Carmelo Anthony was at the Knicks' practice facility, rehabbing from knee surgery, when a skinny teenager from Latvia arrived for a pre-draft workout. Anthony watched Kristaps Porzingis shoot, and turned to Steve Mills, the Knicks' general manager, with a question, Mills recalled in a chat with ESPN.com last week:
"Do you think we may draft this kid?"
The question could have implied a lot of things -- including the frustration a 31-year-old with aching knees might feel about the franchise, his franchise, banking his NBA twilight on an unknown not far removed from a regrettable cornrows phase.
Mills decided total honestly was the best way to push through any tension. "Carmelo," Mills said, "if he's there, we probably will draft him."
Porzingis was there at No. 4, though not without some drama. The Boston Celtics were hell-bent on moving up to draft Justise Winslow and offered the Charlotte Hornets four first-round picks -- including one of Brooklyn's unprotected picks -- for Charlotte's No. 9 pick. But that was Boston's fall-back plan, sources say. The Celtics initially chased Charlotte's pick with the idea of sending it to the Knicks, along with Boston's No. 15 pick, to vault all the way into the Knicks' draft slot -- where the Celtics would take Winslow. Charlotte refused Boston's pitches, and the scenario died. The Knicks downplay their interest in Boston's offer, though it's fascinating to consider how the draft might have played out -- and which fan base would be chanting "POR-ZIN-GIS!" today -- had the Celtics swooped in for Winslow at No. 4.
"We listened," Mills says. "But we were never close."
The Knicks had no inkling Porzingis would be this good this soon. "We knew he'd be good," Mills says. "I don't think any of us expected this."
This has changed a lot of things for a beleaguered punch line of a franchise that has spent most of the past 15 years lunging from one plan to another with the addled hyperactivity of a toddler sprinting between plates of cookies. But should it change Anthony's place in the Knicks' long-term plans, or Phil Jackson's borderline religious devotion to an offensive system that looks outdated?
Striking a middle path in free agency may be New York's best option after all. It won't make them a title contender unless they coax someone like Durant or Russell Westbrook, but there are worse NBA fates than signing a B-level guy that actually fits your team, pushing 50 wins every year until Anthony leaves, and developing the rest of the roster around Porzingis in the meantime. Get lucky with fringe signings, trades, and health, and you could find yourself going headband-to-headband with LeBron in the conference finals. Everyone needs to wait out the Warriors, anyway. (Seriously: waiting out Golden State's run of dominance is already a topic of conversation among team executives).
There is danger lurking along this path, too. The Knicks would enter free agency with all three front-court positions filled, meaning they'll trawl a limited slice of an already limited free agency class this summer. Maxing out DeMar DeRozan, a mini-Anthony with a bamboozling pump fake, would make it difficult for New York to come calling again for a max-level star in the summer of 2017 -- the summer of Westbrook, and many others -- unless they offload Lopez in the interim. Conley is wonderful, but he's inching toward 30, and New York might be able to find a cheaper option like Brandon Jennings, Lawson, Greivis Vasquez, or someone else via trade.
Spend too lavishly, and the Knicks could trap themselves into mediocrity. "Our goal is to build ourselves into a good team," Mills says. "And we can take it gradually. There is no urgency that just because [Porzingis] and Anthony make for a good pairing, that we have to go out, hit a home run, and land the guy that is going to takes us to the championship next year. That would be nice. But we're trying to build this the right way, over a number of years. That might mean spending all our room on one player. It might mean splitting it up among multiple players."
Before the Knicks decide where to go, they need to figure out what they have now. It's unclear whether this feisty bunch is even all that good, and its flaws very much reflect those of both its star and its maker.