Lost stars, lack of leadership and fleeting hope for the Knicks

Knicks firing Fizdale was inevitable based on roster (2:15)

Brian Windhorst breaks down the Knicks' structural issues from top to bottom. (2:15)

BY THE TIME David Fizdale met with his bosses after a 37-point loss to the Denver Nuggets on Thursday, his trademark wood-grain glasses did little to hide the toll coaching the New York Knicks for the past 19 months had taken on him.

His eyes looked weary. His beard had grown bushy and scraggly. The patch of gray on his chin seemed to be spreading.

Fizdale braced himself as he spoke, lowering his head at one point, not knowing if the sword were coming right then and there.

He'd been expecting it since the now-infamous news conference in which team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry lambasted the current state of affairs, reiterating how unhappy everyone was after just 10 games. It was held at the behest of Knicks owner James Dolan, multiple sources have confirmed to ESPN. He thought it showed a sense of urgency. Instead, it destabilized the franchise and invited speculation about Fizdale's future.

In the 26 days that followed, Mills, Perry, Fizdale and assistant coach Keith Smart met frequently to address the team's issues. But the meeting after Thursday's game was different. Fizdale had called the team's effort in the loss "sickening" and was processing how this dream he'd had of turning the Knicks around had turned into a nightmare.

He knew Mills and Perry had been meeting with players to get their takes on why the Knicks weren't showing signs of progress, according to team sources. Each loss seemed worse than the one before.

But firing Fizdale presented a conundrum: As long as he was in the hot seat, management was not. So the front office hoped to delay a coaching change as long as possible -- or at the very least, until the beginning of the team's West Coast road trip, which began Tuesday in Portland.

Fizdale was determined to keep coaching and thrashing against the undertow. But he told Mills and Perry that he understood if they thought he had become part of the problem. It was an act of pride, not surrender. And it would be his final one.

He was fired after practice the next day.

ESPN Daily Podcast: Inside the Knicks dysfunction

ALL TOLD, 12 coaches have met a demise such as this in the 20 years Dolan has been the Knicks' controlling owner. Another six general managers and presidents have crashed into the rocks after answering the siren's call to save the team.

The only constants in that span are Dolan, Mills and losing. New York's .400 winning percentage since 1999 is the worst in the NBA.

What's particularly painful to the Knicks and their fans is that legitimacy has often been right in front of them. It's real enough to see and touch but never solid enough to wrap their arms around.

Something always ruins it. Whether it be a misstep, a miscalculation or just poorly timed, dysfunctional behavior, all too frequently the dream implodes, and the cycle begins again.

Fizdale's turn through the Garden grinder lasted just 19 months, which seems short but probably felt like an eternity. It's not just the white polo shirt he wore to the Chicago pre-draft camp in June 2018 that made him look hipper -- and far happier -- than he did at the end of his Knicks tenure. It's also how connected he and Perry seemed when they sold their vision for the franchise in a joint interview with ESPN.

"I really believe," Fizdale said. "Between Scott and my relationships throughout this league, really trying to build a great reputation around our city and have that city behind us ... We'll start recruiting the right kind of free agents."

That's what everyone was trusting. Perry has known Kevin Durant since his college days, having been part of the Seattle SuperSonics front office when the team chose Durant second overall in 2007. Fizdale became a trusted confidant and coach to LeBron James during their time together with the Miami Heat. Perry and Fizdale seemed to be an ideal pair to recruit a superstar free agent such as Durant, who could finally build a winner at the Garden.

But when the time came, Durant didn't come. He didn't even meet with the Knicks -- or any other team -- before committing to the Brooklyn Nets when free agency opened on June 30. The relationships Perry and Fizdale had around the league never had a chance to matter.

The Knicks had oversold and woefully under-delivered, and there was no coming back from it. Mills released a statement that June night acknowledging the disappointment but expressing confidence and optimism in what were clearly backup plans.

It might have all come down to losing out on Durant. But it never should have.

THE INITIAL PLAN, of course, was for Kristaps Porzingis to be the superstar who lured other superstars to New York. But the relationship between the organization and the player Durant himself dubbed "The Unicorn" had been strained for years.

In the final months of his tenure, former president of basketball operations Phil Jackson listened to trade offers on the young Latvian big man after a series of concerning injuries and a very public missed exit meeting in 2017.

It was shocking for the Knicks to even consider trading a player of Porzingis' ability and potential, and it accelerated Jackson's demise in New York. According to sources, Jackson planned to visit Porzingis in Latvia over the summer -- to try to rebuild the relationship -- before he was ousted. But his departure did not quell Porzingis' concerns with the franchise.

The Knicks initially turned to former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, who'd recently won an NBA title while managing several toxic relationships. Griffin told the Knicks that he was interested only in becoming president of basketball operations and reporting directly to ownership. Dolan sent word that he was "excited" about that prospect, according to sources close to the negotiation.

