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The Knicks Missed Out on Zion Because of the Odds. In Some Ways, That’s a Relief.

Sure, New York landed the third pick in the NBA draft after coming into Tuesday night’s lottery with hopes of getting no. 1. But for this Knicks fan, there’s a silver lining: At least the organization didn’t do this to itself.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Zion Williamson will not play for the Knicks, because the Knicks are not special. New York failed to land the 2019 NBA draft’s top pick on Tuesday night because the lottery went the way of the odds. Sure, the Knicks had a 14 percent chance of getting the top pick—tied with Cleveland and Phoenix for the best odds—but that also meant they had an 86 percent chance of not getting the pick. And that’s exactly what happened, as the team fell to no. 3.

The Knicks have been atrocious for some time now, with just four playoff appearances in the past 15 years, but this was the first time this century they’d truly bottomed out and secured the worst record in the league. Why did the full-on tank have to be this year, the year the NBA tweaked the lottery odds to discourage tanking? If they’d had the worst record last season, the Knicks would’ve been the lone team with a 25 percent chance of winning the top spot; instead, from now on the league’s worst team will be tied with the second- and third-worst teams for the best chances of landing the pick. Then again, this was the year of the Zion Williamson sweepstakes. I’ve never seen a college basketball player like Zion Williamson because there hasn’t been one. It was worth the shot.

Fourteen percent translates to roughly 1 in 7—which means the Knicks’ odds of getting the pick that will more than likely be used to take Zion were about the same as using a randomizer on days of the week and getting a Saturday. If the Knicks had won, it would not have been evidence that they are special. It would’ve meant only that their chance hit. There was a possibility that it would happen, but not a likely one—and certainly not one that anybody should have bet on.

But Knicks fans, of course, believe the Knicks are special, and did bet on their chances. Enough Knicks fans bet on New York winning the lottery that at least one offshore sportsbook had to lower its odds on the Knicks winning, to the point where their win would have paid out $35 on a $10 bet. That would have been a smart investment only if the Knicks had about a 23 percent chance of getting the pick, which they did not.

I suppose the logic in betting on a nonsporting event with mathematically determined odds went like this: Sure, the Knicks had wink-wink 14 percent odds wink-wink, but because the Knicks are important, and the NBA wants their important teams to be happy, the league would surely rig the lottery so New York would win. The most famous conspiracy theory in the history of the draft lottery also involves the Knicks: It’s rumored that in 1985, then-commissioner David Stern rigged the lottery by doctoring the envelope with the Knicks’ logo inside it (either by bending it or freezing it), which gave New York the opportunity to draft Patrick Ewing. That’s never been proved, and the league now has more sophisticated lottery procedures. Actual draft lottery history shows that if the league is rigging things for anybody, it is the Cleveland Cavaliers (who got LeBron James and Kyrie Irving with no. 1 picks, and had back-to-back top selections in 2013 and 2014), the first and only time any league has ever prioritized the success of Cleveland, Ohio. But this is how Knicks fan logic works. Something good happened to the Knicks 34 years ago in a league with 30 teams in it. Therefore, we are special.

There’s a shred of reason that’s located somewhere deep inside Knicks logic. New York is America’s biggest city, and the Knicks are New York’s favorite team. It’s in the financial best interests of the league for such a popular team to succeed; it’s in the financial best interests of superstar players to choose the Knicks so they can be more marketable in a league where their team-paid salary has a maximum ceiling. With that in mind, the Knicks should be better than the average NBA team.

But the arrogance and stupidity that come with believing good things will happen to your franchise just because of its name have resulted in the Knicks’ not having an above-average team, or an average team, or a below-average team in decades. Since 2000, the Knicks have had the worst combined record of any franchise in the NBA. If you presuppose that a team in a 30-team league should win a championship every 30 years, New York is 16 years overdue. If the Knicks had hypothetically won the 1994 NBA Finals instead of losing Game 7 to the Rockets, we would be coming up on our 30th year.

While every other team around the league has tried to run a successful basketball team, the Knicks have tried to run “the Knicks.” They love dumb schemes, as evidenced by the rumors that swirled early Tuesday that even if the Knicks got the top pick, they would have traded it to the Pelicans for Anthony Davis instead of keeping it to use on Zion (which is especially ironic now that New Orleans landed the no. 1 overall pick). That’s because Knicks logic is currently caught up on the premise that Kevin Durant wants to join the team this summer—because we’re the Knicks!—and he’d be more likely to come if New York had Davis rather than Zion. That’s the typical brand of Knicks screw-up: Hatching a harebrained scheme surrounding a thing that hasn’t happened yet to hypothetically make an unlikely dream scenario more likely.

Now, the Knicks will turn their hopes toward the Durant fantasy. (#Durantasy? OK, pretend I didn’t type that.) Maybe the Knicks will get KD, and maybe they’ll also get other players to join him—because we’re the Knicks! But I know how these fantasies work. More than likely all we’ll have to show for this offseason will be a sorry-ass team and a pocket full of Photoshops of superstars in orange and blue. (R.J. Barrett, too!)

Oddly, I find some satisfaction in how things went down this time. The Knicks didn’t miss out on Zion because of gross mismanagement, because they overpaid for some superstar, or because the person James Dolan trusted with decisions last week is in a fight with the person James Dolan trusts with decisions this week. The Knicks missed on Zion because they had a 14 percent chance of getting him, which meant an 86 percent chance of not getting him. Those odds were still bad, even if they were slightly less bad than those of other teams. I’m used to watching the Knicks turn our supposed advantages into the worst possible results. So on Tuesday, it was somehow comforting to watch the Knicks legitimately give themselves the best chance of any team, and then watch the luck of the draw dash my hopes instead of incompetence.