In the wake of the New York Knicks falling to 2-8 to start the 2019-20 NBA season, after a brutal 21-point home blowout loss to a rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers team, the front office double-act of Scott Perry and Steve Mills addressed the media with a bizarre pep-talk come public ultimatum for the team and for head coach David Fizdale.
An emotional Mills opened his impromptu postgame press conference with the line, “Hey guys, we just felt like, given that this is our tenth game, we felt we had an obligation to come and speak to you guys, obviously Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now.” Incredibly, he kept a straight face.
This is a truly bewildering sentence. We have: 1) a timeframe in which to judge performance; 2) a perceived obligation to discuss this performance; and 3) an implied expectation of greater performance. From the lips of Steve Mills? Figurehead president of basketball operations Steve Mills? A man whose day-to-day purpose is to maintain the mirage of being someone who does the thing he’s paid to do. That Steve Mills?
Of course, it was owner James Dolan — normally such a reasonable and considered adult man — who orchestrated and probably scripted the public statement. Regardless, these three principles of a misguided and likely coerced attempt at accountability — outside of being pretty arbitrary and in absolutely no way constructive — are more than a little odd, coming primarily from Mills, whose entire career with the franchise has escaped any semblance of internal scrutiny.
Truly, that Mills is considering firing someone for being bad at their job is a jaw-dropping, laughable, and kind of nauseating act of high-end hypocrisy. This guy a walking, talking, finger-pointing violation of NBA darwinism.
Mills has had various roles — and a strong voice — within the Knicks’ power structure since 2003, when he was appointed president of Madison Square Garden Sports. Outside of a four-year hiatus from the franchise from 2009 through 2013 — which we’ll talk about later — Mills’ fingerprints are all over the Knicks’ perennial floundering.
Only a handful of executives in the NBA have served the team they are with now as long as Mills has been with the Knicks. Pat Riley joined Miami in 1995; RC Buford joined the Spurs in 2002; John Paxson and Danny Ainge joined the Bulls’ and Celtics’ front offices, respectively, in 2003.
Mills, then, is one of the longest-tenured execs in the NBA. This is notable, given the Knicks have had 12 losing seasons in the 12 seasons that Mills has been employed in the front office. Twelve seasons and counting, that is. For comparison, his contemporaries — Riley, Buford, Paxson and Ainge — have presided over 59 winning seasons out of the 73 seasons their teams have played during their respective tenures.
Granted, Mills was not always the definitive voice in the front office during these 12 losing seasons, but he — besides Dolan — is the only constant. His is the most enduring voice and influence during a decade-plus timeframe that literally could not have been worse. The fact that during his hiatus from 2009-13 — when he worked for Magic Johnson’s Wealth Management Group — the Knicks not only had winning seasons, but made the playoffs three out of those four seasons, speaks to how much of a hex Mills has been at MSG this century.
That he is one of the worst performing executives in NBA history shouldn’t be surprising, given he is arguably one of the least qualified to do the job. The majority of current league execs have a background in either playing professionally, coaching, scouting; or a combination of the three. Of the 30 leading front office executives in the league — the guys with current final say — 25 of them had specific experience in one or more of these professions prior to landing the top job.
The other five are: Daryl Morey, who has had the Rockets over .500 every year since 2007; Bob Myers and Rob Pelinka, who both had 10-plus year careers as NBA player agents; Zach Kleiman, the new Memphis Grizzlies GM, who is a 30-year-old front office prodigy in his first year of the job; and Steve Mills.
Mills has vast experience and expertise in the business of basketball, working for the NBA and then the Knicks, but outside of one year playing professionally in Ecuador, he’s never played, he’s never coached, and he’s never worked exclusively as a scout. And, shocker: he’s never won. His virtues are in navigating the baffling byzantine corporate edifice that governs MSG — not player evaluation, not X’s and O’s, not salary cap management. And the results have somewhat brutally borne this out.
Add all this up, and, incredibly, Steve Mills is one of the longest-serving, least successful, least-qualified executives in NBA history — and he still has a job.
Not only does he still have a job, he has the gall — the flat out stones — to hold a press conference and preach accountability after 10 games of a season, after over 10 years of literally unprecedented incompetence without consequence.
In a way, Steve Mills is the most successful executive in NBA history. Because, in a harshly results-based profession, he is apparently immune to the repercussions of consistently diabolical results. Because he is still employed. Because he is living in an extremely fragile glass house, in a typhoon of dysfunction, throwing bricks at the walls, and he is still cashing checks.
He is the basketball equivalent of rust. Or mold. Or something similarly stubborn and destructive. Once it’s there, it is seemingly impossible to get rid of, and tends to lead to a general and inevitable decay.
Dolan is quite possibly the most infuriating owner in professional sports, but he’s not selling anytime soon. Fizdale may or may not be a good NBA coach, but that’s a cheery conversation for another day. But, surely, by now, we know Steve Mills is perhaps not so great at stringing together the watertight decisions that lead to the construction of winning basketball teams.
I guess what I’m saying is, given that this is the 13th season of Mills’ Knicks career, we as New York fans could justifiably feel an obligation to talk about this. Because we’re not happy either, Steve, and it’s pretty obvious who should be fired.