Last summer, Steve Mills was rumored to be a frontrunner for an important NBA executive position based in New York City – but it wasn’t the Knicks GM job, which was then occupied by Glen Grunwald. Word had begun to circulate in July that Mills was in line to replace the exiled Billy Hunter as the new executive director of the NBA players union.
Instead, in an absolutely stunning turn of events, Knicks owners James Dolan “re-assigned” Grunwald (who had built the roster responsible for the Knicks most successful season in nearly two decades) and named Mills the team’s president and general manager. The startling announcement was made on September 26, just four days prior to the start of training camp.
Mills had never been a GM before. In fact, he had been out of the NBA since 2009, when he left MSG following a shakeup at the Garden in the aftermath an ugly sexual harassment lawsuit against Isiah Thomas (the man Mills had previously recommended Dolan hire as GM). Little information has been made public about what exactly Mills busied himself with in years since. We do know he joined Magic Johnson Enterprises where he helped create the Athletes & Entertainers Wealth Management Group, LLC, of which he was a partner. We also know he stayed close with the league’s power elite and the player’s union, which is why his name was frequently mentioned about as the eventual successor to Billy Hunter. And it is now also obvious he stayed tight with his former boss, Jim Dolan.
Nonetheless, it is remarkable Dolan entrusted Mills with such responsibility. Grunwald had done a masterful job building a highly competitive Knicks roster, despite the fact that he inherited a number of bad contracts which pushed New York up against the salary cap, and greatly restricted the team’s roster flexibility. Still, Grunwald was consistently able to find diamonds in the rough (Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland, et al) at a minimal cost, which helped flesh out the roster. In 2012-13, the Knicks won over 50 games for the first time since 1997 and captured the Atlantic Division crown for the time since 1994. Grunwald finished third in the NBA’s Executive of the Year voting (tied with Houston’s Daryl Morey). Four months later, he was out of a job.
Mills has mostly flown under the radar since being hired. This is due partly because he’s had very little direct impact on the current constitution of this year’s team. When Mills took over just a few days before the start of training camp, the roster was essentially complete. The only controversial move the Knicks made prior to the start of the 2013-14 campaign was the decision to keep Chris Smith (brother of J.R.) on the roster, despite the nearly unanimous opinion that Smith wasn’t worthy of an NBA roster spot.
For the most part, Mills early tenure has been marked by patient inactivity. Earlier this season, it was reported that the Knicks were engaged in serious talks to acquire Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, but the deal was never consummated. Various league insiders claimed that Knicks were unwilling to part with the pieces the Raptors were demanding (either Iman Shumpert or Tim Hardaway Jr, in addition to New York’s 2018 first round draft pick). There were also a few deals the Knicks were discussing at last month’s trade deadline, most including a package centered around Shumpert. But Mills decided to stand pat.
However, Mills will have several major, franchise-altering decisions to make beginning in July of 2013. In fact, the 13 months between July of 2013 and June of 2014 will determine the next decade of hoop history for the Knicks franchise.
This upcoming summer, as all Knicks fans know, Carmelo Anthony will have the opportunity to opt out of his current contract. Then, following the 2014-15 season, the Knicks will have an opportunity to be major spenders in a what could be a star-studded free agent class. With the contracts of Tyson Chandler, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani all expiring simultaneously, the Knicks could have upwards of $40 million (depending on what happens with Anthony) to spend on the open market.
But, before we look too far into the future, it is impossible to overstate the impact of what happens with Anthony this summer. After the Knicks announced Mills would be taking over, it was immediately rumored that one of the primary reasons Dolan brought in Mills was because of Mills’ tight relationship with CAA (the omnipresent agency that represents Anthony, as well as many other Knicks players, as well as head coach Mike Woodson). The theory was Dolan believed having Mills at the head of the table would greatly increase the chances of the Knicks keeping Anthony.
Last September, most pundits and fans alike agreed that Anthony was very likely to stay with the Knicks, if for no other reason than the Knicks had the ability to pay him $33 million more than any other team. However, the nightmarish season Anthony and the Knicks are currently enduring has made Mills job that much more difficult.
Moreover, the reality remains that signing Anthony to a max contract could potentially cripple the future of the franchise, as New York would then be committing $129 million to a 30 year-old scorer with a lot of wear-and-tear on his body. If Anthony receives the max from the Knicks this summer, he’d earn $29.2 million in 208-19, after he had already turned 34 years of age.
Ideally for Dolan, the Knicks would be able to keep their superstar, but sign him for less than the maximum. If Anthony gave the Knicks a true “hometown discount,” they would be able to keep him in the fold, but still have enough room under the cap to sign quality complementary pieces.
Earlier this season, Anthony stated he’d happily take less money to sign with a winner. Speaking to reporters in New Orleans during All Star weekend, Anthony said: “I tell people all the time, always say, ‘If it takes me taking a pay cut, I’ll be the first one on [Knicks owner] Mr. [James] Dolan’s steps saying take my money and let’s build something strong over here.’”
But with the Knicks season circling the drain and getting more embarrassing and painful by the day, will Anthony have a change of heart?
It is also very important to remember that the Knicks will be well over the cap next season, regardless of what Anthony decides. Not even including him, New York’s 2014-15 team salary will still exceed $70 million – including $49 million committed to the trio of Stoudemire, Chandler and Bargnani. Because New York will be well over the cap, Mills will not be able to reel in any significant free agents. They also don’t have either their first or second-round pick to improve the roster.
This is something Anthony is going to have to consider this summer when he has to make a life-altering decision. Will Anthony be willing to essentially sacrifice another year of his prime? Has the Knicks organization exhibited an ability to build a winner? Does Anthony have faith in the inexperienced Mills?
In addition, last year, when the Knicks were considered legit contenders, there was plenty of public pressure on Anthony to stay in NYC after the team had traded so much to bring him home and the city had embraced him. Nowadays, on twitter and blogs throughout New York, the public sentiment amongst fans seems to have shifted towards something akin to “Man, I wouldn’t blame Melo at all if he left this mess…”
And if Anthony decides he wants to leave (which may actually be what’s in the best interest of both Anthony & New York) will Mills be able to competently facilitate a sign-and-trade that benefits the Knicks?
This would be an intimidating set of circumstances for even the most successfully seasoned and experienced GM’s in the NBA.
This is the situation Steve Mills will be facing as he enters his first ever offseason as a GM and team president.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.