On June 28, 2017, just days after the NBA Draft and on the eve of free agency, the New York Knicks agreed to part ways with president of basketball operations Phil Jackson. The general manager during Jackson’s run as POBO, Steve Mills, ascended to the top spot. He began searching for a general manager to work with him in guiding the Knicks moving forward.
On July 14, 2017, Mills struck a deal to hire Scott Perry as the next general manager of the team. Perry was hired following a short — but successful — stint in the Sacramento Kings’s front office, and had previously cut his teeth as an executive in Orlando, Detroit and Seattle. After decades of working his way up the ranks, Perry finally had his chance to lead an NBA franchise, but the situation he inherited was unenviable.
In the interim period between Jackson’s departure and Perry’s hiring, Mills had splurged in free agency, signing Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four year, $71 million offer sheet, complete with a player option and a 15 percent trade kicker. Already hamstrung by long-term contracts handed out by Jackson the summer before to the likes of Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, this significantly limited the Knicks’ cap flexibility until the summer of 2020. Additionally, Mills curiously handed Ron Baker — a non-descript combo guard who had just completed an unremarkable rookie season — a two year, $8.9 million dollar deal, which contained a player option for the second year.
Limited cap flexibility for the foreseeable future was the least of the problems facing Perry, though. Already largely a laughingstock for their colossal failures this millennium, Jackson’s tenure running the show had done even more damage to the perception of the organization league-wide. A public war of words throughout the season with Carmelo Anthony had created a situation where both the player and team wanted to part ways. The rumors swirling around Kristaps Porzingis potentially being dealt leading up to the draft after the Latvian had skipped an end-of-year exit meeting was another black mark for the organization. Even after three years of Zen, the Knicks remained dysfunctional.
Providing a clear direction for a franchise that had long floundered and flailed about aimlessly as a capped-out, old, veteran-laden, mid-to-late lottery pariah was challenging. Doing so while also needing to patch up the self-inflicted wounds caused by handing out bloated contracts and developing fractured relationships with the Knicks’ stars made it even more difficult.
One-and-a-half years in, we can’t say that Perry’s tenure is a success, but he’s given himself a better chance than those who came before. The path forward has a clarity of purpose that didn’t exist previously. So how has he overseen this transformation?
Re-shaping the organizational structure
Empowered to re-shape the front office as he saw fit, Perry’s first focus was to get the Knicks’ house in order.
Gerald Madkins has been named assistant general manager, Craig Robinson as vice president, player development and G League operations, Harold Ellis as director, player personnel, Michael Arcieri as director, basketball strategy and Fred Cofield as scout.
“Last month, the day after I was hired, I started a full evaluation of the entire basketball operations staff,” Knicks General Manager Scott Perry said. “My first goal was to build-up the highest level front office in the NBA. We are adding a host of highly-regarded and respected basketball people to work with the Knicks to fortify the franchise for years to come.”
This may seem trivial, but the Knicks have notoriously not allowed this type of latitude to incoming top execs. Donnie Walsh, Glen Grunwald, and Phil Jackson never had overseen such a shift in the organizational hierarchy. Yes, long-time Dolan stooge Steve Mills is still the team president, but Scott Perry, at least thus far, has the juice when it comes to directing basketball operations.
Everybody working towards the same goal
Dysfunction has unfortunately been a constant for the Dolan-era Knicks. That has often stemmed from the lack of a coherent vision from the front office, which has trickled down to the coaching staff and players.
This was palpable under Jackson, who tried to simultaneously rebuild around youth (at least when things went sideways in his first season) and compete to win now. Threading the needle between trying to make the most of the twilight of Melo’s career and build a sustainable foundation for long-term success around Porzingis was a tough task. It was one Jackson failed miserably at achieving.
Competing agendas are tough to manage. How does a coach both play to win now, while also trying to develop younger players? What’s the priority? The lack of clarity was tough under Jackson for flawed head coaches like Derek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek.
The organization’s direction has been much clearer under Perry. The message coming from Perry (and Mills) in every public statement has focused on a commitment to developing their young talent and not making short-sighted moves that could hamstring the franchise’s future flexibility. When Hornacek, a coach Perry inherited, kept faith with the veterans even towards the end of another lost season meandering towards conclusion, he was replaced by David Fizdale, who has been more faithful to the front office’s ethos.
For once, the Knicks, at least publicly, seem to all be working towards a common goal with a roster in line with their stated target. Everybody’s singing from the same hymn sheet, a rarity at MSG for years.
