If KD comes, it’s time to “skip steps” and start trading…even Zion.

Everyone is excited about the draft lottery, but what do the Knicks do with their pick if they land KD?

If Kevin Durant comes to the Knicks, he may not ask them to start “skipping steps.” He isn’t the same person as LeBron James who probably insisted the Cavs trade Andrew Wiggins and more upon his return to Cleveland in 2014. KD seems a bit unique. He went to the 72 win Warriors after they’d just beaten his Thunder. And remember when KD asked to be called “The Servant” instead of Slim Reaper?

“I just like to serve everybody,” Durant told Simmons. “My teammates, ushers at the game, fans.”

KD might even be excited to help along a guy like Kevin Knox, who openly idolizes him. But the Knicks need to make changes anyway. They should shop whichever pick they get tomorrow (and much more) to help serve one of the greatest players of all time, if they’re lucky enough to have him for the next (or last) 3-4 years of his prime.1

The Knicks brass have said they don’t want to “skip steps.” When Knicks fans heard them say it the first time a year ago it was music to ears starved for a more patient tone. Steve Mills and Scott Perry used words and phrases like “patience” and “build it organically through the organization.” It suggested the opposite of trading guys like Kristaps Porzingis and brought tears of joy to so many weary and abused yet loyal fans.

But organizational ethos and adherence to stated objectives are far less important than making the next best decision at the time… even if that requires deviating from script. And now the script reads: “Kristaps who?”

Make no mistake, it would absolutely become time to skip some major steps for KD.

Father Time, Still Undefeated

KD will be 31 at the beginning of next season. He might well be (have been) the best player in the 2019 NBA PLayoffs, but he’s no spring chicken. He was fortunate enough to have avoided the dreaded Achilles tear last Wednesday night, but his calf-strain is a petrifying reminder of his advanced age, cumulative mileage, and slowly diminishing championship window.

If the Knicks want a championship they cannot risk waiting 3 years for 19-year-old prospects to develop. The most realistic “the Knicks won the title led by Kevin Durant” scenario happens in 2020, 2021 or 2022. Maybe 2023, if he doesn’t opt out by then and is still elite. But if he or a running mate of his were to pull a hammy or strain a calf next spring (knock wood) that could be one of New York’s 3 or 4 KD led-title-years down.

KD has had a reasonably difficult time over the last two years beating the Houston Rockets. Swapping out the Warriors for Kyrie Irving and four 20-year-olds won’t make winning easier.

I don’t think the sense of urgency to win a title in the next 3 years can be overstated at all.

With a history of a twice-repaired broken foot and leg injuries on his slender frame, KD hasn’t been quite as indestructible as LeBron James has been over his career. If KD signs a four-year deal this summer, he will be 34 entering the last year of that contract. That’s how old LeBron James is now, the first year James seemed truly limited by injuries. It’s also the age Michael Jordan was during his last title-winning season. 2

If the Knicks were to somehow land Kyrie Irving in addition to Durant, it seems plausible that even acquiring him might depend on making some assurances that Irving won’t have to deal in NY with the same issues that made this season challenging for him; as he seemed to routinely clash with his younger teammates throughout the Celtics’ disappointing season.

(Think: don’t worry, you won’t have to do any more babysitting, we’ll probably make some trades, sign here). 

If the Knicks win the title the model here will be much more “Yankees” than “Spurs.” And that’s fine, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein “a ring is a ring is a ring.”

Trading the first pick

Trading the first pick is synonymous with trading Zion Williamson, the most exciting and hyped prospect since LeBron. He comes with more theoretical expectation than Blake Griffin, Anthony Davis, and Kyrie Irving once did. Williamson could be a Hall-of-Famer and also be under team control for around 7+ years if they can keep him a bit happier than Porzingis. They could plan to compete and win as he develops and also have him around long-after Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving to build around. That’s pretty tempting. But that could also cost them a championship altogether.

Anthony Davis

There is not a high probability Zion will be better over the first 3 years of his career than a potentially available superstar by the name of Anthony Davis. “The Brow” is about as safe of a bet to make one of the three All-NBA teams as anyone else in the league not named Durant, Giannis, or Harden. Davis can protect the rim, shoot the 3, patrol the perimeter out in space, and put up 25 himself. Starting tomorrow. Will Zion be able to do all of that at a comparable level against title-level teams between 2020 and 2023? Maybe. But maybe not.

As exciting as Zion is, there is a (non-zero) chance he is never better than Davis is now and it’s unlikely Zion will be better than a “book-it” top 8 player like Davis, in Zion’s first 3 years. If the Knicks were fortunate enough to find themselves in a huge game 7 in a year or two from now, it’s Davis and not Williamson who would be a better running-mate for Durant when KD is 31 or 32. He’s closer to a sure thing and comes with experience.

By the time Zion were a top 5 or top 10 player, if he ever got there, it would probably be when KD no longer was or played elsewhere; costing the Knicks the chance to have teamed up 3 of the league’s top 10 players. No other team they might play would be able to claim that.

