As the Knicks have stumbled toward the end of the season and the sweet relief of summer, when the schedule will be over and the losing will come to an end, they have matched up with some of the other teams racing them to the bottom of the standings.
The “Zion Bowl,” a chance to wish and hope for a shot at Zion Williamson, the likely top pick in the upcoming draft, has matched them with the Phoenix Suns, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls. You may recognize these teams from last year’s draft lottery, and for all of them but the Cavs -- who were propped up by LeBron James for years -- it’s been a long time spent chasing the future in the draft.
So who has gotten it right and has the best chance to get it right this time? Consider the young players on the rosters right now.
Knicks: After years of dealing away picks, the Knicks have had lottery picks in three of the last four years. So what do they have to show for it? The most successful one, Kristaps Porzingis, was traded away this season. The 2017 lottery pick, Frank Ntilikina, has been unable to find his place in New York in two seasons and might be in line to follow Porzingis out of town. The most recent lottery pick, Kevin Knox, is only 19 years old (which was being said about Ntilikina last year) but has struggled with his shot and hasn’t sold any scouts on his defense or his motor. The best find has been Mitchell Robinson, who was grabbed in the second round last year. While still raw, he has shown defensive ability unlike anyone else on the roster.
Suns: After beating the Knicks by double-digits for the second time this season, the Suns showed the difference between their kids and the Knicks. Devin Booker, the No. 13 overall pick in 2015, torched the Knicks for 41 points Wednesday and has been part of Team USA. The Suns have four of their draft picks from the last five years in the starting lineup, highlighted by 2018 top overall pick DeAndre Ayton, and also get major contributions from Mikal Bridges, who was obtained on draft day last year, and the 2017 lottery pick, Josh Jackson.
Bulls: The Bulls have bungled the lottery in recent years, but it’s hard to argue with the accumulation of young talent they have amassed. Lauri Markkanen is an emerging star, as is Zach LaVine. Wendell Carter, the 2018 lottery pick, has been a solid addition.
Cavaliers: The Cavs reached the NBA Finals for the fourth straight year but had a lottery pick via a trade and took Collin Sexton. Well, Sexton has begun to emerge as a leader in the post-LeBron world of Cleveland, providing tenacious defense and a solid scoring touch. But it’s tough to judge the Cavs, given that the turnover of front-office personnel and just about everything else came after two straight seasons without a pick at all. Have we forgotten Anthony Bennett yet?
Concerning the worst of the worst
Just in case you think the Knicks’ hold on the last spot in the NBA standings is a mistake, consider their record against the other teams competing for the distinction. The Knicks (13-53) are 0-1 against Chicago, 0-3 against Cleveland and 0-2 against Phoenix. They will play the Bulls twice in early April.
During the Knicks’ winless three-game trip out West, they faced the Clippers, who have every reason to lose — they need to miss out on the playoffs to keep from losing their first-round pick — but are winning and moving into a secure playoff berth. One team official said establishing a winning culture trumps getting a lottery pick.
That sentiment wasn’t quite as strong from Phoenix coach Igor Kokoskov, but he did insist the Suns are trying to win every game they can, something he thinks is essential on a team with six rookies on the roster.
“No question,” he said. “We can’t develop young guys in a losing environment. That’s the wrong way to develop a young team. We are losing games. That’s fact, that’s not opinion. But during that period of time, there’s no individual goals. If you want to develop young guys, they have to compete to win every quarter and every game. That’s got to be the mindset. We’ll never substitute individual goals versus team goals, which is winning games. There’s no meaningless or more important games. Every game is the Super Bowl.”
As the Knicks face the very real possibility of putting together the worst season in franchise history — they need four wins to match the 17-win season of 2014-15 — Mario Hezonja provided a little throwback this past week.
While remaining behind in New York when the team went on a three-game trip, Hezonja tweeted out a compliment to an unnamed player, and it was pretty easy to figure out it was Carmelo Anthony.
Hezonja tweeted, “The toughest player to guard is unfortunately not in NBA right now. You have 1 guess.” And he followed it by noting, “Iso, face up, low post, high post, pull up 2s, 3s, fades, bully, unlimited range, you can also participate in one of the best footwork cycles ever if you’re not humble. I mean should I continue (?) pick your poison.”
It’s a good question, one that came up as news was leaked that the Lakers had “paused negotiations” with Anthony. It’s understandable that the Lakers will give time to young players now that they seem destined to miss out on the postseason, although the difference between believing he can help them to win in the playoffs and why he couldn’t help them get to the playoffs is an odd distinction. Still, isn’t there a playoff team that could use Anthony?