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Should the Knicks try to trade for Zion Williamson?

No! But read anyway.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In January 2021, two former college teammates were reunited on the same NBA team. Expectations were high that the pair—both selected in the top 10 of the 2019 Draft—would synergize, inspire greatness in each other, and perhaps lure a third, brickhouse collegiate pal to join them. Forget dynamic duo, some of us were fantasizing about a terrific trio.

Didn’t we have such high hopes for Cam Reddish?

That wing has flown, having been traded last February for Josh Hart (upgrade!). RJ Barrett remains on the New York Knicks (for now!). And Zion Williamson, the first selection in 2019, and fellow Duke Blue Devil, might be on the market.

Williamson is a 6’6” 285 lb. athlete with a 45-inch vertical leap. He dunked like Shaq, blocked three-pointers, and blew out sneakers. No wonder he was the top pick of his draft class.

Since draft night, the almost-23-year old has averaged 25.8 points, seven rebounds, and 3.6 assists for the New Orlean Pelicans. When he plays, Zion is a bulldozer. The operative term is when he plays: With all that weight going that high into the air, it’s no surprise that he suffers injuries often.

And despite his talent, all might not be rosy in the Big Easy between the club and the Big Z.

On his Hoop Collective podcast last week, Brian Windhorst of ESPN reported, “There is no relationship between Zion and the organization . . . and minimal relationship between Zion and his teammates, from what I understand.”

“It’s surprising to me how out there it is in the league that the Pelicans are discussing Zion business. . . . I want to be very careful about the word ‘offer’ because that word is a dangerous word. I’m not sure the Pelicans have ‘offered’ Zion to anybody, but every day that passes over the past five or six days, I hear different discussions the Pelicans have had that implies they are going to make Zion available. Him or Brandon Ingram. I wouldn’t rule out anything I guess, but the events of the last six months with Zion are what they are.” (h/t RealGM)

Since those comments, Windhorst has backpedaled the Zion rumors this week. Still, it’s hard to believe that over at NOLA headquarters, David Griffin and Trajan Langdon are unwilling to entertain offers.

My money would be on Portland swapping this year’s third pick for Zion. But, failing that deal, might there be a chance to trade him for the former New Orleans Pelican and current Knicks power forward Julius Randle?

Today, Sports Illustrated ran the article, “Knicks Trade Idea: Send Randle Back to NOLA for Zion Williamson?”

Per that piece: “While New York doesn’t have a 2023 first-round pick to offer New Orleans, a trade of Julius Randle and Evan Fournier for Williamson and Garrett Temple works for both sides. Temple’s contract is nonguaranteed [sic] for the upcoming season, which means the Knicks can cut ties with him after the trade if they wish with no cost against them.”

Also from the article:

Longtime NBA analyst Bill Simmons mentioned the continued trade rumors surrounding Williamson on his podcast, remarking that there’s a decent chance of him being dealt ahead of Thursday’s NBA Draft.

“The Zion thing is a real, real, real, subplot,” Simmons said. “I had somebody tell me yesterday—that I trust—that he will not be on [the Pelicans] by Thursday.”

Would a Julius-for-Zion deal makes sense for the Knicks?

First, let’s consider those chronic boo-boos. As stated, Williamson could serve as the board for the Operation game with injuries to his foot, ankle, knee, hamstring, and fingers. All those injuries are compounded by concerns that his commitment to conditioning is less than ideal. Reportedly, Zion reached 330 pounds while recovering from his fractured foot in 2021.

As someone once said (Bill Parcells? Brian Dawkins? Socrates?), “The best ability is availability.” Since being drafted, Zion took the floor in only 114 of 308 possible games. Compare that to Randle, who appeared in 284 of 302 contests over the same span. Advantage: Ju.

Any team that has Williamson as their starter had better have a solid reserve power forward ready to step in frequently. The Knicks brass would have to ask if Obi Toppin is ready to play a more significant role for New York. Considering Toppin’s decline in minutes last season–not even a quarter and a half per game–coach Tom Thibodeau has shown decreasing faith in him.

Julius will turn 29 this season, giving him six years on Zion. Randle has also been a workhorse these past few seasons for Thibodeau. Last season, he led the team once again in per game stats for minutes, points, and rebounds. His four assists per game were second only to Jalen Brunson. At some point, all that physical play will catch up to Randle. Would you rather stick with the power forward who might eventually start missing significant time, or bring in a younger model who might start playing more games?

If only I had crystal balls.

On defense, the edge goes to Julius. He has a career defensive rating of 110 compared to Zion’s is 113. When he’s focused, Julius is a solid defender. (Focus, ay, there’s the rub!) With time and tutelage, Zion could improve. Would Zion be willing to invest the time and energy to do so?

Three different coaches have helmed the Pels since Zion arrived. A culture change and joining an organization with consistency might be a huge benefit to his development. After all, he has shown some immature qualities that can’t go unmentioned.

Zion enjoys his privacy–perhaps to the detriment of the team. Eyebrows were raised in February 2022 when former Trailblazer CJ McCollum was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans and went almost two weeks without talking to his Zion, his new, star teammate. At the time, JJ Reddick called out the youngster for this “pattern of behavior.”

Big deal? Maybe, maybe not. But it would be nice to have a modicum of camaraderie amongst the players, and a “minimal relationship between Zion and his teammates” doesn’t sound like a great locker room.

I would be remiss not to mention the recent scuttlebutt about Zion’s personal life. While Julius gives all appearances of being a loving husband and doting father, there is evidence that Zion may have some distractions. While it is probably unreasonable to expect Mamba-level focus on one’s game and conditioning (and even Kobe had trouble), professional basketball has professional standards. Will Zion’s head and heart be in it for the long haul? For the duration of his contract, at least?

Gotta say, the following pic stung and made me snort-laugh at the same time. The question is, which of these three afflictions is curable?

One assumes that RJ would love to reunite with his old pal. They were college roommates at Duke and have often declared their affection for each other. And the guy loves playing in Madison Square Garden:

But RJ and Zion weren’t a great fit when they played together at Duke. Neither had much shooting range; both were drivers to the hoop. Last season, Zion took 62% of his shots from within 0-3 feet of the hoop. Paired with Jalen Brunson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson, I doubt this team would rate third in offense again. The Knicks would still need long-range shooting. (Which is why pairing Zion’s interior game with Damian Lillard’s exterior game in Portland is a such no-brainer to me. But, I digress.)

Zion is due a hefty $194.3 million salary over the next five years. An interested franchise must decide if this complicated yet potentially top-5 player is worth the gamble. His ceiling remains high–one of the highest in the league. But a Zion deal would be too risky for my liking, unless New York had a surefire insurance policy at power forward, and could make a second deal, this time to bring in a gunslinger with range.

Not gonna happen. Go Knicks anyway!