In the classic game of Stratego, each player deploys an army of figures of varying strengths and abilities. While you can see your own pieces, the identities of your opponent's figures are hidden from you except when two pieces fight and their respective strengths are revealed momentarily; the weaker piece is removed from the game, and the stronger one goes back to being hidden.
You ultimately win by capturing your opponent's flag, but to achieve that goal the strategy of the game involves convincing your opponent that a certain piece is of a different value than it actually is. You may deploy a weak piece in an aggressive manner to make it appear to be a strong piece, or vice verse. Occasionally you even do this with a piece the opponent has seen before, hoping to introduce enough doubt into their memory to confuse them and gain an advantage.
The New York Knicks appear to be playing a game of Stratego with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the rest of the NBA.
The Knicks are trying to conceal their intentions
For years, the Knicks have been linked to Donovan Mitchell, and for very obvious reasons. He is an incredibly-talented scorer, has a big-city personality and grew up in the area. When you add in that he is represented by CAA, the agency with incredibly strong ties to the Knicks, their pursuit of Donovan Mitchell is both unsurprising and irrefutable.
That pursuit quieted for a time after the Cavaliers beat the Knicks' offer and traded for Mitchell in the summer of 2023, sending a massive package of picks and players to the Utah Jazz. As Mitchell's ability to hit free agency inches ever closer, however, the Knicks have come up as an interested party.
The Knicks pulling off an unexpected trade for OG Anunoby last week didn't quiet those rumors, either. If anything, it signaled that they were still going to come after Mitchell, as he fit their need for another on-ball shot creator and playmaker.
With other potential trade targets on the market, and other suitors for Mitchell circling the waters, the Knicks decided it was time to try and conceal their pieces. Marc Stein reported this week on his Substack that "Initial indications are that the Knicks do not intend to mount an all-out pursuit of Donovan Mitchell."
Never mind that the Knicks have been enraptured by Mitchell for years. Never mind that they are almost certainly still one of the teams that would put together a package for Mitchell were the Cleveland Cavaliers to make him available on the trade market. They suddenly are not interested.
It's a case of trying to convince us that they don't have the piece we already know that they have. Perhaps the goal is to not scare off trade partners with dynamic guards of their own. Perhaps they want to maintain leverage with Cleveland by insisting they have other options, and indeed that they prefer those options. Perhaps they are convinced the Cavs aren't dealing and are "walking away" before they can be "turned away."
Whatever the reason, it's almost certainly a smokescreen, thrown up via a media leak to confuse the matter and make their moves less obvious. It may very well work, too; despite their long history of front office blunders, Leon Rose and the rest of the Knicks' front office have operated professionally and effectively over the past few seasons. If this is a tactical decision, there's every reason to think it's a well-executed one.
The kernel of doubt they're inserting into the conversation could maintain their leverage, or lead to a deal with the Cavaliers or another team. While Mitchell makes sense for what the Knicks are looking for, he's not a perfect defensive fit with Jalen Brunson; a player such as Dejounte Murray would make less offensive sense but more defensive sense, and he has a cheaper contract than Mitchell. Just because the Knicks have always favored Spida doesn't mean they will ultimately land him.
To suggest they're not interested at all? That's obviously not true, but in a paradoxical way, it could signal that the Knicks truly are interested. And to get to their goal of hoisting the flag - err, trophy - they'll do everything that can to obscure their moves until they're ready to strike. The Cavaliers need to make sure they're not caught off guard.