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The Knicks Are Pivoting to Relationships to Try to Get Stars—for Better or Worse

By hiring CAA agent Leon Rose to head up basketball ops and Steve Stoute to be the team’s “brand guru,” the Knicks have fully leaned into their thirst for stars. The problem is, success takes a bit more than that.

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The Knicks are pivoting to relationships. Or that’s what they’re trying to do. Things aren’t exactly off to an ideal start.

On Tuesday, less than a week after hiring CAA agent Leon Rose to run their basketball operations, the Knicks let their (try not to laugh here) rebranding consultant Steve Stoute go on First Take to talk about what he brings to the franchise. Stoute referred to himself as a (really, try not to laugh here) “branding guru” and “marketing guru.” Folks, if you need to identify yourself as a branding guru, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say you are not good at branding.

“Toronto Raptors brought in Drake,” Stoute said. “The New York Knicks brought in me.”

Putting aside that completely ridiculous comparison, Stoute also said some things on the show that got him in real trouble. He spoke of Knicks interim coach Mike Miller as if he didn’t exist, which, though Miller is not expected to be hired full time, is not exactly the type of thing you say out loud:

It didn’t take long for the Knicks to trot out one of their now-infamous PR statements in an attempt to disassociate themselves from the drama stirred up by Stoute’s appearance. But this whole incident raises the question of why Stoute was hired for whatever this job is supposed to be in the first place.

If you Google Stoute, it starts to make sense. You’ll see him pop up in various pictures with people like LeBron James and Jay-Z, and find that he’s worked with music industry stars like Nas and Mary J. Blige. Couple that with some of the team’s other recent hirings—and hiring rumors—and a direction begins to take shape. The Knicks are doing everything they can to not focus on the basketball, because, well, the basketball side of things at Madison Square Garden is a trash fire. Now, it seems, the franchise is fully shifting its efforts from trying to pretend to be a serious organization to leaning into its thirst for big names.

Hiring Rose is the ultimate evidence of that. He has zero experience running a basketball team but a plethora of experience fostering relationships throughout the league. During his time at CAA, he represented everyone from LeBron to Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Joel Embiid, and Karl-Anthony Towns.

As much as a casual NBA viewer would like to believe that teams and players are bonded by something like loyalty or playing for a city or a title, relationships carry more weight in the NBA than you might think. We’ve only recently, as the player empowerment movement has gained a full head of steam, started to see some of the major power brokers emerge from the shadows. Former agent Bob Myers took his relationships and talents to Golden State, while Rob Pelinka took the reins with the Lakers. Beyond them, Klutch Sports’ Rich Paul also wields plenty of influence around the league.

Rose is one of those power brokers, and his relationships with up-and-coming stars like Towns and Embiid are what the Knicks are after. Both of those guys have seemed somewhat disgruntled with their current teams lately. Before the Wolves traded for D’Angelo Russell last week, KAT was Instagramming his disappointment at the team’s decision to ship Robert Covington off to Houston. And Embiid, of course, has been in the news lately for telling the Philly crowd to “shut the fuck up,” posting an Instagram that refers to himself as a villain, and responding to a Jimmy Butler comment that seemed to be recruiting him to Miami. Then, on Tuesday night, he got booed during introductions ahead of the team’s home game against the Clippers only to get a standing ovation after his first bucket. So, you know, the full Embiid experience.

It is both a feature and a bug of today’s NBA that any discord between a star and his team immediately gets fast-tracked into discussions about what it could mean for that player’s future. But that’s exactly what the Knicks (still somehow the most valuable NBA franchise, per Forbes) are banking on. They’ve tried their hand at the draft and gotten nowhere, so hiring Rose feels like a direct acknowledgement that if they want to get stars, they need to have someone who knows stars. The problem is, there’s so much more that goes into creating a contender.

The Myers hire in 2011 worked to perfection for the Warriors because they already had the right infrastructure and a soon-to-be-star in Steph Curry, and would soon after bring in the coach who put it all together. They just needed to be in the right place at the right time for a little salary cap luck. For the Lakers, this strategy mostly worked because they got LeBron James to come to L.A. and then traded all of their assets for Anthony Davis. The Knicks’ hopes are big once again, but as other teams have shown, to have success you need more than preexisting relationships and brand gurus.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Bob Myers was hired by the Warriors before Steve Kerr and Draymond Green were on the team; both Kerr and Green joined the team after Myers was hired.