When the Ian O’Connor piece on James Dolan came out last month, it didn’t tell Knicks fans anything they didn’t already know.
At least not the ones that have been paying attention.
Dolan is, by all accounts, a flawed man. He’s clearly stubborn about a lot of things, including the righteousness of his own decision-making, which is perhaps the worst thing of all that a person can be stubborn about. His, shall we say, “unique” persona, has resulted in a working environment that has been painted as anywhere from uncomfortable to unbearable.
In the O’Connor piece, the term “culture of fear” was used. Later in the article, there was mention of a program designed to enhance the workplace experience for Garden employees – an implicit acknowledgement that said environment needed some TLC. Howard Beck used the word “tense” to describe the atmosphere around the franchise during our conversation earlier this season, and I got the sense he was being kind.
Again, none of this is news.
What is impossible to know, and what has tortured Knicks fans more than any single trade, signing, or game that has occurred during Dolan’s tenure, is just how much any of this matters.
The issue is that we’re not dealing with Amazon or Apple here. As long as we get our Christmas orders on time and our iPhones last their requisite two years before turning into fancy paperweights, we don’t care whether Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook is an unconscionable douche.
Sports are different. The output isn’t a product; it is a group of humans working together to achieve a discernible task. If the well is poisoned, that task becomes more difficult. This much is clear. What isn’t clear is the butterfly effect that poor ownership creates. If James Dolan yells at a subordinate on a Monday morning, the Knicks don’t necessarily get blown out at home on Tuesday night1.
🎉 We have raised nearly $10,000 in just two months of fundraising to help New Yorkers in need.
My New Year’s resolution is simple: let’s not stop there.
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— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 3, 2019
The answer was a lot easier when Dolan was stepping into the basketball ops side of things and sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Since he’s allegedly stopped doing that (and by all accounts, he has), we’re left to guess what effect, if any, the “maybe terrible, maybe just-not-great” working environment at the Garden has had on the team itself.
On one hand, we have some evidence that the answer is “none.” Putting a certain former power forward aside, seemingly every former Knick, including those who have played while Dolan has owned the team, has nice things to say upon their return. Many even work for the club. The organization has been undone by various bouts of incompetence over the years far more than any internal, organizational strife.
Regarding the current group, Rebecca Haarlow – someone who has covered team sports for over a decade – told me last week that the positivity around the team was “special” and that she’s never seen an energy like the one surrounding this group of players. Haarlow is an MSG employee, so take her words with a grain of salt if you must, but they seem to be fairly bold to not have at least a few layers of truth.
The group of players currently on the court isn’t the issue though; it’s the 7’3” elephant in the room that’s still working his way back – the one for whom there is more at stake in terms of the historical significance of his career than the rest of the roster combined2. Kristaps Porzingis is (justifiably) weighing where he is going to spend the prime of his career, and whether this organization can give him the opportunity to make good on his otherworldly talents.
His leanings in this regard should be the franchise’s top concern. Say what you want about his durability, but teams draft for decades without landing a generational talent the likes of Porzingis. Some teams in the NBA have never gotten so lucky.
Now, with July 1 a mere six months away, every Knicks fan is trying their best to read the tea leaves on where KP’s thinking is at. Specifically, we’re left wondering how much the aforementioned Garden culture affects him, if at all. The problem is that the primary conveyers of this information also happen to be the group that has been disenfranchised by James Dolan more than any other: the local media.
.@SBondyNYDN notes that Brooklyn could be a team that throws an offer sheet at Porzingis this July:
“Sean Marks, the team’s GM, is high on Porzingis, according to a source, and has a history of offering big money to restricted free agents.”https://t.co/a7pMjjQpkv
— Knicks Film School (@KnickFilmSchool) January 2, 2019
Two weeks ago, Steve Mills held a press conference for reporters, and the Daily News’ Stefan Bondy’s invitation got lost in the mail. Coincidentally, this happened immediately following the News splashing a drawing of Dolan on the back page under the headline “DO IT!” (as in, sell the team) in response to O’Connor’s article. Just as coincidentally, last week, Bondy caused minor waves when he wrote a piece about KP’s free agency that included the following line:
At this point, the question isn’t just whether the Knicks should offer Porzingis a max contract but also whether he should sign one. Because the word on Porzingis is that he loves New York but is skeptical about the Knicks. And who wouldn’t be?
