On an August night in Pittsburgh, some fans at a Pirates game recognized two men sitting in their section.
It was the Steve Mills and Scott Perry, the front office tandem of the Knicks, who were in town to tour the Steelers organization and see some training camp.
The fans in that section also happened to be Knicks fans. They couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a plea.
“Don’t try to fix this quickly,” one said. “Fix it the right way.”
Perry says this has become routine whenever he encounters fans.
“I’ve overwhelmingly heard that sentiment,” he said.
“Stay the course, be patient,” he said, echoing the marching orders he’s received from fans throughout the city. “Don’t rush it.”
As the 76ers embark on their first playoff experience since “The Process” began six years ago, the Knicks, despite five years without a playoff berth, seem to be still in the embryonic stage of their own process.
That’s a sobering thought. Do we really have to wait a few more seasons before the Knicks can be a playoff contender?
“We laid out the plan last summer,” Mills said. “We want to win, too, but we want to win in a way that’s sustainable and we want to build it organically, through the organization. When it’s opportunistic, in our view, maybe a few years from now, we can add free agents.”
Read that again: maybe a few years from now we can add free agents.
That’s never been the norm, here. Even when Phil Jackson arrived preaching the idea of a rebuild through the draft, the team still went out and made major moves via trades and free agency to add veterans.
Mills, who has served in several capacities at The Garden and within the Knicks organization over the last 20 years, has seen firsthand the mistakes that come when impatience overrules development. As he put it, “you’re constantly trying to hit home runs and striking out.”
It wasn’t long ago when the Knicks went for the home run in 2010. They spent two seasons shedding big contracts with the aim to be major players in a free agent class that was led by LeBron James. They struck out on LeBron, but grabbed Amar’e Stoudemire and later traded for Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler. The roster was good enough to make the playoffs for three straight years and even win a division title but was imbalanced with frontcourt talent in a league dominated by guards.
Impatience cost them a shot at Chris Paul, who could have been had in a trade. Impetuousness cost them a very good coach in Mike Woodson, whom Phil Jackson refused to consider despite his success (his team, finally healthy, went 16-5 down the stretch and missed the playoffs by one game when Jackson took over). These three playoff years are often overlooked by many when viewing the Knicks as a team that has done nothing but lose over the last two decades. The problem with those years is they seemed so tenuous. And they were.
“When you’re talking about building a successful team that is sustainable, patience is required,” Perry said. “You don’t skip steps . . . There are no quick fixes.
“I know it’s been tried a number of times here in the past, but I think it’s important that we, as an organization, and Steve and I as leaders in the front office, remain disciplined to that. And that’s what we’re going to do.”
Simply said: The Knicks really want to rebuild. And they sound like they mean it this time.
A rebuild sounds like a good idea when you watch the 76ers now and see the end result of five years of epic losing, a few failed lottery picks and, of course, two huge hits in the lottery in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. A rebuild sounds like a great idea when you see the Warriors two championships later, built on the foundation of lottery picks such as Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes.
But, as the late, great Tom Petty once sang, the waiting is the hardest part.
It’s also the most daunting. For every 76ers and Warriors example, we can offer cautionary tales such as the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic, two franchises that last decade were among the NBA elite and have since been stuck on a treadmill of obscurity while trying to build through the draft.
As I’ve often said and written: drafting is easy, developing is harder.
This June the Knicks will make their third lottery pick in four years. It will be only the fourth time since the lottery system began in 1985 that the Knicks have lottery picks in consecutive years. With Kristaps Porzingis’ injury and a young roster next season, it’s possible 2019 could bring another lottery pick, which would be the first time in franchise history that they make three consecutive lottery picks.
History will prove this as the moment of truth.
Mills says it’s “a misnomer” that New Yorkers will not be patient for a rebuild through the draft. He’s right, to an extent. It’s why I believe the Knicks should avoid copying the 76ers “Trust the Process” motto and instead use this:
Trust the Progress.
