The Knicks could have had instant access to Zion Williamson, if only the lottery gods had cut them a break. But if you believe that luck is the residue of design, the Knicks’ design over the past two decades was most unworthy of a favorable bounce.
In a perfect world, as defined by a Knicks fan, they would have drafted Williamson, and then used the rookie to persuade Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to sign up. In an imperfect world, Williamson settled in New Orleans and Durant and Irving settled in Brooklyn, where they cleared office space for James Harden.
So now, the Knicks have to do it the hard way. As they entered Wednesday’s road game against the Pelicans, billed either as Williamson versus Duke classmate RJ Barrett or Williamson versus Julius Randle, the Knicks faced the long-term proposition of building a team that can attract a superstar who could make them a contender for their first title since 1973.
In other words, fielding a team Zion Williamson would want to play for.
On that May 2019 lottery night, when the Pelicans shocked the world, Williamson looked, you know, like a young man who might’ve been dreaming of playing in Madison Square Garden and was handed the Smoothie King Center instead. Or, as ESPN’s Rachel Nichols put it, “He kinda looked like he’d been hit by a truck.” That doesn’t mean Williamson won’t happily spend his entire career in New Orleans, with or without Lonzo Ball, who is headed for restricted free agency and, perhaps, a home at the point in MSG.
The truth is, even if the Knicks acquire the 23-year-old Ball and continue to develop the 20-year-old Barrett, that won’t be good enough to win a championship. Remember the objective here. It’s been so long in New York, people sometimes forget that a title is supposed to be the one and only goal.
Now review the players who have won multiple rings over the last 30 years. Jordan. Kobe. Shaq. Duncan. LeBron. Curry. Durant. The Knicks never figure out how to hire these people. They thought about trading an aging Patrick Ewing for a young Shaquille O’Neal in 1996 (via the doomed Don Nelson), and didn’t. They offered all of their salary cap space that summer to Michael Jordan, who rejected it. They telegraphed their 2009 intentions to draft Stephen Curry at No. 8, and lost him to Golden State at No. 7. They believed they were signing LeBron James in 2010, and stood no chance against old friend Pat Riley and Miami. They expected to sign Durant and Irving, two years ago, and lost both to a neighboring Nets franchise that won out with an anti-tanking approach.
The good news? Coach Tom Thibodeau has a league-leading defense and a player development system — with an assist from Kenny Payne — that made a first-time All-Star of Randle, and made Barrett a more intriguing prospect than he seemed to be last year. Barrett’s ceiling in the years to come is hard to gauge. Could he ever be good enough to be the best player on a title team?
That’s highly doubtful, though Barrett could be good enough to attract another player capable of being a No. 1 option for a champion. Like the 20-year-old, 6-foot-7, 284-pound friend and part-time point guard most often cited as the Next LeBron: Zion Williamson, who averaged 35 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists in the Pelicans’ three-game winning streak entering Wednesday.
“To have the combination of the power, the speed and the skill, it’s very, very unusual,” Thibodeau said before the game. “And he’s come into the NBA and taken it by storm.”
Maybe Williamson will gamble and take it to the final year of his deal in 2023-’24. More likely, he’ll weigh his injury risks and sign the kind of monster extension after next season that Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell signed after Year 3. If the CAA Knicks are to have a good shot at the CAA client, Williamson, it would likely go down the Anthony Davis, New Orleans-to-Los Angeles way — through a forced trade during the player’s second deal.
If that feels like an eternity to a Knicks fan, well, the Lakers had to wait seven seasons to get Davis (another guy the Knicks were supposed to land), and Miami had to wait seven seasons to get LeBron. Trust the process.
Meanwhile, Thibodeau and company need to keep their heads down and make the real playoffs (not the play-in bracket) this spring and beyond. They have to showcase their new culture to the league’s elite players.
So Wednesday night, the Knicks weren’t just playing their first game against Zion Williamson. They were also making a first impression for down the road.