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Why the Knicks need Zion Williamson

If they get the chance, they should take it.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Practice Day Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The following comes to us from new contributor (and old friend of mine) Chris Molicki. You can find him @chrismol44 on Twitter and on his very NCAA basketball-centric Sports Brunch podcast. Enjoy! -Alex

Not even a year ago, Zion Williamson was a theoretical player. His legend was created in high school mixtapes that displayed his absurd athleticism. Some fans were reluctant to buy into the hype. Yet when he burst onto the scene for Duke against Kentucky, it was clear that Zion wasn’t just for real — he was so much more.

Like Zion, this piece will touch on a lot of things that are still purely theoretical. The Knicks have yet to win the lottery or acquire big-time free agents like Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving (although the latter seems to be a lot more realistic than I ever imagined). But let’s live in that world for a second.

It’s July 15th, 2019. The Knicks have done the impossible: won the lottery, drafted Williamson, and signed Durant and Irving to max contracts. Those two megastars will eat up about $70 million for the 2019-2020 season (roughly $38 million for Durant, $32 million for Irving). With Zion and the remaining Knicks players under contract (including Joakim Noah’s dead money and Lance Thomas’ deal that’s only guaranteed at $1 million), that amounts to a total salary of about $107 million, only $2 million under the projected $109 million salary cap for next season. The group left with Durant and Irving has so little NBA experience. They need more help.

An attractive source of help would be disgruntled Pelicans star Anthony Davis. We know he won’t be playing in New Orleans next year, and to get a big three of Durant, Irving, and Davis together in the Mecca would be a sight to behold. If New York gets Zion, it gives them a chance at putting together a more enticing package than Boston and other teams. However, I’m here to plant my flag on Mount Zion: I’d want the Knicks to have Williamson over Davis.

It sounds crazy. If New York is all of the sudden ready to win now, why wouldn’t they want a proven star over a rookie? Perhaps it’s more complicated than that. The Knicks could make the trade, get Davis, and win a championship right away, deeming the move a clear win. But if they don’t, what could be the consequences?

First off, getting Davis would severely handicap the Knicks moving forward. A deal to New Orleans would likely see Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Lance Thomas, Dennis Smith Jr., Zion and maybe even picks all jettisoned to the Big Easy (not necessarily because that would be the price tag for Davis, but because most of those players would be needed for salary matching purposes). Assuming the Knicks traded all of those players, it would leave just Durant, Irving, Davis, Damyean Dotson and likely Allonzo Trier, plus $9 million in cap space. That’s right, the Knicks would have just $9 million plus the room exception of about $5 million to fill out the rest of their roster. While they’d likely be able to get a few veteran minimum ring chasers, this leaves virtually no depth behind their big three, all of whom are injury prone.

That brings us to the elephant in the room. Durant, Irving, and Davis have all had injuries throughout their careers. They’re also three of the most unpredictable stars in the NBA, seemingly dissatisfied with their current team situations, both for fair and unfair reasons. What if things in New York go sour? What if they don’t mesh? What if Irving hurts his knee again and this core never reaches its full potential?

I understand that maybe I’m being too cautious or pessimistic. Any team would kill for that big three. But maybe I’m dreaming bigger. Maybe there’s a world where, as horrible as the last 15 years of basketball at the Garden have been, the next 15 years could be purely fantastic. And that starts with Zion.

If this were almost any other player, this conversation wouldn’t be happening. You go all in on proven talent and trade your young players to win now. But Williamson shined so much at Duke. He’s already a proven talent. He can be part of a big three. Sure, he’s not Davis, but he gives the Knicks a cost-controlled star that can produce now and allow the team some flexibility in the future. They could trade their other young players for rotation pieces that would be too expensive otherwise. The Knicks could be like the current Celtics, with a mix of young talent, stars, and assets — but also Durant. Ultimately, they could be a team that, even if everything goes wrong (whether it be because of injuries to stars of them becoming unhappy), has a future with Zion.

Plenty of people will want to go the more straightforward route of getting a big three and trying to win a title that way, and I get that. I could be getting a little greedy. But look at how the LeBron-era Miami Heat constructed their team versus how the Curry Warriors did. The Heat pretty much fell apart when LeBron left, and now they’re in cap hell. Meanwhile, the Warriors are still prepared to be a championship contender, even if they lose Kevin Freaking Durant. There are plenty of other circumstances that have played into those results, but the point is, there may be a smarter way to do this.

This theory of the Knicks getting the best draft prospect in years and signing major free agents would be a win by itself. But until that happens, it’s all just fantasy. So why not shoot for the moon? Why not think of a theoretical world where the Knicks have it all — superstars, homegrown young guns, flexibility, championships, and maybe even a dynasty. It’s been decades since Knicks fans have had more than just dreaming to get excited about. So why not dream big?