It was also encouraging to hear Knicks executives talking about building with lean, long, young athletic sorts. This is as opposed to the past season, when Phil Jackson, the Knicks’ busted valise of a Svengali, turned to two former Chicago Bulls stalwarts, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, to serve as the pillars of the team. Rose played defense almost never and went AWOL for a game without explanation; Noah was injured and injured again and then was caught taking performance-enhancers and suspended.
And Jackson then exited the Garden feet first last month.
The Knicks actually possess a sturdy nucleus of young talent, from Kristaps Porzingis to Willy Hernangomez to, inshallah, the Knicks’ yearling point guard, 18-year-old Frank Ntilikina. The team also possesses its first-round draft picks going forward. This is in the standard operating manual for most good franchises and for the Knicks, it passes for genius of a rarefied sort.
The gentlemen in Greenburgh on Monday also invoked all the correct balms, elixirs and antitoxins. They talked of a rebuild that might take two, three, four years as opposed to next week or next month. (A former Knicks president, Isiah Thomas, once claimed that New York City fans would not tolerate a rebuild, much less a bad team. He proved himself wrong by putting out ostentatiously terrible teams that nonetheless sold out most games.)
Now comes the problem. This somewhat hopeful talk came enfolded in a collective display of rhetorical rope-a-dope that would bring a smile to the face of the departed Muhammad Ali.
Perry, the general manager, is new to the joint and within his rights to feel optimistic, so we will hand him a pass. Steve Mills, the once and present president of the franchise, is another matter. He first came to power in 2013 in what passed for a coup from above by the team’s owner, James L. Dolan. It was Dolan who decided to depose a successful team president and general manager, Glen Grunwald, which left Mills to take over a team that had made it to the second round of the playoffs the year before.
That team quickly fell apart amid some bad moves and Jackson stepped in to replace Mills, who nonetheless retained a seat of high influence. Jackson lasted three years and departed and Mills again reclaimed the Garden throne.
This all brought to mind the image of a man who continually falls upstairs.
With so much losing to his name, I figured Mills might offer a useful rumination on bruises and lessons learned. None was to be heard. He made clear that he, and not the more experienced Perry, would make the final decisions about the course of the franchise. “I’m going to give Scott the room to make recommendations,” he said.
Then Mills praised Hornacek, whose team finished last year 20 games under .500. And he praised Jackson, whose three-year record was 80 wins and 166 losses.
“He has taught me a lot,” Mills said of Jackson in what passed for the news conference’s most chilling declaration.
At this point, bafflement welled up inside of me. I asked Mills and Hornacek: You’ve endured a genuinely terrible time running this team. Aren’t there some lessons you can draw from this?
Hornacek kept the studiously blank and unblinking expression that is his specialty when confronted with probing questions. He kept silent. Mills crooked his head, brow furrowed, and paused a second. Obviously, he said, all has not gone well. “We’ve been part of it and we have to take our portion of the responsibility for it,” he said.
And that was more or less that.
If the path to franchise sobriety is to be found by admitting responsibility, the Knicks’ traipse through the wilderness might stretch a while longer.