The whole point of the NBA’s annual draft lottery is that you can’t predict how it will turn out, but for the past 35 years, there’s been one thing you can set your watch to: The New York Knicks won’t be catching a break. Since winning the chance to select Patrick Ewing first overall all the way back in 1985, the Knicks have entered the ping-pong-plucking derby 11 times; not once have they moved up from their initial pre-lottery position. In six of those lotteries, they’ve actually moved down, a moldering cherry on top of the shit sundae of the stultifying regular season through which everyone invested in the orange-and-blue just had the misfortune of suffering.
And so, when New York entered Thursday with the sixth-best odds of landing the top overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, and exited it with the eighth overall pick, as a Knicks fan, I didn’t feel surprised, or much of anything at all. For one thing, when the thing that always happens happens again, it’s hard to summon much shock. For another, while it’s a bummer to go from a 37.6 percent shot at a top-four pick to landing the eight-spot (which, based on the lottery odds, was actually the second-most-likely outcome for New York), that drop isn’t a nightmare. The past 20 years are the nightmare, and for the latest iteration of the Knicks’ brain trust—new team president Leon Rose and his passel of new execs, holdover general manager Scott Perry, reputed rainmaker/“senior basketball advisor” William “World Wide Wes” Wesley, and new head coach Tom Thibodeau—this represents the latest opportunity to begin the process of waking up the slumbering franchise.
The Knicks enter the 2020 offseason in need of … well, just about everything. Rose, Thibodeau and Co. must appraise a roster long on youth and short on top-tier talent. Every decision the Knicks make—in the draft, in free agency, in player development strategy—should be made with two goals in mind. First: Does it help provide a context in which to evaluate the skills and ceilings of RJ Barrett, 2019’s no. 3 overall pick and the only current Knick with even a chance of becoming a primary wing creator, and Mitchell Robinson, the 2018 second-rounder who has blossomed into one of the league’s most intriguing centers? Next: Will it help Barrett and Robinson reach those ceilings?
Barrett’s advanced statistical profile looked grim as a rookie. Out of 109 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes and posted a usage rate north of 20 percent, the former Duke standout ranked 108th in effective field goal percentage, according to Basketball-Reference.com; he finished in the 22nd percentile among wing players in field goal percentage at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass, and in the 22nd percentile among all players in points produced per possession as a pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Synergy Sports. The context matters, though.
New York ranked 29th in 3-point attempts per game and dead last in triples made last season, with only two Knicks topping 36 percent from long range; one of them, leading scorer Marcus Morris Sr., was traded at February’s deadline. Barrett averaged 2.6 assists per game as a rookie, but logged 4.6 potential assists; according to NBA Advanced Stats, the Knicks as a team shot just 29.2 percent from deep off of Barrett’s passes, and only 44.3 percent on his feeds overall—a number that drops down to a bleak 41.7 percent when you remove the high-efficiency, lob-catching Robinson from the equation. Given how much time Barrett spent operating in gridlocked lineups surrounded by teammates without jumpers, it’s fair to wonder whether his ability to bulldoze his way to the basket—9.8 drives per game as a rookie, only a tick below what Pascal Siakam managed in Toronto—might result in a higher success rate if there weren’t so much congestion in the paint, and whether his drive-and-kick facilitation might play up if there were more enticing targets who could consistently knock down shots:
Robinson has become a darling among traditionalists and analytical types alike for his fearsome rim protection (no player in the league who’s logged at least 1,000 minutes has a higher block percentage over the past two seasons), uncanny gift for swatting long-range shots (he leads the league in blocked 3-pointers in that span, according to pbpstats.com), and ability to catch and finish damn near everything thrown to him (he just posted the highest single-season field goal percentage in NBA history, and has led the league in points produced per possession as a pick-and-roll finisher in both of his seasons). And yet, Robinson has averaged just 21.8 minutes per game through two campaigns, due in large part to his struggles with foul trouble; he’s been whistled for 7.2 infractions per 100 possessions as a pro, tied for the second-highest rate among rotation players since he entered the league.
A lot of that is on Robinson, a 22-year-old who didn’t play NCAA ball and who is still learning how to stay disciplined on pump fakes while influencing shots with just the threat of his length. But how many of those foul calls came as a result of his needing to try to cover up the sins of rosters full of shaky-at-best perimeter defenders—not you, Frank Ntilikina, you’re cool—who routinely let ball handlers blow past them to get into the paint? Put better point-of-attack defenders and smarter helpers in front of Robinson, and New York might get to reap the benefits of his paint-patrolling prowess—the Knicks allowed 4.3 fewer points per 100 possessions in his minutes this season, equivalent to a league-average defense—which could allow Thibodeau to craft the first decent Knicks defense since Tyson Chandler won 2012 Defensive Player of the Year.
Sure, it would have been great if the Knicks had landed a top-three draft pick, and yes, landing in this range for the third time in four years stings (especially because it calls to mind New York drafting Ntilikina five spots ahead of Donovan Mitchell and six picks before Bam Adebayo in 2017, and taking Kevin Knox right before Mikal Bridges and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in 2018). But they still could find useful pieces in this class capable of helping aid in the development of Barrett and Robinson. Even in a year light on projectable star power, there will be players available at no. 8 who can shoot, defend, run an offense, or, ideally, do more than one of the above. Depending on how the top of the draft shakes out—and with Minnesota and Golden State evidently open to moving the top two picks, we can’t rule out trades reshaping the board—New York could have a shot at a smart and versatile playmaker like Tyrese Haliburton or Killian Hayes, a 3-and-D wing like Devin Vasell or Aaron Nesmith, a potential lockdown perimeter defender like Isaac Okoro, or a dynamic scoring threat and frontcourt floor spacer like Obi Toppin (whom Kevin O’Connor has New York taking in The Ringer’s 2020 NBA Draft Guide).
Depending on how they decide to handle several players on non-guaranteed contracts, the Knicks will enter free agency with somewhere between $29 million and $50 million in salary cap space, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks; if Rose sees a strong fit in what looks to be a weak class, he can spend big to try to get his man. (That man, by the way, should be Fred VanVleet, who would bring plus 3-point shooting, off-the-dribble shot creation, tip-of-the-spear defensive skill, and toughness, and would be the best point guard the Knicks have employed in ages.) They have additional first-round picks in 2021 and 2023 coming from the Kristaps Porzingis trade, and with the new regime just setting out and Thibodeau kicking off a five-year deal on the bench, they have time to build the roster bit by bit.
Years of trying to win the back page have led the Knicks nowhere; it’s high time to try something different, something simpler and more stable, and even with a drop in lottery position, the no. 8 pick offers a chance to start that process. The silver lining to being a team that needs help everywhere is that virtually everyone could help you; New York doesn’t have to approach the pick as if it’ll be a failure or disappointment if it doesn’t yield a star, so long as it provides a ceiling-raising complement to what’s already on hand.