Steve Mills was riding the bus with the Knicks from the arena to the airport last season after a 20-point loss to the Lakers, a mediocre-at-best team. He’d ridden these buses plenty of times, sat quietly after many losses. After all these years and in different roles, as he sat next to general manager Scott Perry, he knew this time was different.
“We just kept looking at each other and we said the Lakers weren’t particularly good at that point, but the athleticism differential when you watched our team play their team is alarming,” Mills said. “If we want to compete and build something we have to get more athletic. It was so glaring.”
In his years at Madison Square Garden, the answer to these sort of revelations were always the same: a trade for a big-name star, a mortgage of the future, a coaching savior or even a Zen master arriving to quell the fan base.
This time, Mills, less than a year into his tenure atop the organizational flow chart as team president, had another plan.
It has been a foreign concept at the Garden. While other franchises can trust the process, the futile chase for instant glory in a New York minute had turned the Knicks into a 45-year championship drought. The last two decades have been a particularly painful period in the history of the organization.
It’s easy to see why the fans, the media, the players and even the front office eschewed patience, and now Mills and Perry were preaching that exact quality.
As the Knicks prepare for the season, there is little hope of any instant success. One year in, Mills still is calmly — almost eerily for Madison Square Garden — patient.
“We just come in with the approach that we want to see our guys compete every night, create an environment where they know this is a place where we expect competitors to be here,” Mills said in a phone call Wednesday between a flurry of meetings to get ready for the season. “We expect our team to play hard every night, compete every night, win as many games as we can win, and play in a way that gets Knicks fans excited about what we’re doing and the guys that we have on the team. So we come into it, we don’t know what the season — we don’t know what’s ahead of us other than we’re going to go out and try to win as many games as we possibly can.”
That may sound a lot like what Mills said when he inherited the team presidency from Phil Jackson, but what may have seemed like just words then actually has translated a year later into an actual policy and plan.
When Mills ascended to the top spot, the first step was to mitigate the damage done by Jackson. Mills and Perry worked to ease the tension between the organization and Carmelo Anthony, clearing the path for a direction-shifting trade, and calmed the waters with Kristaps Porzingis, who had spent the summer away from the team after skipping out on his exit interview with Jackson.
“Everything happened pretty suddenly for me,” Mills said. “But I’ve been, you know, thinking this was going to happen at some point. At some point, I was going to be back as president of the team. I didn’t know when it was going to happen. I felt like we were ready for it. I saw the situation with players on other teams, I saw the situation with how players on our team felt. I knew that we could, with the right approach, I knew we could mend all those fences and get that part of it on the right track. I knew we could do it.
“I’ve been around, I’ve seen a lot here at the Garden, and what I try to do is learn from what I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced. I know those short-term quick fixes, you’re planning one way and then all of a sudden you’re making a shift. It’s one thing if you’re right on the cusp of competing for a championship, but when you’re where we are to all of a sudden pivot and go in a different direction, I’ve just seen it go wrong too many times. I’m not going to be part of doing it that way.”
In retrospect, the baby steps to start the change may have been the easy part. Patching up the old wounds were one thing, but the actual building process is a more challenging task — one that requires that everyone “trust the process,” but most of all, trust from Mills and Perry, as well as Garden chairman James Dolan, that this makeover will work, slowly but surely.
Jackson’s last move was the drafting of Frank Ntilikina in June 2017. The front office took fliers on a handful of low-risk, high-reward players, including former lottery picks Trey Burke, Emmanuel Mudiay and Mario Hezonja. And in the 2018 draft, they took 18-year-old Kevin Knox in the lottery and added Mitchell Robinson, an athletic mystery, in the second round.
“I do feel like it’s going to work because I think we have patience, which is not something that normally is connected with how the Knicks operate,” Mills said. “We laid out a plan that requires patience and Jim agreed to buy into it. That’s what I think makes it different.
“I believe the fans will accept a team that has a plan and you stick with it and if you deliver players, you do have some hope. [Porzingis] is an elite player in the NBA. He has an injury, but he’s a very special player. We added some players in the draft. Hopefully this year will be a big move for Frank. He’s a lot more confident. We think we have something we can see is different as long as we have the patience to stick to it.”
The Knicks replaced one of the last ties to Jackson, coach Jeff Hornacek, after the 29-win season and chose David Fizdale to serve as another piece to the puzzle. After a brief turn as coach in Memphis, he arrives with a reputation for player development and with people skills.
He spent time in Latvia with Porzingis, continuing to build a relationship.
With the Knicks needing not only the buy-in of fans but of players, too, that’s no small accomplishment. To stay on the path that Mills and Perry set forth — opening salary-cap space next summer — it was important that Porzingis understand that signing an extension next summer makes more sense, opening up approximately $10 million in cap space. Enes Kanter had to agree to return on a one-year deal.
“When Scott came in, we just made a commitment to each other,” Mills said. “It’s just what we believed.
“The first thing we had to do was convince players this is a good place to play and that we have a plan, what their role is in the plan, and to make them feel comfortable that we’re doing something the right way, that we’re going in a positive direction and make them feel like part of something important and they’re going to be part of something big. And that was our goal throughout the season, to make these guys believers in us and believers in the Knicks.
“And at the same time convince the players outside of the Knicks that something’s different here and this team is going in the right direction and this is a good place to be.”