In some circles, the three years that Donnie Walsh spent as general manager of the New York Knicks are spoken about with a kind of regal reverence—as a brief respite in an otherwise ceaseless storm of basketball incoherence and incompetence.
Now, the air of stability that Walsh helped to cultivate seems to have devolved anew into what brought him aboard in the first place: clumsy roster construction, coaching turmoil and an owner without much in the way of respect or remorse.
At the same time, the issue with James Dolan has never been about the bottom line. As we’ve outlined in excruciating detail over the past two weeks, Dolan’s poor basketball judgment is in part a product of his willingness—over-willingness—to throw money at a problem in the vain hope that it might right itself.
Rather, it’s become abundantly clear that the biggest hindrance to the success of the New York Knicks lies less in Dolan’s intentions, and more in whom he trusts.
Today, that person is Steve Mills, a Princeton graduate and basketball-lifer who spent nearly six years as the Knicks’ chief operating officer and sports business manager, serving directly under Isiah Thomas.
Thomas and Dolan have, understandably, bore the brunt of the public's rage. Mills, on the other hand, was seen as a kind of secondary villain, departing Madison Square Garden in 2009 as one of the last vestiges of a reviled regime.
Of course, Walsh’s tenure, which began in 2008, wasn’t without its share of early pain.
The team spent the better part of two years re-jiggering its finances to put them on a better financial footing ahead of the free-agent bonanza of 2010, the year that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Amar’e Stoudemire all became free agents.
After a failed attempt to reel in King James, the Knicks eventually settled on Stoudemire. STAT might not have been the most multi-faceted superstar around, but once paired anew with coach Mike D’Antoni, the sense of hope and energy he brought back to New York basketball was undeniable.
It wasn't enough. Rather than let the team jell, rather than give a youthful core room to breath, Dolan immediately set his sights on the next big prize: Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony.
The details of the trade are, by now, well known. What many don't realize is that Walsh, while not opposed to the 'Melo deal in principle, was adamant that the Knicks not give up too many young assets in order to get him.
We’ll let you guess who won that argument. From ESPN’s Ian O’Connor:
Donnie Walsh said he always knew Carmelo Anthony could be this kind of ballplayer, and yet on his return to home bittersweet home Sunday, there was ample evidence to suggest the overlord of the Indiana Pacers was telling a little white lie.
For one, Walsh didn't want to do the deal with Denver, not the deal the New York Knicks ended up making. For two, Walsh publicly kicked himself after the Melo trade for not calling Utah about Deron Williams, pilfered in the night by the Brooklyn-bound Nets.
Less than four months later, Walsh stepped down as general manager, agreeing to stay on as a consultant.
The speculation began in earnest:
Was Walsh—who had dealt with a rash of health problems in recent years—really stepping down on his own accord? Was he fed up with ownership’s heavy-handed impatience? Or was he pushed out for daring to disagree with Dolan's dictums?
Luckily, New York’s next general manager, Glen Grunwald, proved nearly as prudent and professional as his storied predecessor—at least for a while.
Despite having worked as assistant general manager during the Thomas regime, Grunwald’s cool, laid-back approach, combined with a slew of savvy free-agent coups, helped endear him to a fanbase understandably concerned about what palace purges might be next.
From the drafting of Iman Shumpert to the bargain-bin signings of J.R. Smith, Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace, Grunwald was able to make magic on the financial fringes, where the margin for error is so often thinnest.
But not even the relatively young and energetic Grunwald could withstand the scorn and scrutiny from up on high.
Shortly after the team’s controversial trade for Andrea Bargnani, Grunwald was replaced as general manager by Mills and reassigned as a team consultant—a title the Knicks have repeatedly used to draw attention from the actual word.
Here’s a hint: It rhymes with mired.
Even today, it’s unclear whether the straw that broke Grunwald’s back was his role in the Bargnani trade, his resistance to it or for some other reason entirely.
That doesn't mean there aren't clues, however. Some, including ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, have speculated Dolan wanted to trade guard Iman Shumpert following the headstrong guard’s refusal to play in the Las Vegas Summer League.
Justin Terranova, of the New York Post, was one of the first to report the story:
During a break in an interview with new Rockets center Dwight Howard, ESPN reporter Stephen A. Smith mentioned how Knicks owner James Dolan wanted to trade third-year guard Iman Shumpert because he was hesitant to play in the team’s Summer League games in Vegas.
“And by the way, [James] Dolan was ready to trade [Shumpert] because he didn’t want to work out in the summer league,” Smith told Howard.
“Dolan’s talking about trading him. I said, ‘Trade who? You better hold on to that boy. You better not lose Iman Shumpert.’ That boy can play.”
It stands to reason that Grunwald would've been the one tasked with finding a trade for Shumpert, had Dolan actually insisted on one. That such a trade never materialized, some believe, may have played a role in Grunwald’s ultimate demise.
So out goes Grunwald, in comes Mills and the metamorphosis of MSG’s front office closes its full, fishy circle.
Of course, all of this neglects the eight-plus year downward spiral that was the Scott Layden and Isiah Thomas administrations, each of which oversaw its own epoch of comical mismanagement.
Which is precisely what makes the Mills move so peculiar: To the extent that Dolan knows how deeply most Knicks fans loathed Thomas, how could he think that rehiring Mills—embedded as he was in the Thomas regime—wouldn’t bring to surface the fanbase’s deep-seated paranoia?
“He’s got a lot of ability,’’ Walsh said of Mills. “So did Glen. They’re both really smart , coming from the basketball world. Steve has a lot of love and passion for basketball. He comes from a basketball world.’’
Mills, a former Princeton point guard, has not worked for an NBA team since leaving the Garden. He will forever be tagged with having hired Thomas amid an embarrassing era for the franchise.
“I was surprised because I didn’t know what was happening,’’ Walsh said of the shakeup. “It surprised me. First of all, I have a lot of feeling for Glen. But when I heard it was Steve, I thought, ‘He’s a good guy.’ That’s how I reacted. I think he’ll do a good job.’’
Still, it’s hard to read that story and not get the sense, however informed by palace intrigues of the past, that Walsh is choosing his words carefully—a little too carefully, perhaps.
It remains to be seen whether Mills will follow the blueprint put forth by his immediate predecessors or whether ear, head and heart will all belong to Dolan.
Needless to say, much will depend on whether Mills, seen by many as a player’s GM and a respected recruiter, can convince Carmelo Anthony to finish his career in the orange and blue—and at what cost.
Should the Knicks somehow manage to re-sign Anthony, regardless of the team’s future flexibility, Dolan’s reaction will be key to determining the degree of grace that Mills will enjoy and how important the goal of winning a championship really is to the man with the final say.
On the other hand, letting 'Melo walk would give Mills the best opportunity to enact his long-term philosophy: Will he take the Walsh approach and blow the whole thing up, or will he do what Layden and Isiah did and sign whatever big names are available, prudence and patience be damned?
Either way, if the next two years find the Knicks once again floundering in financial chaos, we’ll have the clearest evidence yet that the previous decade’s failures were borne not out of a deficit of passion, but out of leadership.