For much of the last two decades, Steve Mills has been in the Knicks orbit, whether as a high-ranking executive with the Madison Square Garden Company or as the person in charge of basketball decisions for the franchise. It seemed that nothing could shake the faith of James L. Dolan, the team’s owner. Not a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in 2006 against a coach hired on Mills’s recommendation. Not years of running out a bad basketball team. In the 21st century, one of the few constants for the Knicks, outside of Dolan, was Mills.
The Knicks announced that Mills would step down as team president, just two days before the N.B.A.’s trade deadline, adding another twist to yet another tumultuous season for the team.
“Steve and I have come to the decision that it would be best for him to leave his role as president of the New York Knicks,” Dolan said in a statement. “We thank Steve for his many years of service to our organization and look forward to continuing our relationship with him as part of our board.”
The move comes as the Knicks are on track to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season — the franchise’s longest such streak since the 1960s. Scott Perry, the team’s general manager, will take over basketball operations. Mills is expected to join the board of a new sports company under the Madison Square Garden Company umbrella.
“It has been a great honor to represent the Knicks,” Mills said in a statement. “I will always be grateful to Jim for giving me the chance to represent this franchise and I’m disappointed we were unable to achieve success for New York.” He added: “I will always be a Knicks fan.”
Mills’s departure comes less than two months after the Knicks fired Coach David Fizdale and an assistant, Keith Smart. Mills lasted two and a half years as team president, but in that time, the Knicks were spurned by every A-list free agent despite playing in the league’s biggest market. The team’s failure to sign a superstar was compounded by last season’s trade of Kristaps Porzingis to the Dallas Mavericks, which netted the Knicks little in return for a player who had been the franchise cornerstone. Mills insisted at the time that Porzingis made it clear he wanted out of New York. Still, about six weeks later, Dolan told ESPN Radio, “I can tell you from what we’ve heard, we’re going to have a very successful off-season when it comes to free agents.”
Instead, the Knicks signed several ill-fitting forwards in the off-season and had to watch as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, two of the summer’s marquee free agents, signed with their crosstown rivals, the Nets. Durant and Irving also brought along DeAndre Jordan, whom the Knicks had acquired as part of the Porzingis trade.
Durant told Yahoo during the summer that he had never considered signing with the Knicks, a once unthinkable admission for a superstar free agent in his prime. In October, Durant said in a radio interview, “The cool thing now is not the Knicks.” Recent draft picks, like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson, haven’t yet shown that they can have long careers in the N.B.A. Since Mills became president in June 2017, the Knicks have gone 61-154.
This season took a particularly strange turn in early November after a blowout loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Mills and Perry held a surprise news conference to express dissatisfaction with how the season was going. The team was 2-8 at the time and has gone just 13-28 since.
Mills’s time as president was his latest chapter in a long history with the team, including as a former executive with the Madison Square Garden Company, the team’s parent company. Mills was president of Madison Square Garden Sports from 2003 to 2008, another harrowing period for the Knicks, during which Mills suggested that the Knicks hire Isiah Thomas, the former Detroit Pistons guard, as president. This caused issues on and off the court, notably when another team executive hired by Mills, Anucha Browne Sanders, accused Thomas of sexual harassment and filed a lawsuit in 2006 against Madison Square Garden and Thomas. The case was settled the next year for $11.5 million.
Mills was unexpectedly named general manager of the Knicks in 2013, despite having no experience in the role. The next year, Phil Jackson took over basketball operations from Mills as team president, only for Mills to retake control in 2017, this time as team president himself. At the time, Mills called it a “new day.”
Whoever replaces Mills has another key off-season approaching. Among the critical decisions awaiting the team are the hiring of a new coach, what to do with the team’s ample cap space and whom to draft. Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors team president, has long been rumored to be a target for Dolan to fulfill the same role for the Knicks. On a talk show in 2014, Ujiri said, “Please clap after this: I hate the Knicks and don’t care.”