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NEW YORK – Perhaps the biggest moment of the 2017 NBA draft built slowly. Maybe it came after the Boston Celtics picked third. Or maybe when the Phoenix Suns went fourth. The key was that on neither occasion did NBA commissioner Adam Silver announce the selection had been traded to the New York Knicks.
Across the Barclays Center (home court of the Brooklyn Nets, but on this night populated by far more Knicks fans) a realization arrived that cooler heads had prevailed. It was clear New York wasn’t going to trade its popular star center, Kristaps Porzingis.
The Knicks weren’t going to trade him, at least, on Thursday night.
“We were just saying, ‘We can keep our shirts on,’ ” said Todd Lencz of Manhattan, who took his sons Ethan, 9, and Harris, 13, to the draft. All three were wearing No. 6 Porzingis jerseys.
“We don’t have to throw them out and burn them,” Ethan noted.
When word broke this week that Knicks president Phil Jackson was actively shopping the 7-foot-3 Latvian ahead of the draft, the city went on edge. It isn’t easy being a Knicks fan. There’s dysfunction. There’s disappointment. There are defeats, lots and lots of defeats – 166 the past three seasons alone.
About the only saving grace is the sight of Porzingis handling the ball, draining threes and running the court. This is a supremely talented kid growing in front of their eyes. Guys that big aren’t supposed to be so skilled. He’s been dubbed a “unicorn” for a reason.
Yet here was Jackson, going on the MSG Network to confirm the story and take shots at Porzingis for stiffing him on a year-end meeting and heading back to Europe without a word. An all-encompassing soap opera immediately broke out. It predictably dominated the tabloid covers and discussions everywhere from WFAN to the corner deli.
“As much as we value Kristaps and what he’s done for us, when a guy doesn’t show up for an exit meeting, everybody starts speculating on the duration or movability from a club,” Jackson told the MSG Network. “… As much as we love this guy, we have to do what’s good for our club.”
Wait, all this over an exit meeting? It was noted during his brilliant coaching career, Jackson handled Dennis Rodman, Lamar Odom and Ron Artest, among others. Then again, Jackson said no player had ever blown off an exit meeting with him. Except, of course, Jackson apparently forgot that Shaq did nearly the same thing to him 14 years ago.
Other teams appeared unconcerned. Offers came flooding in, particularly from Boston. Still, nothing could be worked out ahead of the draft, and Jackson declined Thursday night to comment why. Instead everyone held serve and made their picks.
“I was getting nervous over the course of the day,” Todd Lencz said. “Once we got past Boston I breathed a sigh of relief and started getting excited about our actual No. 8 pick.”
That pick was Frank Ntilikina, a 6-5 wing from France. He was quickly asked about the Porzingis drama.
“I don’t know,” the new guy understandably said, before adding the obvious. “To play with him would be great.”
Fans here agreed. By unofficial count, there were twice as many Porzingis jerseys being worn than any other NBA player. Some said they wore them specifically as a show of support. When fans ran into each other on the concourse, they tended to huddle to commiserate, like they had just gone through a collective near-traumatic experience.
“Porzingis, he’s a once-in-a generation athlete,” said Gregory Termolle, 20, of Yonkers, New York. “At 7-3, the things he can do with the ball are incredible. He’s 21 years old and he’s already averaging 18 points a game. And the way the system was, he was the third option behind Derrick Rose and [Carmelo Anthony].”
“We can build around him,” offered Harris Lencz.
“You can’t get return value on what Kristaps can bring,” Todd Lencz said. “Future Hall of Famer.”
None of this solves the inherent problems with the Knicks. Something needs to be done with Anthony. Rose is out the door as a free agent. The triangle offense hasn’t worked like it once did. James Dolan still owns the team. And now the iconic president and the star young guy are feuding.
There were mixed reviews about who’s at fault.
On one side:
“I think Jackson wanted to tweak him a little bit, he was upset about the meeting,” said Raul Modesto of Yonkers, himself in a Porzingis jersey. “He wanted show him who the boss was.
“The kid should have showed up, though,” Modesto continued. “Let me put it this way, they do those meetings, if you have any frustrations, you have a discussion. I think the kid didn’t want to go there because [he didn’t] think Jackson would listen to him, but you have to show Jackson some respect. He has 11 rings. If Carmelo Anthony can show up with all the frustrations he had, all the trade rumors he had … .”
On the other:
“I understand why Porzingis was frustrated,” Termolle said. “It was a rough season.”
Not to mention:
“I think we should fire Phil Jackson,” Nathan Lencz said.
His father laughed at the lack of patience from a 9 year old. And after a tense 24 hours, at least there were still things to laugh about, still hope for Kristaps and the Knicks.
“I think they’ve got to meet in Geneva, Switzerland,” Todd Lencz said. “They should both fly to a neutral site and work it out.”
Maybe the Knicks should have drafted a United Nations conflict negotiator.
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