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Chasing shiny things has been the New York Knicks‘ modus operandi for more than a decade now. We’re all familiar with how that’s worked out after six straight seasons without playoff basketball and just three trips in the last 15 years.
Yet over the past year, the Knicks have been at it once again.
First, they cleared the decks to woo free agents and made clear to anyone who would listen that they believed the biggest of all the upcoming free agents, Kevin Durant, was coming. Then they spent the final two-thirds of the season doing everything they legally could to improve their draft slot and enhance their options for surrounding Durant with young talent.
This, they said, would be a new era of Knicks basketball, and Tuesday night’s draft lottery would mark the beginning. Nab the No. 1 pick and they’d win the chance to select Zion Williamson.
From there, anything was possible.
The Knicks could keep him and build around the most exciting NBA prospect since LeBron James. They could dangle him as trade bait and maybe pry Anthony Davis away from the New Orleans Pelicans. There’d be options, so many options, all glorious and exciting and capable of thrusting the Knicks back into both contention and relevancy.
To help aid the cause, Knicks fans called in some help. Rabbis. Priests. Witches. They checked all the boxes. But all that praying seemed to have an inverse effect.
The deity in charge of cursing the Knicks apparently awoke from his/her/its slumber. At 8:50 p.m. ET, with three teams waiting to be called, NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum drew a card featuring the Knicks logo from an envelope, signaling New York, the team with the worst record in the league last season, would receive the third pick in the 2019 draft.
“We are excited to have the third pick and are confident we will be able to add a great player to our talented young core and the team that we are building,” Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry said in a statement.
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That they will.
Most experts have Murray State point guard Ja Morant pegged as the second-best player in the draft and Duke wing RJ Barrett at No. 3. Both are highly touted. Most observers also have Morant and Barrett grouped together behind Williamson in the draft’s second tier. It’s after three, many scouts believe, that the talent level drops off.
Not falling below that mark meant the night wasn’t without its victories.
The problem is that the Knicks now find themselves in a bit of offseason no-man’s land. In one hand, they have a handful of prospects, a group that will now likely include either Morant or Barrett. In the other, they’re chasing free agents who, upon arrival, would expect the Knicks to compete right away. Zion, a young player good enough to play for a competitive team, was the key to bridging these two paths. He was also the insurance policy in case of a Durant spurn.
So what do the Knicks do now?
Ideally, they would wait until free agency before making any drastic moves. If Durant comes, then you think about dealing your prospects for vets. If he doesn’t, and you miss out on other free agents such as Kyrie Irving, you move forward with Morant or Barrett and the rest of the pups.
That shouldn’t be viewed as a doomsday scenario.
Morant is an explosive point guard tailor-made for the modern NBA game. As one scout said Tuesday night, “He has some De’Aaron Fox and Russell Westbrook in him.”
Barrett is a dynamic scorer and playmaker who, before the college season, was actually ranked higher than Williamson on most draft boards. The scout added: “He could end up being the best player in the draft.”
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But the Pelicans, who jumped up to No. 1, now hold all the cards. If they do elect to deal Davis—and Davis’ people were very quick to share that Zion’s arrival wouldn’t lead to a reversal—they can do so on their own timeline.
Zion was the one piece worth chasing. With him already in New Orleans, executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin can dictate when the Davis deal gets made and force teams to bid against one another.
“If the Knicks had Zion, Griffin would have had to wait for them,” one rival executive said.
Can the Knicks beat a Jayson Tatum-centered package from the Boston Celtics or one from the Los Angeles Lakers featuring Brandon Ingram and the No. 4 pick in the upcoming draft that they, thanks to a lottery jump, now own? Perhaps, if Griffin prefers Morant or Barrett to Tatum.
But the odds of the Knicks winning the Davis sweepstakes aren’t high. And again, do you even want to if it means pulling the trigger on a deal before learning of Durant’s decision?
Zion would have solved that problem. He would have thrust the Knicks into the driver’s seat, and for the first time in years. He would have gifted them with options. Instead, they’re left with choices and the hope that Durant chooses them.
It’s not a bad position to be in, but it’s also not one of strength.