The Knicks won the tank race -- now they need a little luck
Thirty-four years ago, the future of the New York Knicks franchise rested inside a square-foot-sized white envelope.
It was early afternoon on May 12, 1985, and Knicks executive Dave DeBusschere sat nervously on the dais on the 18th floor of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan, holding his head in his hands ahead of the first-ever NBA draft lottery.
As seven envelopes tumbled inside a spinning plastic globe next to NBA commissioner David Stern, DeBusschere was looking for all the luck he could muster. Hours earlier, DeBusschere had attended Mass at a church near his home, admitting that he was "a little selfish" during his prayers. The Hall of Fame forward also brought a horseshoe with him from a successful racehorse.
Knicks fans know what happened next. Stern pulled an envelope -- creased at the corner, conspiracy theorists note -- that gave the Knicks the No. 1 pick in the draft.
DeBusschere famously pounded his fist when the pick was revealed. Minutes later, DeBusschere showed the world a No. 33 home white Knicks jersey that he'd brought with him. It had Patrick Ewing's name on the back.
"Everyone knows who our No. 1 pick is going to be," DeBusschere said that night.
A few minutes before 8:30 p.m. ET on May 14, 2019, Ewing himself will settle into his seat on the dais in Chicago and hope for that same lottery luck. The Hall of Fame center will represent the Knicks on the first night of, arguably, the most important offseason in franchise history.
Everyone knows who their first pick would be.
If Ewing and the Knicks land it -- New York, Phoenix and Cleveland each have 14 percent odds -- it opens up a world of possibilities. The club can keep the pick and add presumptive No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson to its roster. Or it could use the pick as a package in a trade for a veteran superstar like the New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis.
"If we're ranking teams heading into the offseason, New York probably has the best tools in the toolshed," one Western Conference executive said. "Maybe they get it right this time."
Ewing finished his career as the franchise's leader in points, rebounds, blocks and games played -- putting forth a strong argument for the title of greatest Knick ever. He requested a trade in 2000 because the club declined to extend his contract. The resulting transaction, which sent Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics in his 16th season, began an inauspicious run for New York. The club has won just one playoff series since.
And it has been a run brimming with drama, lopsided losses and dysfunction. This season, the Knicks have said all of that -- the meddling from owner Jim Dolan, the in-fighting, the public sniping -- is behind them.
"Going into free agency, we've got a lot of things that we can show about how this is going to be a different deal going forward with the Knicks," Knicks coach David Fizdale said this week on ESPN's The Jump. "And I think we're going to end up doing some good things."
If they can do what many around the NBA expect them to -- sign two stars this summer and draft an elite college prospect in late June -- they might be able to back up that rhetoric.
"I can tell you," Dolan said last month on ESPN Radio, "from what we've heard, I think we're gonna have a very successful offseason."
The four-paragraph letter arrived via email in Knicks season-ticket-holders' inboxes in early April. It was a missive from team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, discussing the Knicks' 17-65 season and their future. In nearly 300 words of executive speak, one section in particular stood out:
Translation: We have the opportunity to make the misery of past seasons a distant memory. So stick with us.
Why would a team that has won just one playoff series in the past 18 years, coming off one of the worst seasons in franchise history, feel so good about turning things around? Kevin Durant.
It's easier to find street parking in Manhattan than it is to find an NBA executive, player or coach who doesn't think Durant is going to sign with the Knicks in July.
Some of Durant's former teammates think it's going to happen, per ESPN sources. Several of his current teammates have told friends that they think it's going to happen, sources said. Opposing agents believe it's a fait accompli: "Just a matter of putting pen to paper," is how one agent of another top free agent in the 2019 free-agent class put it.
One opposing executive monitoring Durant's situation closely believes that the opportunity to win in New York -- and push the notion that he jumped on the bandwagon to win rings in Oakland from the forefront of fans' consciousness -- is a pull for the two-time Finals MVP.
"Winning there would change the narrative around him," one executive said.
If Durant comes to New York, he's not coming to be part of a rebuild. So it's hard to see him committing to the Big Apple without another star in tow. Boston Celtics guard Kyrie Irving, who has a close relationship with Durant (remember All-Star Weekend?), is one of the players who could join Durant in the Big Apple. Charlotte Hornets guard Kemba Walker also has fans in the Knicks organization. Multiple executives doing their homework on the free-agent class, though, fully expect Durant to sign with the Knicks and Irving to join him.
