Much Ado About Nothing?

Before we get to whether or not this Kawhi thing matters (it does, just maybe not for the reasons you think) and whether there’s a good reason for such a story to be taking up people’s time six months after the fact (there is, kind of), let’s get the actual facts straight:

The initial reporting on the story left it unclear as to whether there was a meeting scheduled between the sides that was then cancelled, or whether a potential meeting was contemplated, and then taken off the table once free agency started to play out:

It would seem that Bleacher Report took liberty with Marc Berman’s original report, which quite clearly stated “Leonard agreed to meet with the Knicks.”

Based off of what Leonard actually said last night, it’s not completely clear that the “agreeing” part is untrue:

Stef Bondy’s original question – “Why didn’t [the meeting] happen, and why were they a team that you might have considered” – left Kawhi’s “No” response to Bondy’s follow up question (“So it wasn’t true?”) a bit unclear.

Likely sensing the ambiguity, Ian Begley then asks a follow up, specifically about whether a meeting was scheduled, and Kawhi hesitates before he proceeds to mumble something about “a date” and “scheduled” before ultimately saying “not that I was aware of.”

My partially educated guess: Leonard’s people, and specifically Uncle Dennis, were in communication with the Knicks throughout the process, and probably danced around the possibility of a meeting, with Kawhi’s team stringing along New York as if they were a possible option. Once it became clear that this wasn’t true, the Knicks said “you know what? Never mind.”

This would back up what I had been hearing at the time, which is that Dennis and the Knicks were in communication, and he had an interest in getting his nephew to consider them as a landing spot.

So did anyone actually lie here? You could easily make the case that, no, no one did. For all we know, the Knicks were given an assurance a courtesy meeting would take place if New York insisted, and they did indeed “scratch” that plan, as Berman said.

To me though, all of this is entirely besides the point.

Is the point that the media shouldn’t be making such a drive for content in the January doldrums? You may perhaps feel this way, and you are of course entitled to that opinion.

After all, New York teams play by different rules than almost any other city in America, where between one and three beat reporters are uncritical at best and extended PR arms of the team at worst (well, “worst” depending on your point of view). That isn’t the fault of local fans, but it is something the fans very much have to deal with, as do the local teams themselves. It’s the gift and the curse that comes with being centered in an incredibly desirable but also difficult locale. Nobody ever sleeps on any potential story, contrived or otherwise.

Lest you think the hammer doesn’t come down equally on all New York teams, I’d remind you that it was the same Stef Bondy who asked Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson 10 days ago whether Brandon Robinson’s report of Kyrie Irving’s bursitis – a report which Irving himself confirmed yesterday – was true, and Atkinson flatly denied it.

To many Knick fans, last night’s admission by Irving that he did indeed have some bursitis is real news, whereas this Kawhi thing is drudged up nonsense from the past. Why not focus on what matters more?

Aside from the fact that the Knicks beat reporters are all in Los Angeles and thus were in a better position to speak to Kawhi than report on the Irving thing, no reporter in this town is in position to punt on one potential story just because another one is highly relevant. The better question, and the one that irked many Knick fans last night, is whether this was a story at all.

Personally, I find it relevant, and don’t have an issue with any reporter raising the question, simply because the Knicks very publicly built up their free agency pursuits for months. Just how close those plans did (or didn’t) come to fruition is something I find worthy of at least asking about.

You may read that as me being apologetic towards a press corps that I’ve admittedly gotten to know a bit this year, and who have been nothing but kind to me. You’re well within your right to do so, and truth be told, if I was writing about this topic last year, I can’t promise you I’d have reacted the same way.

But the reason why I might have reacted very differently then to a story that brought up old ills as I do now is far less because I know the parties involved and has far more to do with just how much has changed since then.

