CHICAGO — While officials from other teams chatted amicably in the lobby of the Hilton Chicago, openly talking about their place in the lottery Tuesday night and into Wednesday afternoon, the Knicks front office contingent shuttled in together Wednesday afternoon, brushing quickly through and into an elevator to head up to meetings with a number of players.
Other than a brief and innocuous statement issued in the wake of the lottery Tuesday the group had nothing to say, refusing interviews or any comment on the organization’s plans. So you’ll just have to trust them to get it right this time.
The Knicks have had an eye focused toward this summer since the start of last season, maybe even since Kristaps Porzingis suffered a torn ACL in February 2018. With that injury the Knicks knew their chances were slim to compete and they turned the 2018-19 season into a player development campaign focused on youth and with the worst record in the NBA a chance at the top pick in the NBA Draft. But Tuesday’s lottery spoiled that hope, leaving them with the third pick and a new plan.
The Knicks will not have Zion Williamson and now have to assess who they would take with the No. 3 pick, or if they will keep the pick at all. With as much as $74 million in salary cap space they can make a run at two veteran stars with max salary contracts in free agency and will have to decide whether that would be better suited with another veteran, such as New Orleans disgruntled star, Anthony Davis.
While the Knicks were silent, Pelicans VP of basketball operations David Griffin said that he was hopeful of convincing Davis that with Williamson and Jrue Holiday in place around him, staying with New Orleans would be different than it has been.
“It’s the same situation,” Griffin said. “We want to create an environment players are attracted to. We feel very strongly Anthony in totality will be attracted to what we can build and what we can offer. It’s the same for all players. We’re going to stand for something. We hope that repeats itself.”
Asked if the draft lottery had changed his mindset on seeking another top pick in a deal, he said, “Not really . . . I don’t believe anything or anyone is untouchable in our business. There’s a value for everything. I think there’s a situation in our league where most people try to shy away from big decisions because you can be wrong. That’s not how our organization’s going to operate. We’re going to do what’s best for us long term, whatever that looks like.”
But the Knicks plans still must be flexible because, despite the confidence of Garden chairman James Dolan, they have no assurances that they will land the stars they seek in free agency. So this draft pick, which comes on June 20, predates the start of the free agent market a little less than two weeks later. That leaves them needing to handle due diligence as the draft approaches. That began with the interviews Wednesday.
Although Williamson will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick, there are no certainties after that. The Memphis Grizzlies have the second pick and while most put Murray State point guard Ja Morant as the likely choice, they still have a very highly-paid star at the position in Mike Conley Jr. Duke’s RJ Barrett is expected to be in the mix, too.
“Another freak athlete, the way he can jump,” NBA TV analyst and former Knicks executive Isiah Thomas said of Morant. “But also, his passing skills are very unique. He passes with his left hand, his right hand, passes it off the dribble. Shoots the ball pretty well. He’s a confident defender. From a basketball standpoint, he checks all of the box when you talk about superior athlete, passing ability, his shooting is good and will get better because the more he practices, it will get better. And then his attitude is good, too.”
Morant, who grew up in South Carolina and played at mid-major Murray State in Kentucky said he’s never been to New York, and had not been in Chicago until this week. He was lightly recruited out of high school and said, “I’ll never lose that chip on my shoulders.”
That is in contrast to Barrett, who was the No. 1-ranked player coming out of high school. Thomas said of Barrett, “I think with all these players it depends on the coach and the system that they go to. If you fall into the right system with the right coach, that understands how to exploit and display your talents, then yeah you can be quite special. RJ is one of those players. Not only did he show it at Duke but he showed it at high school. He’s been one of the top-rated players in the country and also in basketball over the last four or five years. He’s not a surprise to anyone.”
Notes & quotes: Damyean Dotson, who started 40 games for the Knicks, underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. The team expects him to be ready for training camp. The Knicks hold a team option on Dotson this summer.