How the Knicks got into this mess, in their own words

ByBrian Windhorst ESPN logo
Thursday, November 14, 2019

It has been 18 months since the New York Knicks hired David Fizdale, a move the organization was convinced would usher in the start of a new era.

This time, the team believed, it would be different than all their past failings. This time there was a vision, a plan and alignment from ownership through the front office on how to execute it.

Things have gone wrong again, and in new ways. Here's a look back at another Knicks false start in their own words.

May 8, 2018: Fizdale's introductory news conference

Knicks president Steve Mills: "I think we've seen how things can go wrong. And I've seen a lot of mistakes ... and ... not the right patience in terms of trying to build things the right way. This whole notion that in New York, you have to win yesterday. And we're about winning, but we're about creating something where we can win for a sustained period of time. ... And I think you've seen a lot of shortcuts and swinging for the fences, trying to hit home runs all the time. And [owner] Jim Dolan has given us the room to try to do it differently."

  • Mills and general manager Scott Perry interviewed 11 coaching candidates. After the disaster that was Phil Jackson's tenure as team president, withDerek Fisher and Jeff Hornacek as coaches,Fizdale was their choice. The new message was that the Knicks would finally be patient, although in truth they continued to think of themselves as a free-agent destination.

Perry: "As we went through the search, we called a number of current and former NBA players, a number of coaches and front-office executives from around the league. Some common themes came from those conversations. He's a tireless worker, innovative basketball mind, someone who connects with people and working with people, someone who holds others accountable. All of those qualities led to David sitting here today."

  • This was coded language. In part, the Knicks wanted Fizdale because they believed he connected with star players and could attract free agents. When Fizdale was fired as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Damian Lillard were among those who stepped forward with outrage. The Knicks noticed. As for Fizdale, he turned down the chance at several other jobs to get a four-year, $22 million deal plus the chance to coach Kristaps Porzingis after he recovered from a torn ACL.

Fizdale: "The best way to describe [Porzingis] is he's the future of the NBA. He fits all the qualities of a megastar and a guy who can propel a franchise forward."

Oct. 15, 2018: Porzingis doesn't get contract extension

Mills: "We've been very straightforward in our communication with KP's brother [agent Janis Porzingis]. KP has a long history with us. One thing about my relationship with KP is if he's unhappy about something or disappointed about something, he's been very forthright about coming to me ... He's been very excited about the players, the young players we have. I watch him every day at shootaround and practice and how engaged he's been with his teammates. I think we're in a good place."

  • By waiting to sign Porzingis, the Knicks kept cap space open for a max contract player. But it also kept the door open for Porzingis to leave sooner by trade or as a restricted free agent.

Nov. 8, 2018 and Jan. 23, 2019: Porzingis "doing some light running" and "engaged"

Fizdale on Nov. 8, 2018: "I'm not even planning on KP at all. ... He's doing some light running. Sprinting ... he's not at that level yet."

  • Within hours, Porzingis posted photos of himself sprinting on Instagram.

Fizdale on Jan. 23, 2019: "[Porzingis] has been around, engaged with us. He's still participating, fighting for us, texting, everything. Because he knows he can help us."

  • Fizdale was attempting to quell rumors that Porzingis was frustrated by the slow timetable on his return to the court.

Jan. 31, 2019: Porzingis traded to Dallas

Mills: "Over time, it became clear to us that Kristaps was not on board with the plan that we had laid out. He's a great player but this morning in a meeting he confirmed that he no longer wanted to be a Knick. ... We feel like we did the right thing. When you think about how you're trying to build your team for the long term, you don't want to commit a max [contract] to a player who says he doesn't want to be here. ... We feel good about the deal. We believe we haven't reset our plans. We did the things that were consistent with our plan. A byproduct of what we did was create $68 million worth of [cap] room."

  • This was a stunning trade. That morning, Porzingis and his brother met with Perry and Mills. The meeting lasted only five minutes and Porzingis made it known he didn't want to re-sign with the Knicks and wanted to be traded immediately. The Knicks were informed if they didn't trade him by the trade deadline a week later, he'd leave the team and go to Spain, where he'd done his rehab the previous summer.
  • However, this didn't seem to blindside the Knicks too much. The night before with the Mavericks in town, Perry and Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson met in person and hammered out the framework of a possible Porzingis trade. While the Knicks got prospect Dennis Smith Jr. and two first-round draft picks, the team loudly touted the deal would clear enough cap space for two max salary slots the following summer.

March 13 and April 3, 2019: The Dolan interview and the letter

Dolan on March 13: "New York is the mecca of basketball. We hear from people, from players, from representatives about who wants to come. From what we've heard, I think we're going to have a very successful offseason when it comes to free agency."

  • Dolan made a rare media appearance (The Michael Kay Show on ESPN New York) to explain why he had banned a fan who had taunted him at Madison Square Garden.
  • Beyond the whiff of tampering, this was a bold statement that implied the Knicks had some level of assurance they would land multiple major free agents. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, free agents known to have wanted to play together, immediately came to mind as the targets that would precipitate the Porzingis move to clear so much cap space.
  • The Knicks had struck out often in free agency -- they couldn't even get a formal meeting with Durant when he was last a free agent in 2016 -- so this strategy seemed either totally reckless or uncharacteristically shrewd. The twinkle in Dolan's eye as he bragged about what was to come sent Knicks fans into a tizzy.

