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The Knicks Still Have No Idea What They’re Doing, So They Fired Someone Again

Team president Steve Mills is out, two days ahead of the trade deadline. Who will James Dolan turn to (and eventually fire) next?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

When a bad Cavaliers team drilled the Knicks by 21 points at Madison Square Garden to drop New York to 2-8 through their first 10 games, owner James Dolan marched the team’s lead basketball executives out for a rare public press conference to say the franchise expected better. When the Knicks got annihilated by a combined 81 points in consecutive losses to fall to 4-18, they fired coach David Fizdale for failing to get better results. You might notice a trend here.

Interim replacement Mike Miller helped lead the team to a downright respectable month after Fizdale’s ouster. But the Knicks soon slumped again; they lost 12 of 15, culminating in a 21-point home drubbing by the Grizzlies that featured bush-league behavior on and off the court, soundtracked by the MSG faithful’s cascading chants of “SELL THE TEAM.” That’s the kind of very public embarrassment that Dolan has proved time and again he can’t countenance—which is to say, one that trains the spotlight for his franchise’s ongoing fuckery squarely on his courtside seat. And since he couldn’t sanction some teenager over it, he’s evidently chosen to respond by firing someone else.

President of basketball operations Steve Mills—one of Dolan’s longest-tenured lieutenants, an executive who’s been involved in as much of the past two decades of Knicks misery as anyone besides Dolan himself—was ousted on Tuesday. In his place, Dolan is now reportedly considering aping the front-office structure employed to great effect by the Warriors and Lakers by hiring an agent to run the show; CAA’s Austin Brown has been floated, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t note Rich Paul’s intriguingly timed cryptic emoji usage. Well, that or moving heaven and earth to get Masai Ujiri, who might not be available for a year and a half, or have any interest in leaving Toronto for New York. Whatever it takes to win the back page.

Scott Perry, hired to take over as general manager in 2017 when Mills ascended to the president gig, will reportedly stick around as New York’s GM and run basketball ops for now. Which is good, because, y’know, the NBA trade deadline is in two days. It seems smart to have someone whose job it is to answer calls and stuff.

You might think it’s odd for the Knicks to make such a massive change in their front-office hierarchy at this point in the season. For most teams, you’d be right! The Knicks, however, have something of a track record of weird timing—they fired Glen Grunwald four days before the start of training camp in 2013, fired Phil Jackson six days after the 2017 NBA draft, and let Fizdale speak to the media and run a practice before firing him back in December. Moving on from Mills so close to Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline might be puzzling, but it’s par for the course—and, if Dolan had lost faith in Mills as a decision-maker (which, what took so long?), better to move on before the deadline than after, to prevent him from leaving you holding a very stinky bag on his way out the door.

How the Knicks will handle the deadline should be fascinating. They’ve already made it clear in a team statement that the search for a new president has already begun, and the Knicks have reportedly lost out on a highly touted executive because of a move made mid-job-search once before. Ex-Cavs GM and current Pelicans personnel boss David Griffin was considering an offer to run the franchise in 2017, but removed his name from consideration after reportedly losing “interest in the job when Mills signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a free agent contract while the Knicks were negotiating with Griffin,” which made him question whether or not he’d really have full autonomy over basketball operations. So it’s an open question just how much say-so Perry will have in any calls the Knicks might receive between now and Thursday. Then again, it’s possible that Dolan axed Mills to entice activity rather than prevent it; it appears that, after all those reports about the Knicks being “hell-bent” on retaining Marcus Morris, the career-year-having forward/free-agent-to-be is available now that Mills is no longer in charge.

Dolan hired Mills in 1999 as the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations, and Mills stayed with the team until 2009. During that period, the Knicks plummeted to the league’s basement, with eight consecutive losing seasons and a string of disastrous moves. The tenure was also marred by a sexual harassment lawsuit in which a federal jury awarded former MSG employee Anucha Browne Sanders $11.6 million in compensatory and punitive damages over both harassment by her bosses and the inaction of supervisors, including then-MSG COO Mills, to stop it.

Mills returned to the Knicks in September 2013 when, fresh off the franchise’s most successful season in a decade, Dolan demoted general manager Glen Grunwald and tapped Mills as his replacement. The Knicks haven’t made the playoffs since. Mills stayed on as GM when Phil Jackson came on as team president; when Dolan fired Jackson in 2017, Mills assumed Jackson’s old role. Mills and Perry promised to hold on to draft picks and maintain a slow-and-steady build pointed toward a sustainable future. One year ago, they zagged, trading homegrown star Kristaps Porzingis to the Mavericks as a means of clearing enough salary cap space to pursue two max-level free agents.

