Part III: Leadership

As the season draws to a close, Jonathan Macri completes his assessment of the 2018-19 campaign by grading the highest levels of the organization. In case you missed it, be sure to check out Parts I (the players) and II (the coach) as well.

As we approach the two week mark for Avengers: Endgame – sure to be the coolest three hours of my summer1 – I’m reminded of the moment that got us to this movie in the first place, when a misbegotten Star Lord cost half the universe its lives.

About two thirds of the way through Infinity War (Spoiler alert for the seven people who haven’t seen it), the delightful Chris Pratt, playing an intergalactic hoodlum turned hero, had himself a moment he’d like to forget. The Avengers, or at least the half of them that had been jettisoned into space, had come up with a kick-ass plan to remove the Infinity Gauntlet from Thanos’ big purple mitt. It involved loads of CGI wizardry that stuck the Mad Titan in a compromising position where he no longer had control of his bodily functions. Pretty freaking ingenious.

To finish him off, all the Avengers needed to do was remove the damn glove. They were thisclose to doing exactly that, until Pratt lost his shit because he realized Thanos had killed his girlfriend (who also happened to be Thonos’ daughter – long story). After repeatedly punching him in the face, the big guy snapped out of his trance, retained the gauntlet, and kicked everyone’s ass. You know the rest.

If your theater-going experience was anything like mine, the crowd reacted like the city of Cleveland as JR grabbed his rebound at the end of Game 1 of the 2018 Finals and immediately started running for a shot of Henny. It may have been the ultimate Nononononowhatareyoudoingnoooooo moment in cinematic history.

Here’s the crazy thing though: we knew it was coming. Marvel had announced the sequel to this film long before A:IW even came out. We knew Thanos wasn’t going to lose…and yet every person who saw the film was devastated when it didn’t happen. Not only did we buy into the fantasy, but we bought into the fantasy within the fantasy.

All Pratt needed to do was keep walking, and boom: universe saved.

Except he couldn’t help himself.

As those punches were landing, I was reminded of a feeling that has become all too familiar in my lifetime, one deep inside my core.

It’s the feeling I get any time I take out my phone (or, back in the old days, turned on the television or radio) and instantly know that the franchise I’ve rooted for since I was nine has done something stupid. It’s the feeling Lakers fans got a taste of on Tuesday night, when Magic Johnson decided to quit his job without telling anybody. I reacted to the Shams Bomb like every other Knick fan alive: Thank God it’s not us.

Because it has been us, so very, very often. We’ve seen those Tweets too many times. The feeling we get when we open them is what’s at the heart of #LOLKnicks. It’s the one responsible for all of our insecurity complexes, the reason we take every good happening with several grains of salt. It’s why I do what I do on this site – it’s cheaper than therapy, and healthier than scotch.

The first time I remember the feeling, I was 17. I was at the house of my first serious girlfriend, opened up a copy of the NY Post that was on the table when I walked in, and saw the news: Patrick Ewing had been traded. I tried for a bit to pretend like I didn’t care about this team far more than I ever would for the girl, but she saw through that pretty quickly. She was pissed; I was distraught.

It’s not the fact that he was traded that had me bummed – a possible move had been discussed for weeks, and the team badly needed a reboot. No, it was the return they got that had me perplexed. Even as a teenager, I knew that trading Ewing’s expiring contract for Glen Rice – a 33-year-old who played the same position as the team’s two best players – was odd.

It was a directionless move if there ever was one. It’s like someone told the team to shit or get off the pot and they couldn’t make up their mind, so they got up and lost their bowels all over the bathroom floor. We’ve seemingly been cleaning up the mess for 19 years.

Perhaps not coincidentally, James Dolan had taken over the running of the team the previous season. The messy missteps that have come during his tenure have been well documented, whether they be on the court, via trades or signings, or having nothing to do with actual basketball altogether. I’d go through them in more detail, but I’m writing this at 8:30 on a Sunday morning and it’s too early for a drink.

Point is, there have been enough of these moves since the Ewing trade that we should not only know an LOL Knicks moment when we see one, but expect it before it hits. Like the inevitable plot device that got us to the next Avengers, it shouldn’t be a matter of whether they’ll fuck up, but simply when, and how soul-seething will it be.

And yet, inexplicably, I entered this season with hope. Hope that we could pull off the glove, and somehow make it from October to July without adding another moment to the list. More than anything – more than developing the youth, clearing cap space, instituting an offense, or anything else – whether the organization could soberly walk that nine-month tightrope while touching its nose and not falling flat on its face would come to define this season.

Why? Because the fate of the Knicks’ universe depended on it.

