Jazz: Draft jackpot could await Utah in 2010

Utah can't help but consider next year's possibilities, when it will own the New York Knick's first-round pick.
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As if a 26-56 season wasn't painful enough, watching the Jazz slip to sixth in the 2005 NBA Draft lottery was such a punch in the gut, general manager Kevin O'Connor remembers his immediate reaction was to walk out in the middle of the proceedings.

On second thought, O'Connor realized he couldn't just get up and leave on live television. The Jazz, though, were able to overcome their disappointment, trading up to draft Deron Williams with the No. 3 pick, and O'Connor still might enjoy the last laugh again.

With their focus on Thursday's draft, the Jazz can't help but consider the possibilities that await next year, when they will own the New York Knicks' first-round pick. The Knicks finished with the Eastern Conference's second-worst record last season at 32-50.

The more disastrous a season New York has, the longer the rainbow that could lead to a pot of gold for the Jazz. Even if the Knicks win the draft lottery, they would have to relinquish the No. 1 overall pick to the Jazz.

"It'll be fun to watch," an opposing general manager said. "For sure, they're [the Knicks] going to be awful."

A native New Yorker, O'Connor could travel to Secaucus, N.J., for the 2010 lottery, set to collect on Isiah Thomas' sins as Knicks' president. The Jazz acquired the pick at the February 2004 trade deadline but will have to wait six years to cash it in.

Thomas originally traded the pick to Phoenix as part of the Stephon Marbury deal. The Jazz obtained it as the Suns made a luxury-tax saving deal, trading Tom Gugliotta plus two first-round picks to the Jazz for Ben Handlogten and Keon Clark.

The pick was protected into the mid-20s originally -- including Nos. 1-22 this year -- but was left unprotected in 2010. That the Jazz could be left holding such a golden ticket comes as no surprise to ESPN.com draft analyst Chad Ford.

"Isiah was all about the now, he was never about the future," Ford said. "Maybe he knew deep down that he wouldn't be around to reap what he sowed with that one."

As tantalizing as the possibilities appear, the Jazz would have no better than a 25 percent chance of winning the lottery even if New York finished with the league's worst record.

The Jazz also are wary of putting too much faith in the pick, having seen what happened to Phoenix in 2007. Set to receive a top-three protected pick from Atlanta to complete the Joe Johnson trade, the Suns watched the Hawks claim the No. 3 pick in the lottery.

Not only did Atlanta select Al Horford with the pick, the Hawks made the playoffs the following season. The Hawks did give up their No. 15 pick in 2008, but the Suns had to settle for selecting Robin Lopez.

"We don't have any control over it," said O'Connor, who did travel to Italy earlier this month to scout European prospects with an eye toward 2010. "I don't think the expectation should be that it's going to be a high lottery pick.

"We don't know what it's going to be, and until we do know -- obviously, that won't be until late in the season -- we'll treat it as we have: That it's an asset and we'll wait and see where it's at."

The Jazz could look to trade the pick, but have strong incentive to keep it given the NBA's rookie salary scale, which calls for the No. 1 overall pick in 2010 to make no more than $24.1 million his first four years in the league.

The Knicks, meanwhile, own the No. 8 pick in Thursday's draft after finishing with the league's eighth-worst record. They dropped 13 of their final 17 games, leaving the Jazz to hope the Knicks can pick up in November where they left off in April.

Their immediate fortunes largely will be determined by whether they make an effort this summer to re-sign David Lee and/or Nate Robinson as restricted free agents, possibly eating into the salary-cap space they have cleared for summer 2010.

"All eyes will be on David Lee," Ford said. "If they don't re-sign him, that's the signal they're just waiting for cap room."

After ridding themselves of Stephon Marbury, Zach Randolph, Jamal Crawford and others, the Knicks have a roster largely lined up of players whose contracts are set to expire after the 2009-10 season.

That would give the Knicks the ability to sign LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or another marquee free agent from the class of 2010 to a maximum contract, with potentially enough cap space for further signings.

Either way, the Jazz believe New York will be improved next year. Danilo Gallinari, the No. 6 pick in 2008, played in only 28 games as a rookie due to a back injury. His return to health, plus the arrival of another lottery pick, should strengthen the Knicks.

But the Jazz have concluded that the 2010 draft is deeper than this year's. They would not have agreed to take the Knicks' No. 8 pick Thursday in exchange for releasing New York from next year's obligation.

The No. 1 prospect in 2010 is John Wall, an incoming freshman point guard at Kentucky. That might present an issue should the Jazz hit the jackpot with the Knicks pick, given that Deron Williams already is established as the franchise cornerstone.

But the 2010 draft is rich with promising big men. Top prospects include North Carolina forward Ed Davis, Georgetown forward Greg Monroe, Wake Forest forward Al-Farouq Aminu and Lithuanian forward Donatas Motiejunas.

Florida State center Solomon Alabi, Iowa State forward Craig Brackins and Kansas center Cole Aldrich also could be lottery picks, along with forward Derrick Favors, an incoming freshman at Georgia Tech.

"It's a great building block for the Jazz, who already have a competitive team," Ford said, "and depending on the pick, it could be a franchise player."


About the series

Today continues part three of a six-day series ending after the NBA Draft (Thursday, 6 p.m., ESPN). The Tribune has all the angles covered, from a national mock draft to in-depth analysis of what the Jazz are trying to accomplish with their picks.