I became a Knicks fan when they drafted Ewing first overall in 1985. I became a Seattle Seahawks fan in the 1984 season. I know what it is to be a long-suffering sports fan. So, I’ve always been a realist, though never a cynic. This Porzingis deal will go down as the one that turned me though. At first I couldn’t put a finger on why, but after sleeping on it I think I got it. This was the moment where I personally felt the kind of gut punch that neoliberalism specializes in; the kind that comes out of nowhere when you were looking at something else. That the Knicks just happen to be the latest instantiation of it gave it some extra oomph. But what I’m talking about is bigger than them, bigger than sports, or even business.
Before getting into all that though, let me stipulate that on the merits this deal could work out well for NY in the short, intermediate, and long term. And that’s even if Porzingis goes to Dallas and legitimately plays great. Meanwhile, NY cleared the salary decks, lost no young talent, and could still net two late lottery/mid-first round picks over the next 3+ seasons. It is certainly possible, maybe even probable, that NY would never see a better deal in combined talent and financial flexibility. In a vacuum, there is much to like about it.
But, “in a vacuum” is one of neoliberalism’s main seductions. It is very often an incitement to destroy things for the sake of “flexibility,” as if unconstrained choice is an unmitigated good. Definitions of neoliberalism abound, but for my purposes think of it as a macro-context–a context of context–in which decisions occur. Most would agree that it places a very high moral, political, cultural, and economic value on the act of “choosing” from among alternatives in a marketplace. The value is so high that decision making “flexibility” has become a goal all its own, with seemingly no connection to a mission or objectives.
To put it plainly in the context of sports, neoliberalism entices front offices to accept on faith that markets always supply talent worthy of the chase. The premise is enticing precisely because it’s totally unfalsifiable. We can almost always imagine getting a better talent or a better scheme fit. Eventually, it’s all just a pretense for hitting the self-destruct button to max out decision making flexibility. (Think Larry Brown. There was NOBODY he didn’t lobby management to trade. He was the quintessential neoliberal coach before it was cool.) Neoliberalism entices managers to embrace the uncertainty that comes with choosing, even valorizes them for it. At the same time it scolds them for embracing the uncertainty of building and developing, which involves managing the choices already made.
Here’s the thing, though. It’s good to have choices, but only if you eventually develop them into something worthwhile. It’s not enough to just be good at choosing or good at getting more choices. You can’t have one without the other.
I have no problem with the Knicks dreaming big about Durant and Kyrie, or even moving Porzingis to do it. Hell, as much as I like The Unicorn there is real risk associated with building around him. But, this trade felt like a gut punch because it seems like Perry and Mills hit the self-destruct button rather than deal with a passive aggressive star and his jackass brother/agent. Their pivot to flexibility leaves me cold about their ability to do the work of a full rebuild, much less patience. As a consequence, we’re now stuck hoping they hit a home run–two home runs–this off-season. I see no particular reason to be confident that more flexibility will lead to better long-term outcomes than would the constraints Porzingis represented. Talent constrains. If you’re ever going to turn choice into something useful you have to work within those constraints, erasing and expanding them where possible. That’s what development is.