Mills and Perry in a letter on April 3: "We can honestly say that the future of the New York Knicks is extremely bright. ... We have created a tremendous amount of financial flexibility, which has put us in a position to potentially sign up to two max free agents. We will continue to focus on the draft in an attempt to replicate the type of players we added last summer. Most importantly, we will use our cap space diligently and only on players who believe in our plan and are committed to building the New York Knicks into the championship team that you deserve."

  • With the Knicks wheezing to the finish line of a 17-win season, this was part of a letter sent to season-ticket holders near the end of the season.

May 18, 2019: Zion Williamson and Anthony Davis

Mills shortly after the draft lottery: "We know we'll get a good player at [No.] 3. So it's something we're excited about and look forward to. We want to build this team the right way. We've always said we're going to continue to work hard during the draft process. We believe we're a team that can draft well and this is all part of our plan and growing our team."

  • Despite the NBA's worst record at 17-65, the Knicks got the No. 3 pick in the draft lottery rather than the payoff they were hoping for -- No. 1 pick Zion Williamson, a great prospect to keep or a potential key asset to trade for New Orleans Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis.
  • Unlike other major stars recently, Davis had expressed interest in playing for the Knicks.But Mills and Perry told people they were turned off by the Pelicans' high asking price of multiple first-round picks plus multiple young players, even though the Knicks had that type of package thanks to their Porzingis trade. They said it would have undercut their long-range plan of building through the draft and developing picks into stars.

June 30, 2019: Disaster

Mills in a statement: "While we understand that some Knicks fans could be disappointed with tonight's news, we continue to be upbeat and confident in our plans to rebuild the Knicks to compete for championships in the future, through both the draft and targeted free agents."

  • Before free agency officially opened the Knicks had egg on their face. Durant and Irving were teaming up in New York ... to play for the Brooklyn Nets. Other top free agents showed little or no interest in the Knicks.
  • Mills issued this statement apologizing to the fans because they'd missed on all their top targets. The Knicks ended up using their cap space to sign seven free agents, all of them with track records as role players and four of whom were primarily power forwards.

Sept. 30, 2019: Media day

Mills: "Free agency is a process that there's certain parts of it you can't control. We had a plan in place, we had a roster that we thought we could end up with. ... Jim [Dolan] knew we were going to have a successful free-agency period, and we feel like we did that. He was on board with what we were doing and one of the rosters that he saw well in advance of free agency looks like one we're going to put out on the floor this year. There were a lot of max-type players that we could have met with that were interested in coming here. We had a certain way we wanted to build this team and this is how we chose to build it."

  • By training camp, Mills and the Knicks had made a hard pivot. They did, they said, have a good free agency after all.
  • ESPN reported the team didn't even plan to make Durant a max contract offer because of his Achilles injury.
  • Las Vegas set the Knicks' over/under at 27.5 wins.

Oct. 8, 2019: Durant's burn

Durant: "It's hard to get the best players to play [for the Knicks]. I think a lot of fans look at the Knicks as a brand and expect these younger players who, in their lifetime, don't remember the Knicks being good. I saw the Knicks in the Finals, but the kids coming up after me didn't see that. So, that whole brand of the Knicks, to them, is not as cool to them as, say, a Golden State Warriors or even the Lakers or the Nets now. The cool thing right now is not the Knicks."

  • This interview (on Hot 97 radio in New York) belied the optimism that Dolan and the Knicks had displayed early in 2019. Durant said he had considered the Knicks at one point and that it was tough to not hear about a possible move to the Knicks during the year before his free agency, as it was a constant topic of conversation.

Nov. 10, 2019: The postgame news conference

Mills: "We just felt like given that this is our 10th game, we felt that we had an obligation to come and speak to [the media]. Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now. We think the team is not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at, and that's something that we think we collectively have to do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season. ... We still believe in our coaching staff. We believe in the plan Scott and I put together and the players that we assembled. But we also have to acknowledge that we haven't played at the level we expected to play at."

  • It's practically unheard of for a team's front office to hold a news conference immediately after a game, and it was seen as a very public attempt to shift the blame for the early season struggles onto Fizdale. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski and Malika Andrews reported that Mills had already started to laythe internal groundwork for the eventual dismissal of Fizdale.
  • At 2-8 (now 2-9), the Knicks had the NBA's worst offense, the worst 3-point shooting and a poor defensive rating. Two players, Smith and Reggie Bullock, had experienced deaths in their families and missed multiple games (Bullock, who is also returning from surgery, has yet to play this season), which had affected the team in the early going. So had injuries to starters Mitchell Robinson and Elfrid Payton.
  • RookieRJ Barretthas shown flashes as a potential building block. But with a mismatched roster, Fizdale has struggled to find lineups that can work efficiently or shoot consistently.
  • Now, as the Knicks welcome Porzingis and the Mavs to Madison Square Garden on Thursday, and as players express support for Fizdale, the franchise finds itself with a coach undermined by his own front office. Stay tuned.

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