That’s how you will get people — fans, players and, yes, even media — to buy into the idea of patience.
Show evidence of momentum and improvement. Make sure each season, each decision, keeps the movement trending up. It allows hope to remain and anticipation to build.
For this season, there was Porzingis’ first quarter of the season, when he was putting up MVP-caliber stats like 27 points per game, 7 rebounds and 2.2 blocks while shooting 40% from three. There was his first All-Star selection, which is the first time in 10 years a Knicks draft pick became an all-star.
There was Trey Burke, betting on himself in the G-League and then finishing the season strong so the Knicks roster now has something it didn’t have at the start of the season: a legit scoring point guard.
But the concerns, as they often do in rebuilds, remain. Porzingis started wearing down before mid-season and suffered a season-ending ACL injury that will keep him out of a large portion of next season, too. In three seasons, he’s gone from 72 games as a rookie to 66 games in his second season to just 48 this season.
And he’s sounding a lot like Patrick Ewing did early in his career when it comes to the direction of a franchise that is in perpetual turnover. Ewing, by the way, played for five different coaches — Hubie Brown, Bob Hill, Rick Pitino, Stu Jackson and John McLeod — in his first six seasons. Porzingis is about to play for his fourth coach in four seasons.
“The situation is what it is,” Porzingis said. “I’m sure that the front office will make the right decisions and to build something that can go a long way. They will make the right decisions. We have to trust them.”
Frank Ntilikina, a lottery pick that has turned into a project, showed promise in December but then went through a very tough second half before a good finish in the final weeks of the season. Regardless of whether or not he was the right pick, he was the pick that was made so now the job is to make him the best player he can be so history doesn’t prove it to be another Jordan Hill, Michael Sweetney or Frederic Weis.
That’s three lottery pick mistakes in a 10-year span.
A big part of trusting the progress will be in the choice for the next coach. Jeff Hornacek is a good coach, but there was enough evidence to see he wasn’t the right coach for this particular situation. To be fair, this job may be the toughest in the league for a variety of factors. That’s why Mills and Perry need to make their choice not based on typical criteria of a coach — system, experience and presence — but based on how they fit in this unique role.
I believe when you’re coach of the Knicks, you aren’t just the coach for 15 players on the roster. You are the coach of the entire city. You have the longest bench in basketball history with 8.5 million players all looking to you for direction and all of them believing they deserve to hear your best pregame speech and postgame address.
It may sound hokey for a sophisticated, big city like ours, but, trust me, it’s true. One former Knicks coach, who had success here, told me, “You can’t just be a guy from anywhere and think you can come in here and do this job and succeed. You have to know how this city works.”
That’s why I pointed out on my Instagram account that the four men who have led this franchise to NBA Finals appearances — Joe Lapchick, Red Holzman, Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy — all have New York roots. They entered the job already with an understanding of the city, the demands of the media and the passion of the fans.
I do believe (OK, despite the Larry Brown fiasco in 2005-06) this has to apply even today, which is what makes some of the names already on the reported list of candidates — Van Gundy, Mark Jackson, Jay Wright — so intriguing and why another name, David Fizdale, really needs to submerge himself in franchise history and the basketball culture of the city in order to have the foundation he needs to succeed.
Perry outlined the requirements of the new coach to be one who “can not only hold players accountable, hold his coaching staff accountable,” and also “a very skilled communicator, effective leader” who can “connect very well to today’s player.”
The final thing Perry added can’t be overlooked: they want a coach “who is equally aligned in wanting to be a very strong defensive team that will not only resonate with the plan that we want but will resonate with a lot of New Yorkers, because the Knicks teams on yesteryear were those tough-minded defensive teams that competed each and every night.”
That sounds good. Rhetoric has never been the problem here. But what I got out of what Mills and Perry said last week in their postseason address was that the time had come for the franchise to not just talk about it, be about it.
“We know it’s going to take a little time and patience, but we’re going to get there,” Perry said. “We know we’re going to get there.”