CHICAGO — There may have been a collective groan among fans in New York on Tuesday as the Ping-Pong balls left the Knicks with the No. 3 pick in the NBA Draft, but club president Steve Mills insisted that the disappointment isn’t coming from the team.
The opportunity to draft Zion Williamson with the top pick was the hope for the Knicks after they went a league-worst 17-65, but they landed the third pick in what most executives around the league believe is a three-player tier at the top of the draft. The odds in the new lottery system actually had the Knicks with a 47.9-percent chance of finishing at No. 5 overall, so the chance to get either RJ Barrett or Ja Morant was enough to call it a win for a team in need of one.
“We’re excited about where we are,” Mills said Friday as prospects worked out on the court behind him at Quest Multisport on the second day of the NBA Draft Combine. “We know we’ll get a good player at three. So it’s something we’re excited about and look forward to.”
But the Knicks’ rebuilding plans center around far more than where they will select in the first round. They have cleared out as much as $74 million in salary-cap space, enough to secure two max-salary free agents, and the No. 3 pick might be trade bait. Rumors are growing louder that the Knicks will be in the mix for Anthony Davis if the Pelicans cannot convince him to remain with the team long-term. He asked out last year at the trade deadline
, informing the team he would not sign another contract after the coming season.
“We want to build this team the right way,” Mills said. “We’ve always said we’re going to continue to work hard during the draft process. We believe we’re a team that can draft well and this is all part of our plan and growing our team.”
That is in line with what Mills and general manager Scott Perry have preached since last September, insisting they will not skip steps in the rebuilding process.
Asked if the Knicks will look into moving the pick, Mills kept his cards close to the vest, responding, “We’re here to evaluate the players that are here, and we’ll keep moving along in our process.”
While the Knicks may not have the assets to put together the best package for Davis, they do have some advantages. Davis reportedly has indicated that if he is traded, he would sign a new contract only with the Knicks or the Lakers. ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan reported that Pelicans owner Gayle Benson has struck the Lakers off the list of potential trading partners after the team believed there was tampering during the regular season to unite Davis with LeBron James in Los Angeles.
MacMullan said on an ESPN podcast, “We have been told, I think, through channels — most of us have heard this same scuttlebutt — that Gayle Benson has basically told him, ‘To the Lakers over my dead body.’ ”
Speaking with New Orleans NBC affiliate WDSU, Benson called the report absurd and denied that there was any truth to it.
If the Lakers are out, that would leave the Knicks and the Celtics as the teams most likely to contend for Davis. While the Knicks may want to keep their young talent in place — including this year’s pick — if they can sign Kevin Durant and another star in free agency, that would put a win-now mode in place, making Davis a better fit than the 18-year-old Barrett.
Mills wasn’t about to tip his hand. Executives around the league are convinced that Durant will sign with the Knicks, and while all of the serious work may be done in hotel suites here, Mills and Perry spoke happily in the hotel lobby with Pelicans VP of basketball operations David Griffin and coach Alvin Gentry on Wednesday.
“It’s been a good week for us,” Mills said. “As a group, we have a lot of guys here meeting the young players. We probably have interviewed 30 different guys over the course of time here. So it’s been a good, productive week for us.”