For reasons only slightly less explicable than the Avengers nearly defeating Thanos, one of maybe the best dozen players ever seems to want to spend the second half of his prime playing basketball in New York. The rumors have been swirling since before training camp began. While nothing in this league is ever certain, for once, all the Knicks needed to do was not fuck things up and they might come out on top.

Did they do it? It depends on how you look at it, but as we assess how the organization as a whole did this season, one thing is for certain: Scott Perry did his part.

The basketball lifer from Detroit brought with him a reputation of professionalism and basic competence, two things often sorely lacking at MSG. His appointment had me hopeful, as did the fact that James Dolan had stayed out of basketball operations since vetoing a Kyle Lowry/Iman Shumpert trade because his backside still hurt from the Bargnani deal. #WhateverItTakes

Over his first year on the job, the closest thing to an LOL Knicks moment we had was when Joakim Noah and Jeff Hornacek got into it at practice one day. That’s small potatoes around these parts. On the plus side, he navigated the Carmelo Anthony trade saga about as well as could be expected, bringing back the pick that would become Mitchell Robinson. Most significantly, he added no future salary and finished his first year with more picks in the cupboard than he started with – the Robinson pick plus two more for Willy Hernangomez, and then one dealt for Emmanuel Mudiay.

(BTW, for all the hand wringing over the Hernangomez trade, Oh-Billy finished this year in Charlotte averaging seven points and five boards in 14 minutes a game and had the lowest net rating on the team of anyone who played more than 800 minutes.)

It’s way too early to judge the basketball decisions Perry made this season, but so far, so good. Knox is what we should have thought he would be. Mitch is a revelation. Allonzo Trier is an NBA player, ceiling TBD. Ditto for Kadeem Allen, who is signed through next year.

I just wrote a whole bunch of words about the coach Perry hired, who, if nothing else, has the team feeling like their best selves despite all the loses.

And then there’s the KP trade. It’ll likely take years before we can fully evaluate it, but the return was praised by most objective observers.

More importantly, the deal was very un-LOL Knicks in two very important ways. Primarily, it saved the organization from a bevy of distractions this summer in more ways than one. Less obvious but perhaps more importantly, it seemed to represent a tacit attempt to add to the culture through subtraction.

Ah, yes…there’s that “C” word again.

I feel the same way about team culture that my 17-year-old self did about getting laid: it seemed like everyone else was getting in on the action except me, and I was fairly certain that would never change. It seems like everywhere you turn, there are articles and anecdotes about the outstanding culture of Team X or Team Y, and I’m convinced that I’ll never read such an article about the Knicks.

It’s tough to argue that the juju on a team with the worst record in the league is on the up and up, but for as much as they stink, there does seem to be a different vibe around this particular group:

So Perry gets a small but shining gold star for his efforts. Steve Mills? When Howard Beck summarized the feelings of anonymous execs around the league that “[t]he front office leadership also draws skepticism from rivals,” it was a polite way of saying that people question why Mills still has a job.

While it’s not necessarily an unfair critique, whatever system the Knicks front office duo has put in place since Perry came aboard seems to be working. For the first time in a long time, all the decision makers are on the same page. Whether Mills has been involved in every move or no moves, it’s all been under his watch as much as Perry’s. If one gets a passing grade, so should the other.

Which brings us to the man in charge.

The feeling I had the moment I opened Twitter and saw that March 9 TMZ clip was the exact one I had hoped to avoid this season. It was Star Lord and Ewing and Isiah and Bargs and Oakley and every other moment I’d like to forget all wrapped into one. It was why, when Beck noted in the aforementioned piece that those same anonymous execs had doubts about the “generally poor reputation of owner James L. Dolan,” there was nothing I could do but nod silently.

What we can’t know, at least not until roughly 80 days from now, is whether Dolan’s inability to just keep walking will make one iota of difference to the Knicks summer plans. The effect that his general presence has on the franchise is something I’ve pondered more than any other topic this season. It’s why I’m not holding my breath for that positive article about the Knicks culture, and why for all the KD talk, I remain unwilling to allow myself to fully believe in the fairy tale.

If you go by the opinions of players and execs around the league, it won’t matter, at least not where Durant is concerned. Maybe we’ve hit the turning point. Maybe this is the start of an era when people will want to come here, and one occasionally curmudgeonly owner really doesn’t have the effect some would have us believe. It bears repeating: just because certain people clearly want Dolan’s existence to make more of a difference doesn’t mean it actually will.

It also doesn’t mean it won’t. There’s simply no way to know for sure.

Here’s what I do know: if July doesn’t go the Knicks way and the entire basketball world is once again laughing at our expense, a part of me will always wonder just how much a ten second interaction with a fan had to do with it.

And another part of me will be mad at the first part for ever believing there was another ending to a movie that’s been 18 years in the making.

Either way, the show must go on.

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