In Friday’s Newsletter, I wrote about whether this front office still deserved the benefit of the doubt. I approached the topic pragmatically, and tried my best to judge the powers that be on things we can actually assess. I paid no attention to the messaging those powers have engaged in since they took over the job

This was a mistake (which, in fairness, wasn’t an intentional one. Pumping out a Newsletter by 10 am is not fun when both you and the kid you’re caring for have the flu), as was my starting the clock on their assessment at the moment Scott Perry came aboard. Steve Mills made some moves of his own earlier that summer (cough, Timmy, cough) and has of course been in and around the organization for large parts of the last two decades.

The reason I bring this up here is that I think this Kawhi thing absolutely factors into how this front office should be judged, which is kind of relevant to the future of the franchise.

All through last season, I vehemently defended this front office, mostly because I felt they deserved a fresh chance to build this team without the burden of constantly being reminded of past mistakes, or having molehills made into mountains. In my eyes, they deserved a clean slate.

They don’t anymore. Regardless of how you feel about how this summer went (and with every passing day, it looks like they may have dodged a massive bullet or two) or how the current season is going, it is unfair to continue to judge them “from this day forward.”

Does everything matter? Of course not. But this story absolutely should. We heard all through last year about how, thanks in part to the organizational adjustments this front office made, players around the league, including some of the very best, saw the Knicks differently. If that notion was utter nonsense, well…that should matter, no?

At the same time, I’m cognizant of the fact that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and that just because a couple of the game’s best players decided to go elsewhere isn’t necessarily a referendum on this front office in any significant way. But there’s another layer to this, one that JB pointed out last night, and which I wholeheartedly agreed with:

While I think JB is a bit harsh here with the “dumb shit” line, and has been over the top in his critiques of Mills over the last several weeks, I agree with him here in this sense: the Knicks continue to strike me as an organization that cares about perception enough that it gets in the way.

This, of course, is the height of irony, as New York’s own handwringing over what everyone thinks about them is what leads to so many of the negative opinions in the first place. Perception is funny that way, and isn’t that different from what we first learn about the topic in high school: the less you care, the better it is.

Having a front office that either willingly plays into this perception-building or doesn’t have the strength to stand up to James Dolan’s whims is bothersome to me, because as I’ve said before, the NBA is Mean Girls, only with taller protagonists. Perception is everything, and players continue to want to be places that help, not hurt, their image.

More directly, they want to be someplace that has its priorities in order. This Kawhi thing reinforces the fact that New York’s chirping about how successful it thought it could be in free agency was more about trying to talk something into being than talking up something that already was. That this messaging came in response to questions from the media is almost irrelevant. You are in control of your own messaging in this league, and their message was unwavering.

That leads to a slippery slope. Much of the talk, indirectly or otherwise, about their star pursuits began in earnest after the KP trade – something they knew would be a hard sell unless they got out in front of it. How much did their own perceived ability to “sell” that trade go into making the specific deal that they did? The fact that I even have to ask that question is unsettling, to say the least.

Does their messaging efforts mean that they were diverting attention from other parts of the organization that were more important? Of course not. But players do sense that the Knicks as an organization are extremely conscious and care very much about how they’re looked at. I have to think that all things being equal, this isn’t ideal.

Of course, we’re having all these conversations about a team that is 6-7 in it’s last 13 games and has been playing its best ball since a healthy KP and Timmy were leading the charge over two years ago. That, to me, is still far more notable than any of this, because the best way for all of this to not be a story anymore is for more of that to occur.

But that gets us back to the responsibility of media in a competitive environment, and around and around we go.

In the end though, for as much as it’s incredibly irresponsible to ignore the progress that the team is making on the court (the main point of my Friday newsletter), ignoring everything that happened leading up to this, on or off the floor, seems just as careless.

That also doesn’t mean we have to harp on it. With this “news,” it seems like we can finally put the summer of 2019 behind us.

And on that note, I’ll end with the words of a man I often quote here, and I’ll turn my attention to what we all should: the next game, and the next chance to take a step in the right direction, away from a past that is gone, but not forgotten:

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