As promised, Phil Jackson didn’t show up for the lottery, even if it was only a short walk from his Manhattan residence.
Maybe he knew what he was doing.
Jackson avoided an ugly scene. The Knicks had the kind of night that made you wonder whether the Zen Master really gets inside messages from the basketball gods, as he often claims in his tweets. If so, on this night at least, they told the Knicks president to pretty much drop dead, sending his team to the No. 4 pick in the draft.
Thirty years after the Knicks gave us the shot of the century -- GM Dave DeBusschere pounding on the table upon learning that Patrick Ewing would be his grand prize in the NBA’s first lottery -- the reaction of the night came from Jackson's errand boy, GM Steve Mills. As deputy commissioner Mark Tatum opened the envelope to reveal the Knick logo, the crowd at the Hilton let out a loud, pained groan and Mills' head sank in dejection as a blank look came over his face.
Just like thousands of Knicks fans who follow basketball and know the sad truth.
It’s a three-player draft, headlined by the two bigs the Knicks so desperately need to kick-start Jackson’s rebuilding program. But Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns, this year's most prized big men, will most likely be headed to the Timberwolves and Lakers at No.’s 1 and 2 when the picks are made in Brooklyn next month.
Then logic says the Sixers, tankers supreme of the NBA, will use the No. 3 pick to take D’Angelo Russell, the Ohio State guard they need to address their backcourt weaknesses. He’s got the best court vision in the draft among wing players and the “it’’ factor a team like Philly -- or the Knicks -- are always looking for.
So at No. 4, the Knicks will take … Jackson will probably look to work the phones to see if he can’t package the pick and move down to get an established player or additional assets. It won’t be easy, since the Knicks’ roster isn’t exactly bursting with the valuable pieces anyone else wants.
But Jackson has hinted all along that he might be willing to move the pick and this is precisely the worst-case scenario where he’ll have to put on his trader’s hat and work the phones. Get creative. Find a player who can step in and help the team make the long climb back to respectability and relevance. This is not exactly Jackson’s strength, after what we saw in his first season of work when he made one blunder after another.
The player expected to go at No. 4 is a playmaking guard, Emmanuel Mudiay, but he’s something of a mystery man since he left high school and went to play this past season in China after passing up a chance to play college ball for Larry Brown at SMU.
Not everyone is cut out to play guard in Jackson’s Triangle, so there’s that to ponder for Jackson. But overall, teams are not working with much when it comes to the Dallas product who was born in the Congo.
“It’s very hard, very hard, to know what he can do,’’ Indiana president Larry Bird, a legend as much as Jackson, told NBC 4 New York after the lottery as he sat on the stage. “We had people over there to see him play, but he didn’t play much. He got hurt. It’s a very tough situation. So now you’ve got to see him work out and see what he is. Because you can’t go by high school stats. They’re all good in high school. But it’s a tough deal.’’
What killed the Knicks on this night was coach Derek Fisher’s foolish play-to-win mentality at season’s end, when he needed to lose to ensure that the team finished up with the most chances to win the No. 1 pick.
All season long, as painful for fans as it was, the Knicks at least were steaming toward having the worst record. But wins in Orlando and Atlanta on the final weekend put the Knicks ahead of Minnesota in victories, 17 to 16, and ended up costing them precious Ping-Pong balls.
Fisher forgot the big picture, that the future of the franchise was eminently more important than two meaningless W’s to wrap up the worst season in franchise history.
So when the balls came to rest on lottery night, Jackson’s old Laker team had switched places with his new team. Not a good night for the Zen Master, wherever he was.
Longtime New York columnist Mitch Lawrence continues to write about pro basketball, as he’s done for the last 22 years. His columns for NBCNewYork.com on the Knicks, Brooklyn Nets and the NBA, along with other major sports, will appear twice weekly. Follow him on Twitter @Mitch _ Lawrence