RJ Barrett
Yeah, RJ Barrett, we're not thrilled about this either
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By Jack Tien-Dana / June 25, 2020 2:19 pm

The New York Knicks have long functioned as basketball’s Tantalus, forever taunted and undone by their own thirst. In 2010, they were scorned by Lebron James, and, in a panic, lavished a max contract on Amar’e Stoudemire, whose legs promptly and predictably turned to dust. In the winter of 2011, they traded a bolt of prospects and draft picks for Carmelo Anthony when they could’ve waited to sign him as a free agent that summer. In 2013, they traded another first round pick for Andrea Bargnani, reasoning that the key to a championship was a clammy big man with the intensity of somebody waking up from a nap. And, of course, they short-circuited their rebuild last winter by alienating and trading Kristaps Porzingis for the cap space to sign Reggie Bullock and Julius Randle. Repeatedly ignoring their legacy of failure, they’ve again and again gambled to pursue would-be franchise-redeeming superstars with the giddy enthusiasm of somebody who never got around to finishing the last few minutes of Uncut Gems.

That’s the pretext that sets the table for Wednesday morning, when the Knicks announced they had hired William Wesley, more popularly known as World Wide Wes, to be the team’s Executive Vice President/Senior Advisor.

For Wesley, the Knicks job marks a face-turn after years spent as a shadowy wheeler-dealer type. Having risen to prominence in the early 2000s by attaching himself to then-wunderkind prospect Dajuan Wagner, Wesley gradually amassed so much clout that GQ wondered whether he was “the most influential man in sports”  in a 2007 profile. Wesley was rumored to steer the early days of Lebron James’s career and he’s long been a consigliere to John Calipari, delivering elite recruits to Memphis and Kentucky, whether through charisma or (as haters would allege) duffel bags. While his actual duties remained cloaked in mystery — formally, he was an adjunct “consultant” for CAA — Wesley established himself as an aughts-era hoops Rasputin, whispering in the ears of the NBA’s in-crowd.

“I thought he worked for the Secret Service or the FBI or the CIA,” Chicago writer Lacy Banks told GQ in 2007, “Then I thought he was a pimp, providing players with chicks, or a loan shark or a bodyguard or a vice commissioner to the league.”

Wesley may have been well-connected many years ago, but his hire shows that the Knicks can’t escape their fondness for empty flashiness. Even more frustrating than the Knicks indulging in their traditional Knicks-ness is their insistence that they’ve changed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. Last night, in his first interview since becoming the team’s grand poobah, former CAA mega-agent Leon Rose detailed his vision for the franchise, breaking out buzzwords such as “development,” “accountability” and “culture.” Namely, he hyped up the young Knicks, calling Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett “two young core pieces,” an encouraging sign for those who think that RJ Barrett is a future all-star and not just a unidimensional guard who tries to run through defenders’ chests like he’s playing red rover. Curiously, Rose also said that Dennis Smith, Jr., is a “special talent,” which is a liberal understanding of the words “special” and “talent.” But in the end, his interview was standard fare for an incoming executive, representing a relative victory. 

And yet Rose’s interview belies that the Knicks’ understanding of change is purely superficial. Rose has amassed an impressive collection of front-office wonks from other teams, but he’s undercut that by bringing in Wesley, whose primary qualification is that he’s cool. What’s more, Tom Thibodeau is the clear favorite to take over as coach. During his stints with the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves, Thibodeau became the first coach to discover the power of quasi-zone defense in the early 2010s, but hasn’t updated his scheme since then and got axed by the Timberwolves last season because of his Principal Skinner-level of rapport with Zoomers. As such, the Knicks’ interest in him suggests that their new culture won’t be the result of holistic growth, but a doomed attempt to make the likes of Mike Lupica and Phil Mushnick happy. 

Similarly, Rose’s endorsement of the Knicks’ young core rings hollow when he seems so eager to trade it away. The primary appeal of Rose and Wesley is that they’re chummy with nearly every NBA star and can parlay those relationships to add some serious firepower to New York’s roster; the Knicks have stumbled into a surprisingly rich cache of young players and draft picks as a reward for their continued rock-dumb suckage, making them a logical landing spot for any trade-demanding superstar. And, hey, would you look at that: Karl-Anthony Towns and Donovan Mitchell are both young disgruntled superstars — or at least disgruntled-adjacent, superstar-adjacent players — who grew up near New York and are Rose’s former clients. Towns is a virtuosic scorer and the most offensively versatile center in the league; Mitchell is a dynamic combo guard who will average 20 points per game for the next decade; both are infinitely better than any Knick of the last two decades, besides that one year Carmelo Anthony won the scoring title and basically birthed modern basketball, like God creating Adam from dust. If the prospect of adding two talents like Towns and Mitchell seems incredibly exciting, it’s because it is. The prospect of orienting the franchise’s entire future around leering at them from afar, though, is a singularly Knicks-ian strain of grim.

Beyond Rose and Wesley, team owner James Dolan enlisted Steve Stoute, a former music executive, to revamp the team’s image. In turn, Dolan — the only person alive who likes James Dolan — wouldn’t commit to publicly saying that racism is bad, providing an unmissable reminder why the Knicks’ image was so bad in the first place. 

By bringing aboard World Wide, the Knicks have inadvertently revealed that they’re a worldwide mess; they’ve replaced their old culture of CAA-dominated horny incompetence with a fresh new one of stylish CAA-dominated horny incompetence. 

Only one question remains: Does it still count as gaslighting if it doesn’t work?