“Don’t get too comfortable.”
That was the writing on the wall after last week’s managerial purge as Steve Mills, the man who presided over the Garden’s dark times, the era of “He Who Shall Not Be Named,” was surprisingly reanimated to replace Glen Grunwald. For any other NBA franchise, a front office shakeup needn’t signal a sinister subplot, but when it comes to the men who “run” the Knicks at James Dolan’s whim and behest, redecorating that corner office isn’t particularly advisable. I’m looking at you, Mike Woodson.
Nothing about the Knicks surprises me anymore, but I would be lying if I wasn’t taken aback when the news dropped on Thursday. Not that my incredulity makes much sense. After all, this is how James Dolan rolls, no? Fool me once, shame on you, Jimmy D. Fool me twice, well…does anyone have that link to purchase Knicks season tickets?
On the surface, the move doesn’t make much sense. Grunwald was the prototypical company man. He was mild-mannered, comfortable working as a behind-the-scenes operator and obviously amenable to fitting into an executive power structure that is extremely heavy handed at the top, to say the least. What’s more, his moves culminated in a 54-win team that won its division for the first time in 20 years. The Knicks also earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference and came within two wins of the conference finals. Everything was set up for Grunwald to continue in New York for a decade, not only as Dolan’s ideal employee, but as a competent one, at that. And then, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Even more surprising than Grunwald’s ouster is the man who was chosen to replace him. Not only did Steve Mills preside over the ugliest stretch of Knicks history, replete with massive institutional failure and an ugly sexual harassment lawsuit involving allegations about Mills himself, but…wait, need I go on?
In essence, Dolan has chosen to replace a guy who delivered the Knicks from a decade in the wilderness with a guy who played an integral role in putting them there in the first place. But why?!
The answer may be simpler than anyone realizes. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that when LeBron James made his big “Decision” in the summer of 2010, Dolan’s ego mortally was wounded. At the time, some posited that the principal reason James chose Miami over New York was because the Knicks free agency presentation just couldn’t match the star powered greasiness of Pat Riley’s pitch. Yup, LeBron took his talents to South Beach because Donnie Walsh’s wheelchair wasn’t blingy enough. Not because of the Heat’s fairly recent tradition of success, though. Not because of Miami’s organizational stability, either. And certainly not because King James’s best friend (oh, by the way, Dwyane Wade was the game’s second best player at the time) was recruiting him. No, it was old timey Walsh was old and infirm, Mike D’Antoni was milquetoast, and the Garden’s graphic designers dropped the ball with a lackluster PowerPoint presentation.
All indications are that Dolan remains convinced – or, more accurately, he has been convinced by someone – that for the Knicks to remain a relevant franchise, they need to focus almost exclusively on attracting and keeping marquee free agents, and that free agents respond best to glitzy schmoozing by suave, well-connected people. Mills is that (after all, Magic Johnson floated Mills as a prospective head of the NBPA) and Grunwald is not.
And since Mills has that kind of juice, Dolan believes that his mere presence will be vital when it comes to retaining Carmelo Anthony. I mean, how can ‘Melo possibly be expected to look at Grunwald’s boring face and floppy hair for even another day? If Anthony is going to stay in New York, then surrounding him with a good team and backing up the Brinks truck won’t be enough. He’s going to need to see that sizzle.
So what now?
We stand on the precipice of a new season, a campaign that should be marked by relative optimism and excitement. The Knicks are talented, they are deep, and despite some structural flaws with the roster, they are relevant. (New York is coming off its most successful season in thirteen years.) But listening to Mills hit the sports radio circuit on Monday, it sure sounds like he is focused most on keeping Carmelo here. Not by winning, mind you, but by conducting a comprehensive review of the franchise to ensure star players find the Garden to be a desirable free agent destination. The Knicks’ priorities seem pretty unambiguous to me.
Don’t take my word for it, though. Everything the Knicks do now (and later) will be about convincing ‘Melo to stay in New York and recruiting other high-profile stars to be his teammates. Mills was brought in specifically to assess every aspect of the organization through that prism, including the team’s facilities, its front office, and, naturally, its coaching staff.
Which brings me to Mike Woodson. Sure, he must have appreciated the team’s benevolent decision to pick up his option for the 2014-15 season on Monday, thus meaning he won’t be a true lame duck this year, but he probably was hoping for more. After all, Grunwald was his closest ally in the organization and just because one is under contract at the Garden, that doesn’t mean one is necessarily working there, you know? (NOW HIRING: Advisors. Great pay, low hours, little to no responsibility. Gag order required prior to employment.)
And make no mistake, more than anything else, Woodson will be judged by his reputation with the players going forward. Short of winning a championship or missing the playoffs entirely, it won’t be wins and losses or x’s and o’s that make his case. Nope, the coach will live and die with the perception that he can or cannot attract marquee free agents. Will he be “Big Time” enough? Is there someone else out there that can better attract the stars? Rest assured, if the answers to those questions even appear to be no, Woodson will be replaced with someone more celebrated, though not necessarily a better coach. That isn’t to say all is lost for the man with New York’s greatest goatee. By all accounts, Woodson is personable and he’s well-regarded in league circles. He’s certainly repped by the right people. And, most importantly, ‘Melo is said to be in his corner. (For now, anyway.)
So if the coach truly is fighting for his job, those aren’t bad cards to be holding at all. Woodson’s still in this thing. He probably just shouldn’t get too comfortable. And if the Knicks strike out in free agency, neither should Steve Mills.