Anthony Davis will be a free agent in the summer of 2020. If I were trading Zion I’d want some major assurances that Davis wants to stay long-term. If he gave me that, I’d pull the trigger. The Knicks would be the odds on favorite to win a ring from day one with that trio; bigger favorites than they would be if they had Zion instead of Davis.

The question could be asked this way: who might help KD and Kyrie more over the next 12-36 months: A) Zion and maybe Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox (three players who might be added to a deal to make the math work) or B) Davis and a couple minimum salaried guys?3

It’s close and not a no-brainer and they might be finals favorites anyway if they kept Zion. Both would be great. But I’d feel a little safer with a guy who is a top 3 big in the game on his worst day and the front office’s ability to convince ring-chasing vets to take discounts and find helpful second-round picks or undrafted players to help.4

Pick 2-5

This case is potentially more cut and dry. It would be wise not to get too attached to any player the Knicks draft (or have recently drafted).

If the Knicks land KD and an All-Star running mate, they’re going to be a realistic bet for the second round of the playoffs even if they do nothing else. And a player available 2nd-5th is not likely to help them advance to the Conference Finals in just his first, second or third season of pro ball.

It could easily take the first three years of Durant’s next contract for things to “click” for these prospects.

Point guards notoriously take the longest to develop. Ja Morant has significant question marks as our Spencer Pearlman has cautioned. Both lottery point guard prospects (Morant and Darius Garland) could wind up being All-Stars. But it almost certainly won’t happen during Durant’s next contract. For reference, Kemba Walker and Steph Curry were both around 25 when they transcended.

Freshman wings like R. J. Barrett or Cam Reddish might have NBA ready bodies from day one. Jarrett Culver seems the most likely of the projected top 5 picks who could earn key minutes in an NBA playoff series right away.

But they could all find themselves defending Giannis in a key moment before their 22nd birthday… assuming they’re in the rotation.

Trading down from the 2nd or 3rd pick and aiming for a more developed player like Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke is worth considering. He might be ready to help a playoff team in a year, but it’s still a risk that could cost the team a championship in 2021. It’s been almost 50 years, how lucky are ya feelin’ punk?

Bundling 5 (miserable) years worth of assets

For me, one Knicks’ dream scenario would be ‘the Pelicans love a prospect in the 2-5 range along with some of New York’s other young players and picks.’ New Orleans may already be scouting Kevin Knox. Then New York could add Davis without parting with Zion Williamson. It’s worth a call.

After that dream, the next level of All-Star or borderline All-Star caliber player should still be what they covet.

Would the Wizards be open to trading Bradley Beal for a big enough bundle? 5

Would the Pelicans be open to trading Jrue Holiday? He has “destroyed Damian Lillard on a playoff stage a year ago” on his resume.

I would have asked for CJ McCollum, but I think he may have played himself out of any discussions yesterday.

Is Mike Conley still good enough to acquire using any high-level assets?

Could Clint Capela be obtained? NYK would desperately need all the defensive help they could find.

Would Danny Ainge be open to parting with high-profile defenders like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart or Al Horford depending on how things shake out with Irving and Davis?

Is there a chance the Warriors don’t plan on offering Draymond Green a max-level deal in 2020 and want to trade him by before next February? (Do he and KD even like each other!?)

Would Gregg Popovich consider equipping his successor with a bundle of younger assets in return for one of his top vets and a young guard?

Might another disgruntled star become available by Christmas?

These are the types of questions the Knicks should be asking themselves.

Sure, the risk here is that you ship off high-upside prospects for 60 cents on the dollar and then watch them become stars elsewhere. But the reality is that most of the players shipped off will probably never fulfill potential anyway. Even top 3 picks can lose tons of value in just 12 months. Ask Danny Ainge or Magic Johnson about overvaluing assets. Ask David Griffin if he regrets giving up early on Wiggins, Dion Waiters, or Anthony Bennett for vets like Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert or J.R. Smith.

Even a semi-disappointing trio of Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, and Jrue Holiday could potentially win a title. The front office could buttress that core with cheap versatile shooters and defenders like Damyean Dotson, Mitchell Robinson, or Allonzo Trier. The more star power they had, the more appealing they might become to ring-chasing vets looking to sign exceptions (like DeAndre Jordan) or jump on board in the buyout market next winter.

My recommendation to the Knicks front office is to go shopping with whatever pick they get Tuesday as well as with their young core – who shouldn’t be overvalued like Boston’s or L.A.’s was. Market-value of any pick they make should be considered as much as upside in this unique case.

My recommendation to the fans is to not get too attached to any prospects on the roster if Durant and a running mate sign up for the Blue and Orange this July.

My recommendation to the young core is to not buy homes this summer.

KD may not demand help. But it would be a crime if the front office didn’t do all they could to serve “The Servant” by giving him everything he needs to deliver a title during his last next 3 or 4 years of greatness.