You can’t talk about the Knicks’ failures over the last 20 years without bringing up Steve Mills. He has been James Dolan’s trusted lieutenant for most of that time. It is frequently mentioned that the only period of success this franchise has enjoyed during the Dolan era were the years when Steve Mills was away.
What infuriates Knicks fans most about Mills is that he somehow continues to gain more power with every failed attempt to rebuild the team. However, now that he has reached the top of the organization, he can’t absolve himself of responsibility for the decisions made. The most recent mistake is the David Fizdale hiring and subsequent firing. The situation looks bleak, especially with rumors of Masai Ujiri lurking in the shadows. So how can Steve Mills finesse his way out of this mess?
Steve Mills Bio
Before we get into that, we need to understand who Steve Mills is and why he is the 2nd most important person in the organization. We won’t chronicle his career for the sake of brevity, but have included links to that information at the end of the article. What I will say is that on paper, just looking at the resume, Steve Mills looks like the perfect candidate to run the Knicks. He is a native New Yorker from humble beginnings that grew up rooting for the Knicks. His father was a respected teacher and basketball coach on Long Island. He is Ivy league educated and played basketball at Princeton for legendary coach Pete Carril.
He started working for the NBA as an account executive and eventually moved up to senior vice president of Basketball and Player Development. He then went to work for Madison Square Garden(MSG) on the business side. He oversaw the operations for all the franchises and the sporting events, before transitioning over to basketball operations for the Knicks.
Relationship with Dolan
While Mills is well accomplished, the key to his success has been his ability to connect with Dolan in a way that many have not. There is a skill or quality that Mills’ possesses that Dolan values. When you compare both men, they have a very little in common. They are both close in age and they both grew up on Long Island, after that they seem to be polar opposites. James Dolan grew up wealthy, but didn’t care much for academics, he attended SUNY New Paltz. He inherited most of his fortune while Mills has had to earn everything he has. Also, I can’t say for sure, but I bet they don’t share the same taste in music. So why do these two men get along so well?
No one knows for sure, but on the surface it seems obvious. While Dolan owns everything related to MSG, it’s not his main business. His family is in the cable business, MSG and the Knicks are just a business they acquired. It is reasonable to assume that Mills might actually know the MSG business better than Dolan. Also, Mills is more equipped to work with corporate types and investors due to his Princeton education. He probably has helped Dolan deal with that aspect of the business as well. So, one can see how an owner like Dolan that isn’t passionate about the sports business might lean on someone like Mills.
President Steve Mills
To be fair to Mills we will just judge him on his work as president of the Knicks. Since he has taken over for Phil Jackson, no one can say he hasn’t done a better job. That isn’t saying much, but it’s true. At least no one can accuse Mills of being an absentee boss. He also is the first president that hasn’t overpaid for a free agent, ostensibly wrecking the team’s salary cap.
However there are three decisions on his resume as president of the Knicks that are stains. The Kristaps Porzingis trade, 2019 free agency and of course the Fizdale hire.
The Porzingis trade can be partly justified due to several none basketball reasons; injury concern, poor attitude and rape accusations. However, the other two are harder to explain away. But can he? If any one can, it’s him, after all he is Steve Mills, master spin doctor.
Explaining 2019 Free Agency
No one knows what was happening behind closed doors, but the Knicks sure felt good about 2019 free agency before Kevin Durant tore his Achilles tendon. Even if Kevin Durant wanted to sign with the Knicks after the injury, Dolan and the organization were squeamish. They have been burned by all the injured big man they have gambled on, so you can understand why they might have thought twice if given the opportunity. Once Durant was off the table, there really wasn’t anyone else they were willing to make the face of the franchise. They had no shot at Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson who was also hurt. Then there was Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker, who are very good players but are complimentary stars not true superstars.
Now the clunky roster. Mills can point to the fact that they were misled by Reggie Bullock’s agent which messed up their plan. They did not know he needed neck surgery until they did a physical, by then free agency had dried up and were lucky to land Marcus Morris. While he isn’t a great fit, he is way better than the other available players. Mills can also say that the roster construction will look better once Bullock returns, which will be soon. Lastly, while it was expected that the team would struggle at the start of the season due to so many new players needing to develop chemistry, he can point the finger at Fizdale for compounding the issues.
