On the eve of a season brimming with both promise and peril, the New York Knicks fired their general manager and replaced him with an executive whose last tour with the franchise was tainted by scandal.
Anywhere else, this might be viewed as a shocking and potentially damaging turn of events. But at Madison Square Garden, where palace intrigue invariably takes precedence over basketball, this is business as usual.
Glen Grunwald, the modest, quietly effective general manager who just presided over the Knicks’ best season in 13 years, was abruptly cast aside Thursday, just five days before the start of training camp.
And that was not even the most stunning part of the press release.
Steve Mills, who presided over the disastrous Isiah Thomas era—refresher: bad basketball, endless controversy, a sexual harassment lawsuit, Jerome James—was named the new team president and general manager.
Mills, 53, is a sharp and accomplished businessman, but he has never run a team. He has no track record as a talent evaluator, salary-cap specialist or analytics expert. His surprise return—five years after he was demoted as president of MSG Sports—is curious to say the least.
But Thursday’s front-office shakeup is not really about Mills or Grunwald, the Knicks’ recent past or the season that will soon be underway. This is about Carmelo Anthony, next summer and the summer after that.
Anthony can opt out of his contract in July, and the franchise is rightfully fearful that—despite his public statements to the contrary—he might walk away. The Knicks are carrying an expensive, capped-out roster, peppered with misfits and fragile veterans. Their window to contend in the Eastern Conference might already be closing. It would slam shut if Anthony flees next summer.
As one rival team executive said of Thursday’s moves: “It was all to keep Carmelo.”
The same executive said he believed that, if the decision had to be made now, Anthony would leave.
Anthony is said to be agitating for change, for help on the court, for reassurance that the Knicks are capable of acquiring elite talent. If he elects to stay next summer, it will have to be with the confidence that the Knicks can land another star in 2015, when they are expected to have millions in cap room.
In Grunwald, the Knicks had a steady steward with a knack for finding low-cost gems—from Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak to Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni. But the lawyerly, soft-spoken Grunwald was not viewed as an ideal recruiter of superstars or an influential voice among NBA power brokers.
In Mills, the Knicks are getting a consummate insider, well-liked and well-connected, quick with a warm handshake and a politician’s practiced smile. He is close to players, agents, team executives and influencers across the league.
“I like Glen,” said the rival executive. “But Glen’s not going to get a free agent to come. Steve has a relationship with players.”
Despite his sometimes rocky tenure as the Garden president, Mills has maintained a healthy relationship with Knicks owner James Dolan. He was a frequent visitor to the Garden the last two years and, prior to that, an invited guest of Donnie Walsh at team practices.
Most importantly, Mills is close to William Wesley (aka Worldwide Wes), the ubiquitous NBA power broker whose employer, Creative Artists Agency, has its tentacles deep into the Garden’s executive suites.
CAA represents Anthony, as well as J.R. Smith, coach Mike Woodson, assistant general manager Allan Houston and director of player personnel Mark Warkentien. In recent years, Wesley has replaced Thomas as Dolan’s most trusted basketball advisor, according to numerous sources both inside and outside the Garden.
Wesley’s influence is considerable, and it is understood in Garden circles that when he makes a suggestion, it is often at Anthony’s urging.
What kind of general manager will Mills be? That’s an unknown. Although he worked on the business side of the Garden, Mills was closely involved in personnel moves during Thomas’ years as team president. That, of course, could be viewed more as a negative, given the massive payrolls and disastrous results of that era.
The current Knicks cannot afford any missteps or missed opportunities. They traded a small ransom to acquire Anthony and make him the franchise centerpiece, and they now must make every right move to keep him happy. The Knicks can reload in 2015, but that is two long years away.
Anthony turns 30 next May, and his next contract will likely be the last during his prime. There is an absolute imperative in New York to win now, to surround Anthony with the right talent while he’s still capable of carrying a contender. The challenge has only grown tougher, with the Bulls, Pacers and Nets all getting stronger this offseason while the Knicks have largely stood still.
Grunwald never had an easy task, inheriting a capped-out roster and the large salaries of Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. Yet he found a way to land Tyson Chandler, who qualifies as the Knicks’ second-most important player, and kept filling in the roster with useful role players, all culminating in a 54-win season and the franchise’s first playoff series victory since 2000.
His reward was to be stripped of his authority and consigned to a nebulous “advisor” role.
Grunwald’s status never seemed particularly firm after he inherited the job from Walsh in 2011. The Knicks never gave him the honor of an introductory press conference. Nor was he ever granted the team president title that both Walsh and Thomas had held.
Grunwald was not a CAA guy or a Carmelo guy, a back-room operator or a slick self-promoter. But he was a loyal company man who abided by Dolan’s petty media policies and stayed out of the spotlight. He is a thoughtful, decent man, and decent people often don’t last long in the Garden snake pit.
So the burden of keeping Anthony happy and Dolan calm now falls to Mills, who certainly seems well-suited for the job. He is smart, charismatic, a skilled communicator and adored by the local media.
A decade ago, the Knicks were similarly seeking a charismatic leader to give the franchise a jolt. Someone well connected, with a quick wit, a welcoming smile and a profound self-confidence. They hired Thomas.
We know how that story ended.
Howard Beck is Bleacher Report's NBA National Columnist. He has covered the NBA for The New York Times and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications, since 1997.