Assessing The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of New York’s Brain Trust

As the Knicks reach what I can only imagine is DEFCON 2, I’m left wondering how those who eventually remain will pick up the pieces and put this lovable pile of steaming turds back together. You see, firing everyone is the easy part. Tearing it down is simple. It’s the rebuilding where, as you’re likely well aware, things can go awry.

That’s why I’m assessing the chants, diving deeper, and trying to make sense of what would follow after firings. Without further ado…

“Fire James Dolan!”

(or, “Fi-re Do-lan,” if you prefer…)

This is pure ignorance. Dolan owns the team – he’s not going anywhere unless someone offers him a godfather-like offer. He could step away as Executive Chairman and Chief Executive Officer and it wouldn’t matter. You can hope and wish that he goes but the reality is that he’s here to stay.

“Fire Steve Mills!”

Who’s the first person to face the music? Well, I can tell you one person who it probably won’t be. I’d say it amazes me how Steve Mills remains unscathed after all these years but it really doesn’t amaze me at all. He ascended to his current position as the President of Basketball Operations because the outrage that was directed at Phil Jackson led to Phil and the team parting ways 1 . If Scott Perry falls on the sword and Mills lives to see another day as president, the hypocrisy knows no bounds.

Say what you want about Kristaps Porzingis and his exit – Mills held a senior position the entire time KP was in New York and Mills could not retain his star. Would I still do the trade all over again? Absolutely, especially since we can’t declare a clear winner yet since we don’t know where the 2021 and 2023 first round picks will land, nor do we know how Porzingis will perform on a max contract. Maybe KP isn’t worth the long term investment. He has issues of his own but Mills’ inability to move forward with the team’s best player has led to New York going backwards. Yet somehow, Mills is selling Dolan on this summer being a step forward? And now Dolan is reportedly upset at what we all know was never going to be a competitive team?

The funny thing is that I’ve long tolerated Mills because Dolan trusts him. You’re probably thinking, “Jeremy, that’s not a good thing,” and you’re probably right. I see Mills as a buffer between Dolan and the team. Mills has an overarching vision that we can all get behind: Get more athletic, get better defensively, draft well. As Frank Ntilikina, Kevin Knox, and Mitchell Robinson come into their own, and as RJ Barrett exceeds expectations, we’re seeing that there is a return on investment for miserable seasons. Watching 82 2 games a year for years in a row won’t be for nothing after all. 

Except – is Mills a buffer? Or is he merely an extension of Dolan, and Dolan trusts him because the moves Mills makes make sense to Dolan? Mills has years of data operating in different capacities within the organization – and the team has failed spectacularly, time and time again. This man has embedded himself into the organization for almost two decades after coming from the operations and finances side of business. There are useful skills for a team’s CEO but not as much for evaluating personnel. That’s how you wind up giving bloated contracts to Tim Hardaway Jr. and Ron Baker. There aren’t as many people for Mills to sacrifice before he himself has to go. Ask yourself, would anyone with his experience and track record hold the same position with 29 other teams? Not for long, if at all, that’s for sure.

“Fire Scott Perry!”

The quietest chant of the bunch but still somewhat justifiable. Perry’s been with the team for two seasons. His first summer was completely hindered by the fact that he didn’t join the Knicks until July 14th, 2017, well after the draft and after free agency had peaked. As the executive in charge of day-to-day operations, he traded Carmelo Anthony for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and the 36th pick in the 2018 draft, which became Mitchell Robinson. Acquiring Robinson makes the deal successful – nonetheless, trading Doug McDermott and a second round pick for Emmanuel Mudiay was a questionable decision. I didn’t mind it at the time, as I understood there might be untapped potential. The year and change that followed proved it was a bad move but nothing disastrous. One might even say it was tanktastic. And, of course, Porzingis tore his ACL days before the trade deadline.