But the deal fell apart, sources said, when Griffin realized he wasn't going to have full autonomy and would instead be working with and likely reporting to Mills.

Griffin was on a flight to New York to meet with Mills, when, according to sources, he saw a news alert that the Knicks had signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million contract. If he were to accept the job, Griffin realized, he'd have to answer for a hefty contract he had no say in.

He went ahead with the flight and meeting but removed his name from consideration shortly thereafter.

After Mills' presence played a significant part in the Griffin talks falling apart, Mills sold Dolan a far less accomplished candidate: new Sacramento Kings vice president of basketball operations Scott Perry.

Perry had been fired as the assistant GM of the Orlando Magic in spring 2017, after five losing seasons, only to be hired within days to assist Vlade Divac with the day-to-day operations of the Kings. He played a role in signing three significant free agents into the Kings' salary-cap space -- George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter -- and made three first-round picks, including No. 5 overall pick De'Aaron Fox.

Perry was a well-liked executive with a college coaching and front-office background. He had an easy way about him that made for pleasant relationships in the management and agent communities. New York was a dream opportunity for him -- and a chance to triple his annual salary.

For Mills, this was a candidate without the gravitas or leverage to demand a direct line to ownership. Perry's negotiation was finished after the Knicks agreed to send the Kings cash and a future second-round pick. In July 2017, Perry agreed to a five-year deal -- on the same timeline as Mills' contract -- that league sources say includes a team option on the fourth and fifth seasons that needs to be exercised this season.

The following spring, when the Knicks' charter flight landed in suburban New York after the final game of the 2017-18 season, Perry and Mills fired coach Jeff Hornacek. For weeks, they had been canvassing the league for possible replacements, sources said.

David Fizdale had delivered a playoff berth for the Memphis Grizzlies before a crumbling relationship with All-Star center Marc Gasol played a part in his firing early in the 2017-18 season.

For several teams, Fizdale was a priority. Atlanta and Phoenix offered him jobs, and Charlotte could have been his, too, league sources said. Milwaukee had serious interest in discussing its opening with Fizdale, but he wanted New York and turned down offers without having assurance that the Knicks would hire him.

Finally, they agreed to a deal. Fizdale signed with the Knicks in May 2018 for four years, $22 million, sources said.

Fizdale's first priority: Get on a plane to Latvia.

PORZINGIS FELT ALIENATED within the organization, and Fizdale knew his past Gasol saga loomed over a potential partnership.

Porzingis was rehabilitating his torn left ACL in Europe, with an expectation that he could miss all of Fizdale's first season with the Knicks. Regardless of whether the Knicks ever recruited a superstar free agent, Fizdale believed he had an anchor player who could keep the franchise competitive.

Porzingis felt an initial connection with Fizdale, only to return for the start of training camp and find a new set of frustrations. There were disagreements on everything from windows of time for Porzingis' rehab at the Knicks' facility to whether the franchise considered his presence a positive in its pursuit of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency, sources said.

The Knicks began gauging interest in Porzingis early in 2019. According to sources, New York offered the New Orleans Pelicans a package centered around Porzingis in exchange for forward Anthony Davis. But former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps showed little interest in that discussion, and the Knicks took that as an indication that interest in Porzingis might not be as high leaguewide.

Porzingis and his brother, Janis, who serves as his agent, had planned to meet with management to discuss his future in January. Once the Porzingis brothers found out that the Knicks were discussing a trade with the Dallas Mavericks, sources said, they hurried a meeting the next morning and asked to be moved to one of four destinations: the Nets, Clippers, Raptors or Heat.

The meeting was brief, and the Knicks agreed to terms with Dallas before the brothers had returned from the suburbs to their Manhattan home.

Even with the ACL injury, Porzingis commanded significant interest around the NBA -- and dozens of teams were confused about why they never had a chance to bid on him.

But the details of the trade -- bringing back marginal players, unloading salaries for cap space and acquiring two first-round draft picks -- suggested one of two things to NBA rivals: The Knicks knew absolutely that they were getting Durant or Irving in free agency, or they knew absolutely nothing about executing a franchise-changing trade.

That's when, in spring 2019, owner James Dolan went on ESPN New York and boasted, "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."

Durant's father, Wayne Pratt, and business partner, Rich Kleiman, were self-professed Knicks fans, and players around the league gossiped about Durant going to New York with the same kind of certainty with which they'd talked about him joining the Warriors in 2016.

The Knicks also had the best odds of any team to win the NBA lottery and the chance to draft Duke star Zion Williamson.

They were well-positioned. But they misread one critical component: Durant's willingness to come without Irving. Initially, the Knicks were an option for both Durant and Irving. But Irving's fondness for the Nets, the team he grew up rooting for in New Jersey, was a critical factor, as was the recruiting effort of Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie, who befriended Irving in September 2018 when they both took a class with Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse.

Since their time as teammates in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Irving, Durant and DeAndre Jordan had talked often about playing together one day. The only question was where.

