The New York Knickerbockers, never a team for subtlety, flipped the leadership of their front office days before the 2020 NBA trade deadline. Out is Steve Mills, longtime executive in various roles with the team and a James Dolan deputy par excellence. (Being called a James Dolan deputy par excellence is not meant as a compliment.) In is Leon Rose, one of the NBA’s most successful agents of the last era whose Creative Artists Agency platoon was long seen as puppet masters of the Knicks front office.
This is as eye-popping a front office shift as you can get.
Because it happened in the run-up to the trade deadline (one in which the moribund Knicks were sellers) and amid several important and historic national political stories, it flew under the radar just a bit. I’m not sure the wider basketball fandom appreciates what a mammoth deal this is for the Knicks and the NBA — not necessarily good, not necessarily bad, just mammoth.
This move has the potential to completely change the Knicks as we approach the highly consequential summer of 2021. And if it completely changes the Knicks, it has the potential to completely change the NBA.
A competent, well-run Knicks franchise is something the other 29 teams in the NBA and specifically the other 14 teams in the East have rarely had to face. This is a franchise with as many financial resources as any that has been sidelined from competition at the highest level for all but fits and starts since the early 1970s. This is the the 2014-19 LA Lakers — a sleeping giant — but just stretched over the better part of 45 years (excepting a run of success in the ‘90s that included two Finals appearances).
With Rose’s presence, the Knicks’ bottomless vault, and hopefully some competent scouts and cap calculators, the Knicks can turn this around. If Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson can do it, Rose and Scott Perry (or the next Scott Perry) can do it.
But they need to start right now. The clock is already ticking.
Why? Because the 2021 offseason is really going to be massively consequential. It’s not just Giannis Antetokounmpo, either — I would bet right now he’ll stay with the Bucks. There are just a lot of big names on the table in 2021. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Lowry, plus a handful of potential restricted free agents. To best use the Knicks’ best advantage — deep pockets — New York needs to be in the mix for high-end free agents, and there’s no better summer to get in the mix (now that the 2019 gambit failed) than in 2021.
And to get into the mix in 2021, the Knicks need to get respectable in 2020. That should be the entire goal from now until this time next season: flip the script on who the Knicks from an embarrassing disaster to a competent, respectable team.
That means hiring the right coach in the offseason. That means drafting a contributor instead of a lottery ticket, or trading the pick for a good player. That means investing money and playing time in professionals, not mercenaries. That means accountability and realistic acknowledgement of limitations and reasonable goals. That means being honest with fans.
It means not being the Knicks for a change.
The Brooklyn Nets famously did this in the run-up to 2019, and landed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Coincidence or consequence? Probably some of both. But the key is that those two players joined a competent, respectable franchise. Most superstar free agents do that. Leonard did that. George did that when he re-signed in OKC. Durant did that when he signed in Golden State. Gordon Hayward did that when he signed in Boston. James did that in Miami. James in Cleveland (2014) and LA were the rare exceptions. James has his own rules.
And to be sure, being competent isn’t itself enough to land big names. But in most cases, it is a prerequisite.
So that should be the entire goal for New York’s new regime. Not maximizing cap space to the fullest (though they need to remain cognizant of the cap space). Not loading up high draft picks for potential trades (though they need to wisely use their draft assets since those are currently the best tools they have to improve the team). The Knicks need to be respectable this time next year in the run-up to 2021 free agency. If New York misses that chance and the dark ages continue, who knows whether Rose will keep his credibility? Who knows whether he’ll keep hope alive for fans who need it?