Every action they take, every decision they make—all of it is predicated on the belief they have the sort of young talent in Kristaps Porzingis that rebuilding teams spend years chasing. The type of player who could eventually grow into a star capable of carrying a franchise to a title.
That future is the compass that governs the way Mills, the team president, and Perry, the general manager, have gone about the latest Knicks rebuild. Porzingis, after all, is the unicorn—dubbed as such by Kevin Durant—the rare 7'3" center who can average 22.9 points and a league-leading 2.4 blocks per game in just his third NBA season.
But then Porzingis took off from just outside the circle with 8:51 left in the second quarter Tuesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks. He leaped off his left leg, cocked the ball back with his right hand and slammed it through the net over the long, outstretched right arm of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
And then, in less than a blink of an eye, he was lying on the Madison Square Garden ground, grabbing his left knee and writhing in pain. He needed the help of Luke Kornet and Isaiah Hicks, called up from the Knicks' G League affiliate and inactive for the game, to walk back to the locker room.
A few moments later, MSG Network cameras panned over to Mills and Perry, who were seated in their usual seats a few rows up from half court. They looked like two men who'd just learned their houses were robbed. Which, in a bad-metaphor sort of way, they were.
Down by the Knicks bench, Porzingis' teammates grimaced.
"It was terrible," Knicks center Enes Kanter said afterward. "I can't even describe it with words."
Porzingis was taken to a nearby hospital, where an MRI confirmed what the Knicks organization and its fans feared: He had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
"It's deflating," Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek said following the 103-89 loss. He hadn't yet learned the results of the MRI, but like everyone else watching, he could sense the pending news. "Part of what we're trying to build around, a lot of stuff we try to run through him."
It's the future that matters for the Knicks, not this season, which, with the team flailing—Tuesday's loss dropped them to 23-32—had already become nearly lost. But this injury throws that future into question, too.
"If it's a straightforward ACL injury, he should be ready for the start of next season," Dr. Andrew Barr, a former director of performance and rehabilitation for the Knicks and the founder of Innovate Performance in Los Angeles, told Bleacher Report.
It typically takes six to nine months for a player to return to practice and nine to 12 to return to competition, Barr said. But surgery can always lead to complications, especially when dealing with men Porzingis' size.
In the meantime, the injury presents Mills and Perry with another dilemma. The plan entering Thursday afternoon's trade deadline had been to remain conservative. They believe that outright tanking can create a corrosive environment.
In fact, Porzingis himself had publically lobbied for the team to bring in veteran talent instead of tanking. "Playoff experience for myself, individually, would be huge at this point in my career," he recently stated. "The sooner, the better."
Before their star tore his ACL, the Knicks were open to dealing away players, but they had little interest in doing so at the expense of competing this season.
Porzingis' absence could, and should, now change that.
Everything the Knicks do on offense runs through Porzingis. His usage rate—which measures the amount of offensive possessions a player uses—ranks among the highest in the league, per Basketball Reference. The team, meanwhile, has been 5.0 points per 100 possessions worse this season with him off the floor, according to NBA.com.
Put simply: The Knicks are about to jump headfirst into the battle for the first overall pick, regardless of whether they want to or not.
Will this alter the way management approaches the deadline? Opposing teams have expressed interest in reserve center Kyle O'Quinn, according to league sources. The same goes for Courtney Lee. Lance Thomas is a veteran wingman who could boost a contender.
The smart move would be to embrace the tank, especially after Tim Hardaway Jr. re-aggravated on Tuesday night the left leg injury that cost him six weeks earlier this season.
The losses are about to mount. The final two-plus months of the season will be long and ugly. Porzingis' presence was the franchise's lone sliver of hope. That, too, is now gone.
It's possible it never returns.