NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Magic Johnson noticed. Carmelo Anthony, too.
The once misguided New York Knicks seem to have a plan. The franchise that’s been good at producing chaos but not much else has the look of a professional NBA organization under president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry — and that’s not just on the court.
Like everyone else in the league, the two men want to win. But even before that, they want the Knicks to develop the traits of a model franchise, not the model of dysfunction that they had come to be their identity.
“I knew there were a lot of things that needed to change here and we’re in the process of doing that,” Mills said.
So far, so good. The Knicks are 16-14 heading into their game against Boston on Thursday night — not bad for a team that parted ways with its team president on the eve of free agency and then traded its leading scorer on the eve of training camp.
“Hats off to my good friend Steve Mills. He is doing an excellent job,” Johnson wrote in a tweet after the Knicks beat the Hall of Famer’s Lakers on Dec. 12. “The future is promising for his young Knicks.”
And, it appears, much different from the past.
Mills and Perry want the Knicks to be known as a team that competes hard, works hard, defends hard. They insist on players that will be accountable to the team and a team that will be accountable to its fans.
The only identity the Knicks had in recent years was of a laughingstock.
“People say, ‘Can you win first and then have a culture?’ Well, what is the foundation you’re building to fall back on when you talk about being sustainable?” Perry said. “So what we want to be is a sustainable team that’s good year in and year out.”
Mills returned to the team president role he briefly held after Phil Jackson was ousted in late June and then hired Perry as his general manager shortly after. They went to work on fixing the Knicks’ roster and reputation, trading Anthony but earning praise by showing him respect Jackson didn’t during a tumultuous final season together.
They surprised Anthony with a video tribute before his first game back at Madison Square Garden last Saturday, then the Knicks showed their former star how much things have changed by routing Oklahoma City.
“I like the potential that they have,” Anthony said. “For me, just to see those guys having fun again, knowing that it wasn’t fun. The fun was lost over the past couple of seasons.”
Mills had a firsthand view of it while serving as Jackson’s general manager. Another 50-loss season ended with the Knicks getting a clear signal of how fed up people were when Kristaps Porzingis, the young star who was being groomed to replace Anthony as the face of the franchise, skipped his exit meeting after the season.
“Everyone was frustrated. One of our players was obviously frustrated. Our fans were frustrated, we were frustrated, and so it led us to think we have to do something different and I felt strongly about it,” Mills said. “I addressed it with Phil and our coaching staff and our entire staff, that in my view we weren’t a team that really stood for anything in particular and that needed to change.
“If it meant changing the triangle, it if meant changing our day-to-day stuff, we had to become more definable by something. When someone sees the Knicks, when someone’s going to play against the Knicks, what are you going to experience when you play that team?”
For Perry, the hope is a team like the Pistons of the early 2000s, who won an NBA title and went to the Eastern Conference finals every season he was their director of player of personnel. One thing he’s insistent the Knicks won’t become are losers on purpose, as he and Mills rule out tanking for a high draft pick even though both have said they want to build with youth.
“Ultimately our goal is to become a championship-type organization and I have just yet to see in my time in the NBA teams that embrace tanking that ultimately will be champions,” Perry said.
Mills, who played at Princeton and worked for 16 years at the NBA, and Perry, who worked previously for four NBA franchises, have plenty of friends throughout the league on both the player and team side. Both can usually be found courtside on game nights talking to people, a far cry from recent seasons when Knicks management was often unseen and unheard.
And in another change, Knicks management is also talking to fans, either directly or through the media.
“I think sometimes we put the players in a tough situation. We clearly put Jeff in a very difficult situation last year,” Mills said, referring to coach Jeff Hornacek. “It’s not fair to him that every question about what’s going on within the organization he has to deal with.”
Mills said at some point the fans need to hear from management.
“We have a vision for where we want to take this team,” Mills said. “We want them to believe in it and feel good about it and see what we’re trying to get accomplished.”
On and off the court.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)