In the 15-plus years that James Dolan has presided over the New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden, his enduring legacy has had little to do with basketball glory or banners in the rafters, and everything to do with one thing: control.
Even as he operates largely from the shadows, Dolan has made sure that the trust he grants those closest to him is paid back tenfold.
The currency demanded in return? Unwavering loyalty.
But like any human quality, loyalty has its limits, its negations and nuances. To some, it entails never questioning one’s method or motive. To others, it means always sticking with through thick and thin.
To still others, it means telling someone when they’re wrong, why they’re wrong, and giving them all the evidence necessary to prevent the same mistakes from happening again—or, in the case of one NBA team, ad infinitum.
If the Knicks are ever to reverse their own languishing legacy, James Dolan needs that third brand of loyalist running his front office.
Here’s the issue: There’s little-to-no likelihood of Dolan consciously seeking out that person—someone who will question him when necessary and steadfastly provide not just the most thorough information possible, but the most logical response to that information.
More likely, this hypothetical general manager would develop these skills on the job.
The Knicks nearly had that man when they hired Donnie Walsh, the former Indiana Pacers executive, back in 2008.
Walsh’s plan was at once straightforward and delicate: Put the Knicks in the best position to land a big-name free agent in the summer of 2010, and build around that nucleus in a way that was both successful and sustainable.
For three years, Walsh was able to toe a fine line between sound decision-making and adherence to protocol and plan—a plan that kept the sagacious executive mostly in Dolan’s good graces. For a while, anyway.
In the end, Walsh chose to flee the Knicks and head back to Indiana. The exact reasons remain unclear, although a cursory look at how that project unfolded suggests that Walsh had grown uncomfortable with where the team was headed—top-heavy towards another era of ticking-time bomb contracts.
In stepped Glen Grunwald, who lasted a little more than two years before being “reassigned” as a team consultant.
Any scholar of despotic regimes will know exactly what that means.
Today the man in charge of New York’s day-to-day operations is Steve Mills, whom we profiled at length—along with the above-mentioned gentlemen—just last week.
In his former capacity as chief operating officer, Mills answered directly to former general manager Isiah Thomas, that paragon of front office and coaching ineptitude who became the poster child for what Knicks fans did not want in their front-office fixtures.
Then, Mills was seen as little more than a mid-level Dolan foot soldier. Now, he’s being tasked with perhaps the biggest financial and personnel decision the Knicks have faced in the last half-decade: re-signing Carmelo Anthony.
Whether or not Mills accomplishes that could go further than any single move he’s made thus far in determining to what extent he’s willing to push Dolan towards a more responsible long-term perspective.
In a recent piece published at Knickerblogger.net, Max Fisher-Cohen offers up a number of possible financial scenarios for the Knicks as they enter an important summer of free agency.
With the NBA’s trade deadline looming, there’s a chance the Knicks roll the dice on one or two last-ditch, desperation trades that could put them in a familiar pickle in a few months.
The players Fisher-Cohen uses as examples are the Utah Jazz’s Gordon Hayward and the Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry—two guys at the tail end of their rookie deals who will be looking to cash out this summer, regardless of whomever their employer happens to be.
As you’ll see below, the difference—in terms of potential personnel and the payout it would command—are staggering:
Well, they just added $16 million in salary, putting their total salary up to about $107 million, which doesn’t sound so bad compared to the $124 million team that won only twenty-three games… until you look at the tax situation, which could get pretty outrageous with the Knicks entering repeater territory in 14/15. Take a look:
2005-06: $124 million in salary, $62 million in tax, $186 million total
2013-14: $88 million in salary, $32 million in tax, $119 million total
2014-15 (no changes): $91 million in salary, ~$45 million in tax, $136 million total
2014-15 with Hayward, Lowry, mini MLE: $107 million in salary, ~$114 million in tax, ~$221 million total
2014-15 with $20 million in salary cuts (the “blow it up!” hypothetical): $71 million in salary, no tax, $71 million total
That’s $150 million that Dolan could save just next season if he committed to a rebuild, and that doesn’t even take into account the risk of losing Carmelo Anthony were the Knicks to disappoint even after those trades.
Which of these three paths the Knicks decide to take will have a significant bearing on what they’re able to accomplish not only in the next big free-agent bonanza in 2015, but for years beyond as well.
A general manager not afraid to hold Dolan to the fire—his feet and his financial instincts—would look at these numbers and at least make the case that letting the 30-year-old Anthony walk might be the team’s best long-term play.
For an owner as stubborn and set in his ways as Dolan, cutting ties with the guy who was supposed to bring you to the promised land would indeed be a tough pill to swallow.
But just as a doctor isn’t paid to prescribe you the medicine you want, so to should a GM not be expected to blindly sign off on any and every of a particular owner’s fanciful fantasies.
When all else is set aside, James Dolan is no different than any other owner in this one, crucial respect: He wants to win, and he wants to make money doing it.
We’ve seen him forsake the former for the latter. What we haven’t seen is any kind of indication of understanding that, if you field a sustainable, winning team in New York, the finances are bound to take care of themselves.
Steve Mills wasn’t hired to be the guy to reeducate James Dolan, to help him hit the biggest bottom line while assuring the attendant items don’t come back to haunt him.
But like any young player with talent to spare and room to grow, Mills shouldn't focus solely on what he is—honing only those skills that earn you pats on the back—but what he could eventually be.