Valuing cap space
Again, for other franchises this may seem like business as usual, but the Knicks are not other franchises. Splurging long-term money like a sailor drunk on mediocrity has been a classic #lolKnicks move in the past. Whether by choice or due to the relatively inflexible position he inherited, Perry hasn’t added to the long list of Knicks free agent follies, nor has he desperately lusted to win now with short-sighted trades.
Every free agent deal struck by Perry has either been for one year, effectively rolling over the space, or contained a second year structured in favor of the organization (in the form of team options or partial guarantees). The latter is a true breath of fresh air after years of handing out unnecessary and detrimental player options. Those small wins in contract negotiations in isolation aren’t a big deal, but they add up, as Knicks fans know all too well.
Prioritizing youth and adding picks
Every trade in the Perry era has netted the team picks and/or returned a former lottery pick still on his rookie contract without taking on longer-term salary. Carmelo Anthony was traded for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second round pick, which turned into some dude named Mitchell Robinson. Willy Hernangomez was moved to Charlotte for two second round picks in 2020 and 2021, years in which the Knicks had previously traded away their own second rounders. Kristaps Porzingis was dealt for Dennis Smith Jr. and two first round picks, but more on that later. The only trade in which Perry has traded away a pick was in giving up the lower of the Knicks’ two 2018 second round picks for Emmanuel Mudiay.
Free agent signings have often struck a similar tone. Mario Hezonja — a lottery pick in Orlando during Perry’s time there — and Noah Vonleh were brought in as potential reclamation projects last summer. Trey Burke and Troy Williams were signed last season and given a chance to rejuvenate their careers. Even veteran signings like Kadeem Allen and John Jenkins are juuuuust entering their prime years.
Knicks fans have long craved for a true youth movement. Perry has delivered one, assembling the youngest roster in the NBA this season.
How does the Porzingis trade jive with all of this?
That’s a fair question. If the Knicks are all about developing their own talent and building patiently, how does trading the presumed franchise centerpiece fit into that?
Kristaps isn’t lacking for talent. There’s no doubt about it, trading him carries a major element of risk, but it doesn’t mean Perry’s full of shit. The return was, in many ways, very much in line with his vision of how to create a sustainable winning culture.
In no particular order, the Knicks received:
- Two additional first round picks, one unprotected.
- Dennis Smith Jr., the ninth pick in the 2017 NBA Draft and a player whom there was some support for within the organization at the time of the draft.
- Significant cap flexibility by clearing Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee’s contracts off the books without taking in any major long-term salary.
Additionally, whatever the specifics, Porzingis simply wasn’t on the same page as the Knicks’ front office. It could be he wasn’t keen on the front office’s plan to push for Kevin Durant in free agency, that he was upset they hadn’t extended a full max extension when he became eligible last summer, that he never was able to fully trust the organization again despite the changes following Jackson’s dismissal, etc. All of those factors and more likely played a factor since the rift was caused by “30 or 40 different little things that didn’t go exactly right”, according to ESPN’s Ian Begley.
Simply put, if Kristaps wasn’t fully invested in and committed to the course Perry was charting, continuing to attempt to mend a fractured relationship was counterproductive for both parties. Rather than persist in trying to appease a disgruntled, and still injured, star — a mistake made by Jackson — Perry pulled the trigger on a deal that gave the franchise tremendous optionality moving forward.
When Scott Perry took over as general manager of the Knicks, the team was hamstrung by bloated contracts, was short on young talent, and lacked a cohesive vision and plan. In one-and-a-half years at the helm, he’s created a situation where the only money owed beyond this season is to rookie scale players like Frank Ntilikina, Smith Jr., Robinson, Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, and Damyean Dotson. He’s added two first round picks to an already full cupboard and given the Knicks the flexibility to go after elite free agents or use the space to accumulate more picks, maintaining a more patient approach to rebuilding.
Having flexibility is great. In attempting to see through and actualize his vision for the team it’s a wonderful tool at Perry’s disposal. However, it isn’t a guarantor of success. Perry has done an excellent job of setting the table and selecting a wide variety of ingredients to cook with. What we still can’t be certain of if is whether he’ll be able to cook up wonderful meal with it all.
That’s the most difficult part, and it’s what he’ll ultimately be judged upon. He’s given himself a far better chance to do so than anybody has in running the Knicks this millennium, and that’s something he deserves credit for.