Perry’s next summer was impacted by Kanter’s player option. It’s hard to cook a fancy dinner for four when you only have enough to buy SpaghettiOs and a single stalk of broccoli. Then Porzingis wanted out, got his wish, and the team traded away liabilities in Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee for two first round picks, Dennis Smith Jr., and (eventually) cap space. We can wonder what might have been with the trade if the Knicks weren’t focused on Durant and another max player but it’s largely moot. 

Perry’s made some solid trades. It’s simplified but Melo for Mitch is pretty sweet. The two second round picks in the Willy Hernangomez trade project nicely, yet the price to draft Hernangomez was two high second round picks 3. The jury is completely out on where the Dallas Mavericks will pick in the draft moving forward but first rounders are assets nevertheless. 

Something that’s bothered me though is the moves Perry didn’t make, or if/when he sold low on a player. Let me preface this by saying it’s easy for us to say “trade this guy!” Sometimes there’s no deal to be made. The team had a logjam at the 5 position in 2017-18 and the front office waited until Porzingis’ knee exploded to trade Hernangomez. The team also let Kyle O’Quinn walk for nothing. Then Noah Vonleh wasn’t traded at the deadline last year. The same thing could happen with a player like Allonzo Trier. 4

The worst thing though? Free agency. Here’s a list of every player signed since Perry arrived:

  • Kadeem Allen
  • Reggie Bullock
  • Trey Burke
  • Henry Ellenson
  • Wayne Ellington
  • Billy Garrett
  • Taj Gibson
  • Mario Hezonja
  • Isaiah Hicks
  • Jarrett Jack
  • John Jenkins
  • Marcus Morris
  • Elfrid Payton
  • Bobby Portis
  • Ivan Rabb
  • Julius Randle
  • Ramon Sessions
  • Allonzo Trier
  • Noah Vonleh
  • Troy Williams

With the exception of possibly Trier, not a single one of these signings was or will be a long-term asset. That is pitiful. Perry’s been in New York for two years and he couldn’t bring in a single long term guy? And lest we forget that Perry has brought in Jack, Sessions, Burke, and Payton, all of whom received playing time over Ntilikina, all the while under two different head coaches? 

Then factor in not signing Durant and another star. Look, I do get it, the Knicks may very well be better off without Durant than if they had signed him. I certainly subscribe to that train of thought. But Scott Perry (and Steve Mills) made the moves they did to sign Durant and he signed elsewhere. Their plan B is going terribly. That’s a massive failure no matter how you slice it.

“Fire David Fizdale!”

The likeliest of fall guys, Fizdale’s time in New York seems to be coming to a close far earlier than we might have expected.

We talk about culture and changing the narrative but no smooth-talking coach will do that without also yielding positive results. You change the culture by winning. You need a front office that puts good players on the floor and a coach who works with them. The Knicks appear to have neither.

Seth Rosenthal said Knicks management is like an episode of Chopped. They give you eggs, cat meat, and urine, then get all grossed out when you serve them a peecat soufflé. If Fizdale is the chef, his supplier never gave him a chance. Yet Fizdale also got shell in the bowl, burned the soufflé, and then accidentally dropped it in boiling water.

The Knicks are 2-9. They have the worst offensive rating, net rating, and free throw percentage. They rank last in points in the paint and points per possession in isolation. They rank 29th in true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage. They rank 28th in deflections and assists. They are 25th in pick and roll frequency despite having solid pick and roll ball handlers in Elfrid Payton5 and Frank Ntilikina and rollers like Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson.

Was Fizdale given a crappy roster? God yes. What is Fizdale’s fault is how he’s allocated minutes and how he doesn’t utilize his players’ strengths. How many missed opportunities in the PnR will it take for him to realize he has capable players who work well in PnR? How do you start Allonzo Trier in the backcourt, knowing he’s a) bad distributor and b) streaky scorer, despite having an alleged “battle”? Wayne Ellington has struggled to start the season, but how do you say you want to play him… and then bench him? Why did you bench Taj Gibson? Why do you insist on giving Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, and Bobby Portis minutes together? How do you let your team give up seven different double-digit deficits in the third quarter out of 11 total games? How do you stymie Dennis Smith Jr.’s progress by forcing him into games when his confidence is less than zero? How do you only give Frank Ntilikina big minutes because everyone else is unavailable? Why do Randle’s bad habits go unnoticed? That, and more, are all on the coaching just this season

“Fire everyone!”

