team, get us going, get us a little bit of extra juice. They’ve been amazing at that for sure.”