Just two days ahead of the NBA trade deadline, a crucial date in the calendar for the struggling Knicks franchise, the team has removed Steve Mills from his role as team president.
The move not only changes the long-term direction of the franchise with new leadership coming to the top of the organizational flow chart, but also immediately has halted any desperation to salvage the Mills era with a trade that would handcuff his successor.
Knicks general manager Scott Perry will remain with the team for the remainder of the season and will take over basketball operations. But there are no guarantees beyond that for Perry and the rest of the front office. The executives under Perry all have contracts that expire at season’s end and Perry has a mutual option that a source said is unlikely to be exercised.
According to ESPN, James Dolan, the executive chairman and CEO of Madison Square Garden, has already spoken to one candidate, but the Knicks have long been known to have an interest in Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri — who helped make his reputation by getting the better of the Knicks in major trades while he was with the Denver Nuggets and then with Toronto when he sent Carmelo Anthony and Andrea Bargnani to New York and collected huge piles of assets.
Sources in the Toronto organization said earlier this season that they believed Ujiri would have interest in the Knicks because of his desire to have a larger platform for his Giants of Africa foundation. But he is under contract for another season, which would require the Knicks providing compensation if he left, and the very wealthy ownership group of the Raptors has the money to keep him in place.
Ujiri didn’t get where he is by departing a team with the pedigree of the defending champions and joining one of the league’s massive rebuilding projects — and surrendering draft picks in the process.
There are a number of other potential targets. R.C. Buford has overseen one of the most stable franchises in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs and after 15 years as GM he has moved outside of basketball operations, overseeing ambitious business projects for the organization. Sam Presti has led the Oklahoma City Thunder through various incarnations and could have interest in a larger market. SNY reported that some factions of the Knicks have interest in an agent taking over, which has worked well in Golden State with Bob Myers and the Lakers with Rob Pelinka.
In the meantime, Perry is expected to seek to move some of the veteran pieces to acquire young players or draft picks without bringing back contracts that would stifle the plans of the new regime.
Mills has been tied to Dolan for more than 20 years, joining the team as vice president of basketball operations in 1999 when Dolan took over as the team’s principal owner.
The Knicks announced that Mills will be nominated to the board of a standalone sports company after the completion of the proposed spin-off of the entertainment business, pending all necessary approvals, including by the Madison Square Garden board of directors. This would not be a position on the MSG board, but instead on a new board representing just the sports holdings of the organization.
“Steve and I have come to the decision that it would be best for him to leave his role as president of the New York Knicks,” Dolan said in a statement. “We thank Steve for his many years of service to our organization and look forward to continuing our relationship with him as part of our board.”
“It has been a great honor to represent the Knicks,” Mills said in the statement. “I will always be grateful to Jim for giving me the chance to represent this franchise and I’m disappointed we were unable to achieve success for New York. I would like to thank the staff and the players for their hard work during my tenure. I will always be a Knicks fan.”
Mills, a native of Roosevelt, was promoted through the ranks, becoming chief operating officer and then president of Madison Square Garden. He left in 2009 after a tumultuous period for the franchise, which included the Anucha Browne-Sanders lawsuit against the organization two years earlier.
He returned in September 2013 on the eve of training camp, rejoining the organization as general manager, and then remained in place as Phil Jackson took over six months later as team president. When Jackson was removed after three chaotic seasons, Mills ascended to the team president role and hired Perry as general manager. In Mills’ time as general manager and president the Knicks compiled a 178-365 record — the worst in the NBA.
After trading Kristaps Porzingis and clearing cap space, the Knicks failed to land one of the top stars in free agency last summer. Still, with seven veterans added to the roster Mills and Perry expected a drastic upgrade from last year’s 17-65 season. But at 15-36, the season has already included an impromptu news conference by Mills and Perry when Dolan forced them to explain the early-season troubles and then coach David Fizdale was cut loose shortly after that.
The Knicks had the worst record in the NBA (178-365, .328 win percentage) in Steve Mills’ six-plus seasons as either the team’s GM or president: