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August 25, 2017

A New Day For The Knicks – The Journey Begins

Unveiling a fresh vision, the team’s president promises unselfish play and a new work ethic.

BY STEVE MILLS

It begins with a question.

Before coaches and players are in place, before the whiteboard becomes filled with X’s and O’s, and before the gym floor comes alive with bodies banging and sneakers screeching, it is important to step back and ask:

How can we build a Knicks team that possesses true unity of purpose, a group in which everyone so truly believes in one another that together we can create something unique, something special?

As I said last month on the day we introduced Scott Perry as our new general manager, we are devoted to a bedrock principle — to restore the pride, work ethic and accountability that comes with playing in New York.

Dogged defense. Crisp, unselfish ball movement. Scraping for loose balls. These will be our hallmarks.

And our plan to become more youthful and athletic is underway with 22-year-old Kristaps Porzingis, the return of Tim Hardaway Jr., 25, Willy Hernangómez, 23, and with the debut of our 1st round draft pick, Frank Ntilikina, just 19.

Scott comes to us a seasoned pro and knows how to build winning programs. He will refine basketball operations, from developing players in the G League to assembling the right pieces on The Garden floor. And coach Jeff Hornacek, gritty in his playing days, will preach work ethic and rigor while he implements new approaches to our offense and defense.

What we do and how we proceed, even in the pressurized atmosphere of New York, must be grounded in a core philosophy and a guiding vision. As the organization’s new president, that is my most important management role — to keep my eye on the big picture, to ensure that everything we do locks into our overall strategy.

 

 

Seizing An Advantage

On my first day as Knicks president last month, that’s the challenge I posed to myself — to move ourselves into a new place with a fresh vision and accept that this mission might take a little time.

My old college basketball coach at Princeton, Pete Carril, drove this home for me, that basketball is a great revealer of character. Whoever you are as a person is revealed on the court. If you’re a selfish person, it’s revealed. If you’re a giving person, or if you have a large ego, it’s revealed. You can’t hide from it, and your teammates know it.

A large part of overseeing a basketball program is pulling people into perhaps an uncomfortable spot — to build upon their strengths but also to acknowledge and work on their flaws.

We recognize this is a league of high-flying stars, but a basic element of the game remains true — good passes lead to good shots. I observe. I take notes. I try to learn from everything I see. But at the same time, it’s not my style at all to chase what everyone else is doing. What’s succeeding now in the NBA won’t necessarily succeed, say in three or four years.

I’m intrigued by the vacuum that’s left when everyone tries to copy everyone else. That leaves an opening to do something that’s slightly different, and that’s where you can seize an advantage.

 

Embracing Team Goals

I didn’t arrive at these ideas overnight. I grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island, where my father, Ollie, was a legendary figure. He was head basketball and lacrosse coach, an assistant football coach and a business teacher at Hempstead High School. My uncle Charlie coached football and baseball there, and the two were the first African-American teachers at the school. They extended their reach by creating a community center that quickly became a magnet for everyone in the area.

My brother and I played basketball constantly, and when we weren’t playing we were thinking about it, even designing plays at the kitchen table, our father at our side. Using salt and pepper shakers, we schemed ways to break down a zone defense. Forks, knives, the sugar dish, became instruments to run a motion offense or the pick and roll. At restaurants, we sketched out plays on napkins.

Playing point guard — in high school and later under Coach Carril — I was too often focused on my own stats, my understanding of all the ways I could contribute still limited. That was until Coach Carril challenged me to think differently about my role, to demonstrate more court awareness, read defenses, and to overall embrace the idea that there were ways I could help the team win without scoring.

These notions guide me, still.

 

 

A Long-range Vision

All these years later, you would not have to cut deep to find the blood of a basketball player. The feel for the game, for the gym sweat, for taking shots by the hundreds in practice, is always with me. I’m still captivated by the game.

Now, I’m the one called upon to exercise wisdom. In May — before we brought in Scott — I traveled to France to watch Frank Ntilikina. His physical tools were obvious, and I noticed how as point guard he sensed when to defer to his teammates on offense and when to turn on the aggressiveness.

He, Porzingis and Hardaway, along with Hernangómez and Ron Baker, will exemplify a new defensive mindset that puts a premium on making stops. Only from there can a productive offense flow. We will emphasize ball movement, body movement, spacing and screening, while understanding that these changes will be a work in progress. We may not be there at first, but that’s the brand of ball our players will aspire to fulfill.

These players, still young, intent on enhancing their games, engaged in a common objective, are already altering the atmosphere surrounding the club.

Coach Carril would want them on his team.

 

At My Post

Today’s game demands nearly constant recruiting in one way or another, of college players and free agents. With Scott’s breadth of experience, from his college coaching days to the front office of the Pistons, Magic and Kings, he knows how to build strong relationships, attract great athletes and transform cultures. He has a directness about him. That’s the complete package.

While I will continue to draw upon my relationships around the league, Scott will spearhead conversations with other general managers. He’ll manage the roster and decide who best fits into the overall strategy. Meantime, I will be challenging him to ensure the thought process is on the mark, with the big picture in mind. I will trust his judgment.

His people skills give me full confidence he will be a perceptive recruiter and cement the Knicks as a free agent destination.

This is a seductive city. Everybody wants to be the one to do it, to fix it all, but none of us are in it for the attention. We are not looking for celebrity. We are not fame hunters. We just want to pour ourselves into the process, one step at a time, and see the result.

We just want to do it.


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