It’s make-or-break time for Knicks in Zion Williamson sweepstakes

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Yahoo Sports

Patrick Ewing will represent the New York Knicks at Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery because, well, how couldn’t he?

In 1985, the NBA created the lottery in an effort to stop bad teams from tanking to acquire the No. 1 overall pick. It was previously determined via coin flip of each conference’s worst team. Despite only having the third-worst record in the league that year, the Knicks won, allowing them to draft Ewing, the franchise-changing big man from Georgetown.

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Conspiracy theories remain to this day — mostly that the Knicks’ envelope that then-commissioner David Stern pulled from the drum was chilled beforehand so he knew which one to pick, allowing the league to assure success for its biggest market team. This is beyond unlikely, but this is also the NBA, so you’ll never convince people.

Anyway, Ewing did make the Knicks matter, causing Madison Square Garden to rock and the Knicks to reach two Finals. He never could get them a title, but New York hasn’t done much of anything since he left in 2000 (one playoff series victory, no playoffs at all since 2013).

The Knicks won just 17 games this year, worst in the league.

And yet …

Zion Williamson, the 6-foot-7, 284-pound sensation from Duke, sits available for the taking at the top of the draft. He wouldn’t just make the Knicks must-watch, but might serve as a cornerstone of a potential overnight revitalization effort that includes two max-contract free-agent openings.

The promise of Zion on the roster sure won’t hurt the Knicks’ summer pursuit of Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving or Kawhi Leonard.

Zion Williamson is perhaps the biggest draft prize since LeBron James. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Zion Williamson is perhaps the biggest draft prize since LeBron James. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

That makes Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. ET the most potentially impactful lottery since 2003, when Cleveland won the rights to draft LeBron James. It could create an instant contender.

The Knicks will have a 14 percent chance at landing the No. 1 selection, the same as Cleveland and Phoenix. Zion is the big get, but Murray State’s Ja Morant and Duke’s RJ Barrett are considered reasonable consolation prizes. After that, it’s a crapshoot. New York has a 40.1 percent shot at getting one of them.

“We’re excited,” Knicks president Steve Mills said earlier this offseason. “We’re not going to hide that we’re excited and we’re optimistic about what we hope the summer leads to.”

The NBA — and society as a whole — has changed a great deal since 1985. Players don’t need to be in a major market such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Boston to become national, or even international, stars. And the NBA doesn’t need its best teams in big cities to drive television ratings and publicity.

That doesn’t mean the NBA wouldn’t love to see the Knicks be relevant again. Television ratings have been mostly down this year, in part because LeBron James moved to L.A. and out of the Eastern Time Zone.

Yes, you can be a major star and a major television draw in Cleveland or Phoenix or anywhere else, but it sure is easier to be one in New York. Zion in the Big Apple is tantalizing. It would electrify the biggest city in the country and — if two proven stars from the bumper crop of free agents (Durant, Leonard, Irving, Klay Thompson and Kemba Walker) were to join him — alter the balance of the entire league.

For too long, Madison Square Garden has been about who is visiting rather than the star of the home team. That could change with the churn of some lottery balls.

All of it makes for anxious hours for Knicks fans, who have remained loyal despite the desperation. It’s virtually unprecedented to have a situation in which a team could go from so bad, and so irrelevant, to the talk of the NBA and a legit contender, if not overnight, then over the course of a few months.

Or wind up with the No. 5 pick.

Whether any of the big free agents actually come to New York remains a question. The franchise has money, but it is still owned by James Dolan and his track record of attracting nothing but hard feelings.

Under Mills and general manager Scott Perry though, the Knicks have positioned themselves for a breakthrough. A respected coach, David Fizdale, is in place. A midseason trade of the injured Kristaps Porzingis netted them Dennis Smith Jr., two future No. 1 picks and enough expiring deals to clear the space for two max salary slots. Couple that with promising rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson, and there might actually be hope here.

Then there’s a shot at Zion on Tuesday. There’s never really been anything like him. The same could be said of New York. Bring in Zion and the story the Knicks can sell a Durant about lighting up MSG immediately becomes far more believable.

It feels like a match waiting to be made in Manhattan … or it’s another gut punch for a franchise accustomed to them.

For luck, the Knicks are sending to this draft lottery the original draft lottery stroke of luck, the one-time Georgetown star who is now Georgetown’s coach.

The Knicks had a 14 percent chance of getting Ewing back then and a 14 percent chance of getting Zion now.

Start your conspiracy theories.

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