There's growing evidence to support the theory:
After telling Celtics fans he plans on returning to Boston earlier this season, Irving acknowledged that the Knicks were on the list of teams that he'd consider as a free agent. He also softened that commitment to the Celtics in early February.
During the regular season, some close to Durant suggested to people with a rooting interest in the Knicks that they should remain calm amid New York's struggles this season. This was seen by those familiar with the conversations as further proof that Durant intends to sign with the Knicks.
And then there's the oft-cited factor of Durant's manager, business partner and co-founder of his media company, Rich Kleiman, being a Knicks fan. Kleiman, for what it's worth, attended several Knicks games at Madison Square Garden when the Warriors weren't the visiting team.
If Durant, Irving -- or both -- decide to sign elsewhere, it would leave the Knicks in a tough spot. They could go after Kawhi Leonard -- people close to Leonard saw New York as a possible destination for him prior to his trade to the Toronto Raptors -- but the general feeling around the league is that Leonard is more likely to end up with the Clippers or back in Toronto than a team in New York.
And it would surprise some opposing executives if the Knicks signed a player other than Durant, Irving or Leonard to a long-term contract this summer. Those executives expect the Knicks to use their projected league-high $74 million in cap room in other ways this summer -- acquiring a draft pick in a salary dump, signing players to short-term deals -- if they miss out on those top free-agent targets.
From any other rebuilding franchise, that approach would make sense. But how would the long-suffering fan base -- and ownership -- react to a disappointing summer after a 17-win season? Particularly when the Knicks opened up cap space by trading the face of their franchise, Kristaps Porzingis?
The Knicks say they feel no added pressure to land a free agent in the wake of the Porzingis trade. "We're excited that we have some flexibility there. We're excited with what we did get in this trade," Knicks GM Scott Perry said on the night of the Porzingis trade.
"Again, we'll let the summer take care of itself."
If the Knicks land Durant and another max free agent, they will be looking to add other veterans via free agency and trades. Obviously, they will keep a close eye on the Anthony Davis situation. There are potential Knicks-Pelicans deals that work financially.
If the Knicks luck out and land Williamson in the draft, a package centered around him and other first-round picks or young Knicks -- such as Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson or Allonzo Trier -- might be enticing to the Pelicans. Even if the Knicks don't trade their first-round draft pick -- and there is no consensus that the organization would definitely trade its 2019 No. 1 pick in a package for Davis, sources said -- the Knicks would need to find a way to surround any incoming stars with other veterans.
If New York signs two max free agents, that would leave only the $4.7 million room exception and veterans minimum contracts to offer other free agents. So the Knicks would have work to do if they land their dream summer scenario of Durant and Irving.
"They're going to have to convince some veterans to take less money," one Western Conference exec said.
In mid-September, Mills, Perry and Fizdale sat on a Madison Square Garden stage in front of hundreds of fans and delivered a message of hope. Knicks fans have heard that word before, but as Mills noted that night, there was an important distinction between this year and seasons past.
"In our circles that we travel and the people that we talk to," Mills said, "we know that there is a change in how people perceive us."
Mills, Perry and Fizdale repeated that point often in the ensuing months. Fizdale said recently that he had heard praise from people around the league about how hard his team played and how they treated players, traits that haven't been associated with the team in recent seasons.
"Those [perceptions] were the things that were holding the team back more than anything," Fizdale said in an interview with ESPN Radio.
As you'd expect, there is some skepticism around the league about a potential Knicks makeover. "Maybe it's just me, but I'd like to see the results on the court before making any bold statements about perception," one rival executive said.
The doomsday scenario for New York is Brooklyn landing top free agents while the Knicks strike out and sign lesser free agents to big money, as they did with Amar'e Stoudemire in 2010 before missing out on LeBron James. But they insist that won't be the case this summer, that this is the year they're getting it right.
"We put ourselves in position where we've created cap space, which gives us the flexibility to attract free agents or use it to continue the planning that we laid out before [to build with young players]," Mills said in an ESPN Radio interview.
"It put us in a position where we're really excited about the future of the team."
Will all the excitement and optimism lead to a successful offseason? It all starts with Ewing on the dais in a few weeks. Fizdale, for one, is optimistic that the franchise's fortunes are about to turn.
"We're doing things the right way," Fizdale told ESPN Radio. "We have a great set up to do something that's long-standing."