'A Band-Aid on a Major Wound'

With few new faces, the Knicks' front office shakeup promises more dysfunction ahead.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterGREENBURGH, N.Y.July 18, 2017

Three men in blazers sat elbow-to-elbow, microphones before them, a bright blue banner behind them, optimism all around. One by one, they sketched out a vision for a brighter Knicks future.

They spoke of accountability, pride and teamwork, youth, athleticism, commitment, culture change.

This was Monday afternoon. It just as easily could have been March 2014, or April 2008 or June 2005. It all just blurs together.

The presentation sounded good. It always sounds good. No team is more skilled in the art of the introductory press conference than the Knicks. It's what they do best. They've had a lot of practice.

This time, the occasion was the hiring of Scott Perry, a genial, energetic basketball veteran, as the new general manager. Joining him on the dais was head coach Jeff Hornacek, the celebrated new hire of 2016.

Between them was Steve Mills, newly elevated to team president.

And that's where the facade began to crack, exposing an almost-existential quandary:

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Can you be an agent of change when you're the embodiment of the institution that needs changing?

The answer to that vexing question might hold the key to the Knicks' fortunes.

Mills has been a Knicks executive, in some form or another, for 14 of the last 18 years, including the last four as general manager. Needless to say, these have not been glorious years.

So when Mills took the stage Monday and articulated this bright new agenda, it was fair to wonder: Where were these values the last two decades? Or even the last four years?

Steve Mills has been with the Knicks through some of their most troubling times, including the Larry Brown-Isiah Thomas era that eventually saw all three leave the team.
Steve Mills has been with the Knicks through some of their most troubling times, including the Larry Brown-Isiah Thomas era that eventually saw all three leave the team.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

When Mills was asked what he would be doing differently as team president, he rambled through a response that never quite hit upon an answer. And despite the new pledges of accountability, team officials quickly ushered Mills, Perry and Hornacek away from reporters the moment the press conference ended.

It would be wrong to pin every shred of Knicks dysfunction on Mills, but he has been present for most of it, and an active participant in much of it. The hiring of Isiah Thomas. The Thomas-Larry Brown feud. The Stephon Marbury years. The sexual-harassment lawsuit against Thomas, which cost the Garden an $11.6 million judgment. The air of paranoia that permeates the entire operation.

More recently, Mills served as Phil Jackson's chief deputy, presiding over another stretch of prolonged haplessness and humiliation: three straight losing seasons, no playoff appearances.

For this, Mills was rewarded with a promotion.

Anywhere else, this might be shocking. But Knicks owner James L. Dolan has never abided by conventional norms and values.

Nearly every major Dolan hire falls into one of two categories: celebrities and loyalists. Thomas, Brown and Jackson were in the first group. The 57-year-old Mills is firmly in the second. His basketball resume may be short and unspectacularhe spent most of his career as a business and marketing executivebut he is smart, charismatic and politically savvy, all critical qualities for surviving at Madison Square Garden.

Nine years ago, in the wake of the sexual-harassment scandal, Mills was demoted as MSG Sports president. A year later he was gone entirely. But in 2013, Dolan rehired Mills, this time as president of basketball operations—though Mills had zero experience running a front office. Six months after that, Mills was essentially demoted again, to make room for Jackson.

And on Monday, Mills was introduced as Jackson's successorcharged with cleaning up a mess that he himself was part of. Loyalty, rewarded.

Scott Perry is joining the front office of a Knicks team that has finished above .500 three times since the 2000-01 season.
Scott Perry is joining the front office of a Knicks team that has finished above .500 three times since the 2000-01 season.Steve Freeman/Getty Images

Mills made a solid choice in hiring Perry, a seasoned executive who studied at the feet of Joe Dumars in Detroit in the mid-2000s, when the Pistons were perennial contenders. More recently, the 53-year-old Perry helped the Sacramento Kings orchestrate their best offseason in years, highlighted by the signings of Zach Randolph and George Hill and the drafting of De'Aaron Fox.

Perry is easily the most qualified GM the Knicks have had since 2013, when Dolan inexplicably fired Glen Grunwald—a year after Dolan chased off the even more esteemed Donnie Walsh.

Since 2007, the Knicks have had six heads of basketball operations (president or GM), going from Thomas to Walsh to Grunwald to Mills to Jackson and back to Mills. The league average during that span was 2.8. Instability remains the Knicks' greatest demon.

Credit the Knicks for at least aiming high this time. Dolan's two-man search committee of Tim Leiweke (the widely respected sports executive) and Irving Azoff (the entertainment mogul) first targeted Toronto's Masai Ujiri, but extracting him from his Raptors contract proved impossible. They chased David Griffin, who helped guide the Cleveland Cavaliers to the last three Finals. But Griffin withdrew when it became apparent he would not have the authority he desired, per multiple sources.

Whether Perry will have the autonomy to build a winning operation is an open question. Mills vowed that Perry would have the "freedom" to evaluate the front office, and presumably to hire his own people. But skepticism reigns, both inside and outside the Garden walls.

The Knicks front office is a hostage to its own deep statea near-permanent staff of Dolan yes-men, Mills loyalists and political operators who have survived multiple regime changes over the past 15 years. Walsh inherited most of the staff, and had at least two othersAllan Houston and Mark Warkentienfoisted on him by Dolan. Jackson vowed meaningful changes but never followed through. His only significant hire was Clarence Gaines.

"It's too bad," a rival team executive said of the Knicks. "They could spin this so fast if they would just start over again. And what they're doing is putting a Band-Aid on a major wound."

After drafting Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2013 and then trading him in 2015, the Knicks lured him back this summer with a four-year, $71 million contract.
After drafting Tim Hardaway Jr. in 2013 and then trading him in 2015, the Knicks lured him back this summer with a four-year, $71 million contract.Rob Carr/Getty Images

Other executives speak highly of a few Knicks officials, in particular West Coast scout Mark Hughes, but the general consensus is the Knicks need an overhaul if they are ever to break out of their malaise.

"The best indication to me of how somebody perceives your front office is how many of those people have been part of searches for superior jobs," the rival executive said. In the Knicks' case? "None of them. Not one person comes up."

Perry can perhaps change that, if the Knicks allow him to. Again, there's reason for skepticism.

The Knicks blew a chance to hire Griffin when Griffin realized he would not have the freedom to hire his own staff—or to jettison the old guard.

When the Knicks, at Mills' direction, signed the lightly regarded Tim Hardaway Jr. to a $71 million contractwhile still presumably searching for a new team presidentit was a signal to the entire league that any new hire would lack meaningful authority.

"The Hardaway thing was the greatest sign of their dysfunction," said the rival executive. "It's a cycle that you can't get out of without an actual leader."

Mills said all the right things Monday, insisting that Perry would have primary oversight on all basketball matters. But the Knicks spent virtually all of their salary-cap room on Hardaway and practically anonymousRon Baker. The only meaningful decision left this summer is whether to trade Carmelo Anthony, and where.

There's an adage among veteran basketball executives: To do the job right, you have to be willing to get fired. The point being that a successful GM follows his convictions, no matter the blowback. But the Garden does not reward boldness or candor, only loyalty to the right people.

Steve Mills' presence at center stage Monday simply underscored the point.


Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also co-hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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