Perry and Mills whiffed on their plan to bring two superstars together. None of the moves they made afterwards will harm the future but that doesn’t mean they don’t come with their share of criticism. I was fine with letting Vonleh sign elsewhere 6 but paying Bobby Portis almost seven times more than Luke Kornet was always a bad call. Was anyone else offering Taj Gibson or Wayne Ellington $8 million? And then there’s Julius Randle. I mentioned on the podcast with Jon that my first reaction to the idea of signing Randle was negative 7. Randle has always been a poor defender on the perimeter and under the rim, his defensive rotations are infuriating, his shot has showed no consistency, his ball-handling has been sloppy, and his decision making is questionable at best. The contract is fine 8 but the player isn’t. Not a single part of that is Fizdale’s fault but I think based on what was outlined in the paragraph prior that I don’t need to repeat myself.

So Dolan cleaned house. What’s next?

It will likely be up to Dolan to pick the team’s next front office. On one hand, Dolan has seemingly done a solid job of removing himself from making decisions. He’s reportedly been far more interested in music and has therefore been more out of touch with basketball. That’s really good, as we’ve seen how his influence can negatively impact the team.

It’s also kind of bad. The last time Dolan had an opening for President of Basketball Operations, he promoted Steve Mills. The time before that, he took advice from entertainment executive, Irving Azoff. Azoff’s suggestion? Phil Jackson. To be clear, one of Dolan’s most trusted confidants is an entertainment executive, and he’s giving Dolan advise on running… a basketball team. 

In Azoff’s defense, he did recommend Jerry West for the role, which would have been great. Apparently, West told Azoff that the timing was bad to come to NY to succeed Phil Jackson. I don’t doubt that West didn’t want to follow Phil but this feels like a coded truth. The primary reason is he didn’t want to work for Madison Square Garden. The team could go back to West but he turns 82 this May, and why be a part of a rebuild when you get paid to be a consultant for a winning team in sunny Los Angeles?

Where do Dolan (and Azoff) go from there? He probably tries to poach an established big name. He’s either gotten great basketball minds onboard (who then failed) or couldn’t convince any top people. In an odd way, I sort of feel for Dolan. He’s not apathetic to the Knicks’ cause. He wants the team to win. He’s happy to spend in order for a winning product to be on the court. It’s his loyalty, and who he hires (or doesn’t hire), that have been so difficult for the Knicks.

I didn’t want Jackson fired because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. Would I say that I feel more confident in this administration than the last one? That’s a resounding yes. With that said, we praised Jackson for not giving away first round picks like free cheese samples at a grocery store, as if the sign of normalcy should be celebrated. The bar should not be that low.

Any front office decision should be done with prudence. Relieving a head coach of his duties is one thing, firing your brain trust mid-season is an invitation for chaos and a recipe for disaster. If someone has to go mid-season, let it be Fizdale. I don’t think he should go but I also don’t think there’s very much for him to show us he belongs to stay.

Dolan should also keep Mills and Perry on until the end of the season. You do not want the car to be stuck in drive as the two people in the front seats are ejected from the vehicle while you’re stuck in the backseat. Mills should have been gone 20 years ago but we can’t change the past. The jury’s somewhat out on Perry, who has been positive overall but has had some brutal negatives.

There are worse situations for an incoming executive or head coach to be in than in New York. The team has promising young talent, a surplus of picks, and enough cap space to maneuver however the front office so chooses. Maybe, with a little TLC and a hefty paycheck from Dolan, the Knicks can finally go back to being DEFCON 5.

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