Knicks fans were understandably upset when a season of what sometimes seemed like intentional losing did not earn anything more than the No. 4 pick in the N.B.A. draft. But a deep dive into the team’s past draft performance holds a glimmer of hope: The Knicks once made the best No. 4 pick in N.B.A. history. The only problem is, they failed to sign him.
With the draft set to take place on Thursday at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, it is Manhattan’s team that has drawn much of the attention. Phil Jackson will be making his first draft selection as the team’s president and many are curious if he can learn from the mistakes of the team’s past.
No Knicks mistake has been bigger than the one that happened the first time they had the No. 4 pick. It was 1948 and the Knicks were playing in the Basketball Association of America, one of the two rival leagues that later merged into the N.B.A. The Knicks used their pick on N.Y.U.’s Dolph Schayes. A 6 foot 7 power forward, Schayes would prove to be one of the most accomplished players in basketball history. His résumé includes 12 All-Star appearances, the 1955 N.B.A. championship, a spot on the N.B.A.’s 25th and 50th anniversary teams, and enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, Schayes did almost all of that for the Syracuse Nationals, because a difference of $2,500 (around $25,000 when adjusted for inflation) stood in the way of a New York City legend playing for his hometown team.
Schayes, still going strong at 87, said he would have preferred to stay home, but the Knicks were held back by the B.A.A.’s rookie salary cap. The Nationals of the N.B.A. were not beholden to any limits, so the decision was made for him.
“I figured out that $2,500 was a lot of money and professional basketball might not have a long life,” Schayes said. “So I figured I might as well take the best offer.”
When the Knicks went on to lose the N.B.A. finals in three consecutive seasons from 1951 to 1953, it had to sting that the failure to sign Schayes very likely cost the team the chance of being one of the league’s first dynasties.
The good news for the Knicks is that the current salary structure of the N.B.A. makes it nearly a sure thing that they will be able to sign the player they pick at the draft. The bad news is that with next year’s first rounder already traded away as part of the package that landed the team Andrea Bargnani, they have no margin of error for drafting a star. And finding a superstar at No. 4 is not always easy.
Most pundits have pegged Karl-Anthony Towns of Kentucky as the top prospect of this year’s draft class, but after him the waters are a bit muddied. Jahlil Okafor of Duke, D’Angelo Russell of Ohio State, Emmanuel Mudiay, who played professionally last season in China, and Kristaps Porzingis of Latvia have all been tossed around as having the potential to rival Towns for draft value, but few can agree who should go where.
There is always a chance the Knicks could come away from the draft with the best player, though it happens rarely. Of the 30 drafts of the lottery era, the best player in the draft, in terms of career win shares, has landed at the No. 4 pick just twice: Chris Paul in 2005 and Dikembe Mutombo in 1991. Other No. 4 picks who seem on their way to the Hall of Fame eventually include Russell Westbrook, Chris Bosh and Rasheed Wallace.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the No. 4 pick has resulted in a player who failed to make his own draft class’s top-10 12 times. The worst No. 4 pick of the lottery era was Marcus Fizer, who went to the Chicago Bulls in the 2000 draft and proved to be the 30th most valuable member of his draft class.
But with Paul nearly twice as productive as anyone in his draft class, and Mutombo a finalist this year for the Hall of Fame, there is at least a glimmer of hope that everyone has missed a hidden gem and that whichever player falls to the Knicks, be it Okafor, Russell, Mudiay or Porzingis, ends up being the rock for Jackson to rebuild the team upon.
The Knicks, however, have had a mixed history, at best, with the pick in the years since they failed to sign Schayes.
Given another chance with the No. 4 pick in 1955, the team did fairly well, choosing Kenny Sears of Santa Clara. He went on to be a three-time All-Star who compiled 55.8 win shares over 9 seasons.
The next year, picking fourth again, the Knicks swung and missed on Ron Shavlik of North Carolina State, who played a grand total of 74 minutes in the N.B.A. In 1958, the No. 4 pick again landed in their lap and the Knicks selected Pete Brennan of North Carolina who scored 40 points in a career that spanned 136 minutes over 16 games.
The only other time the Knicks had the No. 4 pick was in 1978 when they chose Micheal Ray Richardson of Montana. A four-time All-Star, including three appearances in his four seasons with the Knicks, Richardson seems like a solid enough pick until you consider that Larry Bird went two picks later to the Celtics.
Jackson is well known as a coach, but little is known about his preferences in a draft. With the teams that possess the top-three picks failing to give much of a hint as to who they may take, it is also unknown what players will be available. But after enduring a 17-win season in which nearly every recognizable player on the team was sent packing, the Knicks’ fanbase has to be hoping this rare appearance in the first five picks ends up with a player more like Schayes, Mutombo and Paul and less like Shavlik or Brennan. Otherwise all of those losses will have been for nothing.