Months of salivating over the possibility of landing a galaxy of stars turned to ash in the Knicks’ mouth when Kevin Durant tore his Achilles tendon, the Pelicans won the Zion Williamson lottery, the Lakers traded for Anthony Davis, and Durant and Kyrie Irving chose to sign with the Nets without even giving the Knicks so much as a meeting. After issuing a hasty public statement mere hours into free agency announcing that the Knicks continued to be “upbeat and confident,” Mills and Perry signed a slew of second-tier free agents to short-term deals. The apparent goals: put a nonembarrassing team on the court; give the Knicks’ many young pieces some veterans to grow up under; pump the value of those vets to potentially flip at the trade deadline; and, if all goes well, compete for the playoffs. None of that has worked: The Knicks remain dreadful enough to get the owner heckled in his seat again. So Mills—whose teams have gone 61-154, the second-worst record in the league since he ascended to the presidency—found his way into the crosshairs. (Though he might not actually be leaving the premises; according to a Knicks statement, it’s “anticipated” that, after Dolan completes the planned split of MSG’s businesses into separate sports and entertainment entities, Mills “will be nominated to the Board of the standalone sports company.” Say this much: Our man’s a survivor.)

While Perry steers the ship for now, the Knicks will seek a long-term replacement. One very big name appeared to be at the top of Dolan’s wish list: Raptors president Masai Ujiri. It’s not breaking news that Dolan would love to hire the man who helped build the Raptors into a team that could not only win the NBA championship, but remain in contention for a second even after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency. Longtime Knicks chronicler Frank Isola reported in November that Dolan was “plotting to take another run” at Ujiri; in subsequent reports in various outlets, league sources have described Dolan as “enamored of” Ujiri and “obsessed with” him to the point of viewing him “as the chosen one.”

In fairness, you might think Ujiri’s some kind of supernatural being, too, if he’d previously soaked you for nearly every asset that wasn’t nailed down for Carmelo Anthony when the Knicks could’ve just signed the All-Star forward in free agency four months later, and if he’d somehow convinced you that Andrea Bargnani was worth a first-round draft pick, two second-rounders, and your best 3-point shooter. Having been so summarily burned by Ujiri twice, Dolan later reportedly nixed a done deal that would’ve sent Kyle Lowry to New York in 2013. Lowry has gone on to make the last six All-Star teams while serving as the heartbeat of a perennial playoff participant and NBA champion; during that span, the Knicks have rostered 16 point guards, and are still searching for a long-term solution at the position. So, sure: “enamored,” “obsessed,” “chosen one.”

Setting aside how extremely healthy and normal all of that sounds, that interest comes with a couple of caveats. While “there is no shortage of plugged-in league insiders who believe Ujiri can indeed be lured to Gotham,” actually getting him to leave what he helped build into a world-class organization to clean up the Superfund site that is MSG would require a likely unprecedented financial outlay for a chief basketball executive—something that would make the $60 million that Jackson got from Dolan six years ago look like tip money. More importantly, though, it would also require significant compensation for the Raptors, whom Woj reports have Ujiri under contract through the end of next season.

Toronto would want draft picks to pay Masai’s freight, but New York doesn’t want to give those up, which means the Knicks can either wait until the summer of 2021 to make him an offer … or just try to hire someone else now, which, based on the subsequent reporting about hiring an agent to run the show, sounds like the plan.

It might be a good plan! Pursuing a high-level agent with deep and wide-ranging relationships throughout the league has proved successful for the Warriors under Bob Myers and, after a one-year hiccup, for the Lakers under Rob Pelinka. And, as unlikely as it seems that Ujiri would leave the kingdom he’s built in the North to come work for Dolan in Manhattan, it’s hard to argue too hard against trying to shop at the top of the market to find the best person for the job. Whichever plan Dolan winds up deciding on, it’s tough to feel confident that he’ll stick with it and execute it considering how much churn there’s been in nearly every non-Mills aspect of the franchise during his reign. But maybe moving on from Mills means Dolan’s finally ready to put the Knicks on the path toward looking like a franchise that actually knows what it’s doing—both in the short term, before Thursday’s trade deadline, and beyond, as New York continues to search for someone who can deliver sustained on-court success for the first time since Dolan took control of the franchise two decades ago. You can dare to dream, right?