I'm not usually one to stoke doomsday panic among emotional fan bases, but it's tough to ignore the "curiosity" of the circumstances surrounding the New York Knicks' latest front-office shakeup.
The Knicks announced on Thursday that Glen Grunwald, the team's general manager since taking over for Donnie Walsh on an interim basis in June of 2011, would be moved into an advisory role with the franchise. In his place, owner James Dolan will install Steve Mills, a former executive with the Madison Square Garden Company, as the new president and GM of the Knicks.
What is it about this turn of events that's so "curious," that should have Knicks fans up in arms?
For one, there's the timing of it. The Knicks had the entire summer during which to switch up their management structure. Yet, they chose to do so mere days before the team is set to open training camp at the Madison Square Garden Training Center in Greenburgh, New York.
As if a squad already fraught with questions about Carmelo Anthony's MVP chops, JR Smith's condition, the declining effectiveness of Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler and the head-scratching decision to bring in Andrea Bargnani weren't distractions enough for the Knicks, who are coming off their most successful season in over a decade. As if the impending battle for the hearts and minds of basketball lovers in the boroughs weren't fierce enough, what with the Brooklyn Nets loading up on Hall-of-Famers and all.
Which is all the more reason to wonder why Grunwald would, in essence, be ousted at all. It strikes me as a bit unusual for a GM to lose his job after the team he put together tallied 54 regular-season wins and netted its first postseason series victory since 2000.
Then again, if coaches (i.e. George Karl, Lionel Hollins, Vinny Del Negro) can get the ax after leading their respective franchises to historic seasons, why shouldn't GMs "enjoy" that same "privilege?"
Remember, Grunwald's the guy who brought Tyson Chandler to New York. He's been responsible for digging up bargain-bin gems left and right, from Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak to Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni. He may not have been the chief architect behind the Carmelo Anthony trade—the credit for that belongs to Donnie Walsh—but he certainly had a hand in the matter.
This isn't to suggest that Grunwald was in any way the perfect GM. To bring Chandler on, he had to use the team's one-time amnesty provision on Chauncey Billups. That left then-coach Mike D'Antoni without an experienced floor general to run his point-guard-heavy system and the Knicks without an easy means of clearing Stoudemire's onerous contract from their cap sheet.
And if we're going to give Grunwald credit for greasing the wheels on the 'Melo deal, we'd also have to apportion some blame to him for New York's decision to give $100 million to a player, in Amar'e, whose knees were uninsurable.
Last year, Grunwald neglected to make an actual contract offer to Jeremy Lin before the MSG fan favorite signed off on a "poison pill" pact to take his "Linsanity" act to the Houston Rockets.
This summer wasn't exactly Glen's finest hour on the job, either. On July 10th, Grunwald traded three players (Marcus Camby, Steve Novak and Quentin Richardson), a first-round pick and two second-round picks to the Toronto Raptors (i.e. his former employer) in exchange for Andrea Bargnani.
That's the same Andrea Bargnani who's missed a whopping 98 games over the past three seasons while shooting a subpar 32.3 percent from three. The same guy who, at seven feet tall, has pulled down just 4.8 rebounds per game and has never averaged more than 6.2 boards over the course of a given season. The same guy who'll earn upwards of $23 million in salary over the next two seasons combined.
Though the Knicks dug themselves a bit deeper into a hole of financial inflexibility to bring Bargnani aboard, there is some hope that the towering Italian can at least be useful in New York. Nobody's expecting him to be a star, as they were in Toronto after he was taken No. 1 overall in 2006. Rather, if Bargnani can simply spread the floor with his three-point shooting and be something less than a total liability on the defensive end, he'll have justified his existence in the Big Apple.
Still, it appears Grunwald got fleeced by his Raptors counterpart, Masai Ujiri. You might've said the same about Grunwald in the aftermath of JR Smith signing his new deal. According to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck (then with The New York Times), the Knicks offered Smith a four-year, $24.5 million deal—and eventually signed him to a three-year pact worth just under $18 million—despite knowing full well that the reigning Sixth Man of the Year would likely require offseason surgery.
Mere days after re-signing, Smith underwent two procedures on his knee. Smith's current 12-to-16-week recovery timeline could force the eccentric swingman to miss the entirety of training camp and part of the regular season.