“The word on Porzingis…”
What is a fan supposed to do with that? Is this reporting? Theorizing? Somewhere in between? Say what you will about Bondy, but he wouldn’t write it if there wasn’t some truth to it, somewhere, from someone. But how much is of his “report” is influenced by the events of the previous few weeks, not to mention the antagonistic relationship that has existed between the Garden and the press corps going back well over a decade?
It’s not just the Daily News either. Ian Begley, who I think most Knicks fans would consider a credible source on the Knicks’ beat, also alluded to the fact that re-signing KP isn’t a guaranteed fact when he wrote, “The smart money says the Knicks and Porzingis will reach an agreement this summer, but it’s foolish to see that transaction as a sure thing.”
Bleacher Report’s Yaron Weitzman – who hasn’t been barred from any press conferences that we know of – followed up Bondy’s article with this nugget:
This–idea that KP isn't exactly a fan of how things operate around MSG/The Knicks–has been a bit of an open secret for a bit. https://t.co/oVOOTlhYik
— Yaron Weitzman (@YaronWeitzman) January 2, 2019
Even if this is reliable reporting (and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t), it brings us back to the original question: should we care? Maybe, maybe not.
We’ve all had bosses we think are dicks, but that doesn’t always equate to a poor experience as an employee. To this day, my favorite job is the one I had during high school where I was a car runner for Bay Ridge Lexus3.
My boss – who also happened to be my dad – was an unconscionable ball-buster, especially with me. But he was only in the service shop for an hour or so a day and he never really bothered me. His employees feared him, but they worked on commission, and nothing he did effected their bread, which was all that really mattered.
How different is an NBA team? Maybe it’s not that different at all. Porzingis could think the treatment of reporters is completely unfair and feel bad for fearful Garden employees but still embrace being the face of the franchise because he knows if he ever won a ring here, he’d be draped in sports immortality for the rest of his life.
It’s also entirely possible he looks around every day and questions whether such an operation could ever put it all together to the point of reaching the ultimate goal. He could view the presser incident as the equivalent of a grown man pulling a “you can’t come to my birthday party because you laughed when I tripped and fell in gym class”-level move and exponentially increase the pace at which he plots his exit strategy.
Or he might not care in the slightest. We just don’t know.
What we do know is that the organization, for all its faults, has seemingly done everything humanly possible to make sure Porzingis feels like he is at the center of all of their plans, from talking him up every chance they get, to sending the head coach to spend a week in his home country, to something as silly as putting him at the head of the table in this ridiculous cartoon:
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) November 22, 2018
We haven’t heard any reporting – or even guessing – about whether any of these efforts have made a difference to the man and his camp. Is that because the people who would normally be giving us this information are less than inclined to seek positive angles on this particular subject? Or is it simply due to the fact that the Knicks themselves haven’t made KP available for interviews since camp opened?
Around and around we go. At the end of the day, parsing through what is and isn’t real is a fool’s errand. What KP feels about the Knicks – both on and off the court – is anyone’s guess, but to think he’s sold to the point of simply acquiescing to the organization’s desires is silly. It’s why the idea that he would sign a five-year max extension with injury protections is more than a little wishful thinking.
Do you lay out the red carpet and forgo any semblance of negotiation? No…you still make your pitch. But it should be far closer to a Home Run Derby soft toss than one made in October with a man on third. At the end of the day, Bondy is right4. There’s nothing stopping KP from holding fast at a three-year deal with a player option for the fourth season. The Knicks should want to guarantee him for every minute of five full years.
Which one ends up happening may finally give us the answer as to just how much the players do or don’t mind whatever is or isn’t happening on the inside of the Garden’s walls.
Until then, we sit, and we wait, combing for scraps of information and then deciding whether they mean a damn thing.
Such is life as a Knicks fan.