Cleaning his hands of Fizdale
Mills can scapegoat Fizdale all he wants, but it is extremely difficult for him to escape responsibility for the hiring. Mills interviewed 11 other candidates, reviewed game film and followed up on references. What is most damning is that the hire seemed doomed from the beginning. Fizdale was fired 19 games into his 2nd season in Memphis. He also had issues with the star European big man on the team. Doesn’t make sense that a new president would make such a risky hire, especially considering that he also had a European big man on the roster who he had a rocky relationship with as well.
There are two excuses he can come up with. The first gets Dolan to indirectly share the blame with him, the other falls mostly on Fizdale.
What made Fizdale so appealing as a head coaching candidate was his relationship with star players. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade would not stop raving about him. His 1st season in Memphis was a success, the team made the playoffs and he got credit for the career years of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. An injury to Conley in the 2nd season coupled with a misunderstanding with Gasol led to his dismissal. Fizdale took responsibility for his mistakes and vowed that he learned from the experience.
So the first excuse would be that while they were committed to rebuilding, they could not pass up an opportunity to land arguably the best player in the NBA. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Players like Durant don’t usually want to come to a losing team with no established players on the roster. If you know anything about Dolan, it is that despite always being under the bright lights, he is still attracted to shiny objects. Durant was that object and Fizdale was the bait. Durant was looking to get as far away from Golden State and Steve Kerr as possible and what better option for him than New York City and David Fizdale.
It’s a horrible reason to hire a coach, but if that was what Dolan wanted, then it’s hard to completely blame Mills. However there is the critique of Fizdale’s actual coaching acumen and relationship with European players.
That is when Mills uses his second excuse to dodge that critique. He can say Fizdale hoodwinked him. As we mentioned in the article ‘What Do About Fizdale‘, folks tend to overvalue the contribution of the head coach. While the head coach is ultimately accountable, he relies on his staff to help him. When Fizdale was fired, the coaches that were retained were J.B. Bickerstaff and Nick Van Exel. Bickerstaff, the son of famed coach Bernie Bickerstaff was promoted to head coach and Nick Van Exel was recognized for his work in player development, notably his with guards (Conley).
Mills can argue that Fizdale took credit for Bickerstaff’s Xs & Os expertise and Van Exel’s player development skills. Those were things that Mills could not see on film. Mills can also say that Fizdale should have recognized his weaknesses and have not been too proud to use the Knicks’ infinite resources to hire the best available assistants. Instead Fizdale went with guys he figured were safe and could not be viewed as an option to replace him. Mills can insinuate that Fizdale made the same mistake as Mark Jackson. He can say look at Golden State and both L.A. teams, despite having accomplished head coaches, their top assistant coaches are better than most teams’ head coaches. Mills can say that he will make sure to vet the next head coach’s assistants to ensure they have the best overall coaching staff in the NBA.
Mills can make the case that it was best to move off of Fizdale as soon as possible. Since they struck out in free agency, they had no use for him. Plus the damage he was causing the young core due to his poor schematic and player development skills was too much. Mills can point to his stellar drafting record and remind Dolan that the ultimate goal for this year was player development. Frank has improved this year, but it wasn’t because of Fizdale. He only played Frank when he had no choice. He can also point the finger at Keith Smart for Smith Jr.’s shooting woes. These are two young assets that depreciated under Fizdale’s watch. One giving further credence to the critique of Fizdale’s willingness to coach European players. The second is ruining the main return from the Porzingis trade.
If Dolan won’t allow Mills to hire a new coach, which would be a sign that his is going to get fired. Then he will need Mike Miller to improve the performance of the team enough to show that he might be the right guy for the job. Mills will say that Miller has been with the organization for a while and worked his way up to head coach. This shows prospective free agents that there is continuity and culture in the organization. Also, Miller would be a more attractive coach to the new shiny object the Knicks have their eye on, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mills can say that Miller comes from the Spurs system just like Budenholzer. He can also point to having Craig Robinson in the organization, as he used to be the vice-president of player development for Milwaukee and has a relationship with Giannis.
Then there is fending off Masai Ujiri, the other shiny object that has a relationship with the first shiny object (Giannis). Since Ujiri is under contract, the Raptors will probably require compensation in the form of multiple draft picks in order to pry Ujiri away. Mills needs to sell Dolan on the fact that they would need their draft picks in order to eventually trade for a star, which would help their chances for signing Giannis.
All in all it’s a tough sell, but if the Knicks can show some promise in the second half of the season, then Dolan might be willing to give Mills one more chance for old time’s sake. After all, if he gets rid of Mills, then he will also need to find someone new to share in the blame game.