Stranger still was the way Grunwald handled the flow of information regarding JR. He didn't attempt to shoot down reports that Smith's deal would last four years and not three. In fact, Beck had to get the correct information from "a rival team executive and a second person with access to the contract."
Smith's recent five-game suspension for violating the league's anti-drug program only makes the whole fiasco surrounding JR's return—and Grunwald's role in it—that much more suspect.
Clearly, then, there is some cause for Grunwald's demotion. Even so, to make a move now—on the eve of training camp—seems strange, especially when you consider, as Frank Isola of The New York Daily News did, what it might mean for head coach Mike Woodson:
If Glen Grunwald is out, you can now start the clock on his college teammate Mike Woodson— Frank Isola (@FisolaNYDN) September 26, 2013
As is the case with most front-office changes of this magnitude, chances are, the new guy in charge is going to want to hire his own people to run things.
And that "new" guy is the one whose return to MSG should be the biggest cause for concern here. Knicks fans may recall Steve Mills, the person chosen to replace Grunwald, for his decade as a big wig with MSG Sports between 1999 and 2009. Mills spent two years as the Knicks' executive vice president of franchise operations before becoming president of sports teams operations for MSG in 2001.
It was in that role that Mills hired another Indiana alum, Isiah Thomas, to serve as the team's president of basketball operations in December of 2003. "Zeke" held on in that capacity until April of 2008, when he was replaced by Donnie Walsh and "reassigned" from his other duties as head coach.
And not without good reason, either. The Knicks won just 36.8 percent of their games during Thomas' tenure, which was marked by lopsided trades, cap-clogging contracts and a general lack of anything resembling a concrete plan for success over the long haul.
Thomas' mistakes weren't limited to basketball. In October of 2007, the Knicks were ordered to pay $11.6 million damages to Anucha Brown Sanders, the team's former senior vice president of marketing and business operations, after she won a sexual harassment suit filed in response to unwanted advances from Thomas.
Mills' decision to hire Thomas ultimately cost the former his job. Like Thomas, Mills was demoted during the summer of 2008 before transitioning into a role with Magic Johnson Enterprises in 2009.
So why, after all that, would the Knicks bring him back? Here's what James Dolan wrote in the team's official press release:
“I am pleased to be able to welcome Steve back to the Knicks. He is a well-respected sports executive with a strong background in basketball, as well as a familiarity with NBA operations and our company. We look forward to his leadership and believe he is the right person to help us reach our ultimate goal of winning an NBA Championship."
Indeed, Mills is intimately familiar with the Knicks' operation, just as he is with the NBA from his days as the league's senior vice president of basketball and player development. For those keeping score at home, he's also the fourth person to walk through the revolving door to the Knicks' GM office in about five-and-a-half years.
Which part of the Knicks' front-office shakeup is most troubling?
That apparent lack of organizational stability is nothing new for New York, but it should come as a red flag to those whose basketball allegiances are tied to the orange and blue. If there's anything the Knicks can learn from their more successful counterparts in the NBA (or in any major league, for that matter), it's that maintaining a clear and consistent command structure, filled and fostered over a period of years by competent professionals, is key to putting together a winning product.
Just ask the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat about the importance of having the ownership, the front office and the coaching staff on the same page, year in and year out. Or, on the flip side, inquire with the Los Angeles Lakers about how devastating dramatic changes at any of those levels can be to a franchise whose prior success had been built on a solid, organizational foundation.
But the Knicks' newest predicament raises another line of questioning that's unique to New York: does Mills' return to prominence in New York portend a severing of ties with the "usual suspects" with IU ties (i.e. Thomas, Grunwald and Woodson)? Or does having one of Zeke's confidants back in a position of power mean that Thomas will have input of some sort in New York's day-to-day dealings?
The latter still seems like an all-too-distinct possibility. According to ESPN's Ian Begley and Marc Stein, Thomas still has Dolan's ear, even five years after the professional relationship between the two came to a close. That can only help Thomas' prospects of landing another gig with the Knicks, even more so if he's still one of Mills' people.
A carefully placed whisper here, a handshake there, and who knows? Maybe Zeke can rekindle his relationship with the Knicks, much to the dismay of those who root for them.
It's that very rekindling that should—and probably does—have the Knicks faithful worried, with the opening tip of the regular season just over a month away.
Realistically, then, the Knicks don't need any help from yours truly in encouraging their loyalists to sound the alarm. The team seems perfectly capable of doing this itself.
And has been for far too long now.
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