Illustration by Dan McQuade
Photo: Elsa (Getty)

The Knicks did not luck out, which is basically an evergreen sentence. Their lottery pick did not leap into the top three, which had only a six percent chance of occurring last night. It instead landed at nine, as expected. I feel a little good about this.

Let me be clear. There are very few reasons to be confident in the Knicks near future, and of course plenty of reasons that undermine that confidence. They still have over $92 million tied up in Joakim Noah (who was last seen spreading blessings in the rainforest with a blond beard that actually looks pretty good on him) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (who is Tim Hardaway Jr.). Their franchise centerpiece, Kristaps Porzingis, tore his ACL, an injury that does not bode well for anyone who stands 7-foot-3, least of someone celebrated for his unusual lateral quickness at that size. But they now employ David Fizdale, who is by all accounts a sane basketball mind, and I suspect something about their fundamental, putrid nature might soon change.

The Knicks have been bad in diverse and exotic ways, but one of the most reliable throughlines has been their team defense. They have steadily thrown money at soft-brained, soft-bodied, offensively oriented, pre-washed quasi-stars who forgot that there was an entire other side of the game to be played. As a result, over the past decade, they have consistently trotted out defenses that looked rotted through and ransacked by carpenter bees. Here’s a rundown of where New York has ranked among all NBA teams at the conclusion of each season, as measured by defensive rating:

2018: 22
2017:26
2016: 18
2015: 28
2014: 24
2013: 17
2012: 5 (sure helps to have Tyson Chandler around)
2011: 21
2010: 26
2009: 23
2008: 29

It’s at the very core of their identity. But I think the pattern will end. This prediction hinges on at least three assumptions, which scare me to varying degrees.

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The first assumption is that that last year’s lottery pick Frank Ntilikina continues his growth as one of the most squid-like, nettling perimeter defenders in the NBA. In his rookie season, he was already the league’s most effective defender when guarding a pick-and-roll ball handler, allowing a stingy 0.66 points per possession.

Watch a teenager lock down the damn MVP:

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He’s done well on Kyrie Irving too, and there are plenty of others, but I won’t bore you; to me these reels are sweeter than any clip of Dennis Smith Jr. leaping eight feet and dunking the ball into the earth’s molten center, but I concede bias. Overall this first assumption feels safest. As the Frenchman continues to flesh out his frame, he should only get scarier on this side of the ball. A beefy baby-faced Ntilikina, switchable 1-through-4, will terrorize offenses for the foreseeable future.

The second assumption is that Kristaps Porzingis continues to be one of the premier rim protectors in the NBA. This is a more worrisome assumption, given the gravity of the injury he’s recovering from. Maybe this is some (well-deserved) Knicks Fatalism speaking but I already take it as given that a lot of his face-up game will be compromised by injury, and am mostly just hoping that he retains his spot-up shooting and rim protection. Even that latter ability does rely a great deal on his ability to slide smoothly through the lane and time his jumps, which could be sapped by, say, snapping your ACL. Last season, he was sixth in the league in field goal percentage allowed at the rim. This season, he was leading the league in blocks before he fell apart. Porzingis very obviously has the size and instinctual timing. The question is whether his body will still let him act on those instincts. Also he should drink more water.

The third assumption is that the Knicks draft another complementary defensive cog with that ninth pick. Mikal Bridges, a 21-year-old out of Villanova, seems like he will be available at that slot. Given his age—that rare upperclassmen in lottery range—he might be closer to a finished product than some of the overlong teenaged freaks in his midst, but even that finished product is extremely appealing. This league treats three-and-D wings as some of its most precious commodities: Bridges is a sharpshooter who hit 51 percent from the floor and 43 percent from three last season, and stands 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. With the perimeter and rim covered, he could provide a third foundational piece at the wing. Obviously a team defense is built on more than just three starters, and obviously there are still myriad issues with the present roster composition, but these three players present a formidable defensive core to build around, and in that sense, a radical departure from recent history.

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Of course, this may never happen. The Knicks are architects of their own darkest timeline. Can you imagine, let’s say, Trae Young trying to find his legs in Madison Square Garden? Nothing would accelerate that poor kid’s progression to Ornery Washed Chucker faster than getting drafted by the New York Knicks. But it wouldn’t be like the Knicks to get seduced by a shiny object, would it?