In tonight’s draft lottery the Knicks have a 14 percent chance of obtaining the first pick and Zion Williamson. They were the worst team in the NBA, but this year, odds have been flattened out at the top of the lottery to disincentivize tanking. So the three worst teams all enjoy a 14 percent chance at the No. 1 pick. The only guaranteed reward of sinking to the absolute worst spot was the promise that the Knicks’ pick will not fall out of the top five. In a draft where prospects can be easily sorted into tiers several layers of atmosphere apart marked “Zion Williamson” and “Not Zion Williamson,” this promise is not all that compelling.
Have you ever thought about how 14 percent is not that many percent? I have. Area rabbis and witches still have a lot of work to do. I woke up today wanting to know what others things had a 14 percent chance of occurring. I learned that a Noodles & Company customer has a 14 percent chance of ordering bread with their meal in this one business stats textbook. Huh. I learned there’s a 14 percent chance of a magnitude 9 Cascadia earthquake hitting Seattle in the next 50 years. This wasn’t exactly quelling my anxiety, but at least I know that New Yorkers’ hope should be roughly the same shape and size as Seattleites’ fear. I learned that there’s a 14 percent chance that any given cloud you point to in a Bob Ross painting is a cirrus cloud. That’s not very constructive either, but at least I’m thinking about Bob Ross now, which is soothing.
It’s not strictly 14 percent or bust. The No. 2 or No. 3 picks could bear fruit. But Zion Williamson is likely the only player in the draft ready to contribute immediately to a Knicks team that has cornered itself into huge win-now ambitions. The front office cleared up all that cap space at great cost, and, I pray, for a good reason. This draft is a hunt for players that can contribute to a title contender during the next contract of (gulp) Kevin Durant. If the Knicks don’t hit No. 1, I’d prefer that they trade their pick down for a good multi-position defender like Brandon Clarke, or, getting dreamier, wrap it into an Anthony Davis deal, now that the Lakers’ and Celtics’ packages both look worse than they did at the trade deadline. Adding AD to two maxed-out stars is the optimal outcome, from a straight-up basketball standpoint.
But I’d still rather snag Zion to round out that team, even though the odds are infinitesimal that any player in any draft will pan out to be as good as Anthony Davis is right now. That’s because Zion would be proof that good things can still grow in James Dolan’s salted earth. Zion is a modern American folk hero. He might be good enough to be cast into the pit of ungoodness that is Madison Square Garden and emerge stronger for it. Wouldn’t that be the most impressive “dunk” of all?
That 14 percent represents the chance that this franchise will justify the whole self-destructive exercise that is Knicks fandom. If the thrill of watching Zion Williamson compete even for vile Duke was any indication, a few years of getting to watch Zion Williamson play for my own vile team would balance out the other—let me consult my abacus here—ah, literally every other quarter, game, and season of misery. It would all be worth it. I tell you now it would all be worth it, and you can hold me to that statement after the Knicks force him to operate exclusively in the low post, or subsist on only onions, or partake in an ancient foot-binding practice, or whatever else they think up. The joy of Zion would cancel out all that past misery, retroactively.
But I’ve been readying myself for more misery, anyway. Optimistic Knicks fan is the stupidest subset of Knicks fan, itself one of the stupidest subsets of Homo sapiens. When I lower my expectations, my colleagues make fun of me. Yesterday Luis tried to embarrass me by noting that my unattended computer had been left open to a three-day-old Athletic article about the Knicks signing Tobias Harris and Kemba Walker. When I actually got to my computer, I observed that it was actually (an extremely enjoyable) three-day-old article about the possibility of rigging the lottery.
I just can’t win.
So now, as I write this, I am trying the exact opposite tack. Instead of lowering my expectations, I am trying to raise them. I am trying positive visualization, a technique favored by some of society’s most prosperous sociopaths. I visualize running into Zion Williamson at my favorite restaurant, or in the LEGO Store, or in a crosswalk as we both artfully dodge a pancaked dead rat. (In my vision we do not sidestep the same direction, so I do not have to join the rat.)
I have visions of Zion Williamson slamming down a 360-degree windmill breakaway dunk as the roof of the Garden crumbles to ash. But no matter what I do, I have equally vivid visions of Cam Reddish spreading his suit jacket with an Apex Legends lining after somehow getting selected with our No. 3 pick. Some fates feel impossible to escape. After so much bad, it’s impossible to expect—or even feel deserving of—something this good.