The reward for the worst Knicks season in 20 years was officially claimed on Tuesday by the Chicago Bulls -- in the form of the second overall pick in the June draft.
If Knicks officials cringed, no one will know, because they are not talking. But there was no mistaking John Paxson's satisfaction. Paxson, the Bulls general manager, acquired the Knicks' pick in the Eddy Curry trade last fall. At the time, no one figured the Knicks would do so badly, or that the pick would become so valuable.
"This is kind of like found money," Paxson said after the NBA held its draft lottery here on Tuesday night.
With the No. 2 pick, the Bulls could take one of the top forwards in the draft -- Tyrus Thomas of Louisiana State, LaMarcus Aldridge of Texas or Andrea Bargnani of Italy. Or the Bulls, desperate for veterans and size, could trade the pick.
The Knicks, who endured a painful 23-victory season, will continue to place their faith in Curry and pray that he justifies the deal. But if the June 28 draft is viewed as a referendum on the Curry trade, Paxson will not engage the debate.
"It's not important," Paxson said. "Anyone who wants to get caught up in who's going to ultimately win this deal, for me it's not about that."
Paxson also said several times that he never anticipated that the pick would end up so high. The Knicks, despite acquiring Curry and hiring coach Larry Brown, finished with the second-worst record in the league and had a 19.9 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick.
The Toronto Raptors, in the night's biggest surprise, instead claimed the top spot. Toronto had been slotted fifth, with just an 8.8 percent chance of winning the lottery. Portland, which had the league's worst record -- and a 25 percent chance of winning the top spot -- fell to fourth. (That is not unusual; the team with the worst record has won only four of the past 21 lotteries.)
Curry had a shaky first season with the Knicks. Slowed by injuries and poor conditioning, he averaged 13.6 points and 6 rebounds in 25.9 minutes per game. In the final weeks, Brown often benched Curry in the fourth quarter in favor of the undrafted Jackie Butler.
A solid scorer, Curry has been criticized for his lack of hustle and his defense.
Yet Curry is only 23 years old and is viewed around the league as a potential All-Star because of his rare combination of size and athleticism. Last month, a half-dozen league executives surveyed by The New York Times said that Curry was a better talent than any player in the upcoming draft.
This year's draft is considered good, but is unusually weak at the top. There are no franchise-changing players, according to scouts and general managers. So chances are the Knicks did not miss out on the next Tim Duncan, the next Kobe Bryant or the next Steve Nash.
"I think when you talk about an impact player, everybody's talking about LeBron James or Dwyane Wade," Paxson said.
"Is there that guy? Probably not. But every year, there are good players in the draft. And every year there are guys that end up being All-Star caliber guys throughout their career. I don't think this year's going to be any different. I think there's good young talent."
Paxson listed the Bulls' needs as size and athleticism in the frontcourt. Those are the qualities Chicago lost when it traded Curry.