Irving pushed the Nets as a destination, selling his two friends on the Nets' culture, their front-office savvy and the chance to make history with a franchise on the rise.

The Knicks' hopes rested on Durant selling his friends on playing together at the Garden or choosing to play for the Knicks and bringing another star, such as Kawhi Leonard or Kemba Walker, with him.

Although Durant did strongly consider the Knicks, according to sources close to the situation, he never pushed them the way Irving pushed Brooklyn.

"The Knicks players, they're good, young players, but they still need more experience to match where I was in my career," Durant told former teammate Serge Ibaka in October. "It was nothing major against the Knicks. I just think Brooklyn is further along in the process of being a contender."

Perry and Mills advocated for a bold pursuit and contract offer, despite the risks associated with Durant's Achilles tendon rupture. Dolan was leery of that plan, however, after his experiences with players with injury histories, such as Amar'e Stoudemire.

In the end, it was a moot point. Durant decided to go with Irving and Jordan to Brooklyn. Kleiman informed Dolan directly, right as free agency opened.

INSTEAD OF THREE superstars in Durant, Williamson and Anthony Davis (who had included the Knicks and Lakers as trade destinations with which he'd consider signing a long-term extension), the Knicks had Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington and RJ Barrett.

In some ways, everything afterward is a reflection of those unmet expectations.

Barrett might be great one day, but he will never be Williamson. The Pelicans eventually traded Davis to the Lakers because they preferred L.A.'s package of young players and picks to the Knicks'. Even Durant has continued to do damage, taking several shots at the Knicks in interviews this fall.

The 2019-20 season began with tepid expectations of a .500 season, but things disintegrated quickly when point guards Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr. went out with early injuries.

Perry and Mills insisted to Dolan that the team would improve once its point guard situation stabilized, but his patience ran thin during the 21-point home loss to the Cavaliers that dropped the team to 2-8.

During the now-infamous media conference, Mills admitted that he "talked to [Dolan] during the game. I talk to him all the time during the course of the game" and that "he would want us to have better results on the floor as well. I think Jim is a fan and believes in what we're doing. But he has the same kind of expectations as we do."

Knicks president: 'We're not happy with where we are'

Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry address the media to voice their displeasure after the Knicks' 108-87 loss to the Cavaliers on Nov. 10.

Up on stage, neither Perry nor Mills seemed particularly comfortable. It took nearly 2 minutes and 30 seconds for Perry to say anything. He paced, looking down or to the side as Mills repeated phrases such as "Obviously we're not happy with where we're at right now," as if they'd sound better the more times he said them.

That media conference was a terrible idea, and they seemed to know it. But they went through with it and then sat through the inevitable demise of Fizdale.

Now Mike Miller is interim coach, and he'll probably keep the job as long as the players respond to him. But there have already been ownership-level discussions about hiring a new coach in-season if the team continues to crater, according to sources.

Hiring a coach in-season is risky for all sorts of reasons. Most notably, it complicates the decision about Mills' and Perry's futures with the franchise.

Only Dolan can decide when their time running the team is up, of course -- and whether he's ready to give someone full control over his team. He wouldn't do it for Jackson or Griffin. But it would take nothing less than autonomy to lure an executive such as Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri.

Ujiri's name has been connected to the Knicks before, of course. That's mostly because Dolan both respects and admires the way he has tormented the Knicks in trades.

When the owner became impatient in trade talks with Denver for Carmelo Anthony in 2010, he pushed aside respected GM Donnie Walsh and took over. The results were costly for the Knicks: Within days of the trade deadline, Ujiri maneuvered to gather an additional first-round pick and center Timofey Mozgov in the trade, sources said.

Three years later, Dolan interjected himself into trade talks with Toronto for former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani.

Most believed Ujiri would need to attach a draft asset to unload the $20 million left on Bargnani's contract. As it turned out, Dolan sent a first-round and two second-round picks along with three players in a package for Bargnani. His two seasons with the Knicks were replete with injuries and little production.

The Knicks front office was near a deal for guard Kyle Lowry in 2013, but when the story was reported, Dolan became apprehensive about completing the trade, sources said. After the Knicks backed away, Ujiri kept Lowry, who became a perennial All-Star and a cornerstone of the 2019 NBA championship.

Through it all, Dolan has privately expressed a fascination with Ujiri and shared those feelings with common friends, league sources said.

Ujiri has two years left on his contract with the Raptors. There has been no discussion about an extension -- not even after the Raptors won the NBA title -- but it's possible that Toronto ownership could offer an extension in 2020 that expands Ujiri's responsibilities and compensation, league sources said.

Over the past 20 years, 18 men have taken their shot at turning the Knicks around. It is quite possibly the greatest challenge in sports right now, and there will always be ambitious people who believe they can be the one to do it.

But there are systemic reasons each of those 18 failed. And that suggests that no one will succeed, no matter how talented or legitimate, until the entire system changes.

ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski contributed to this story.

ESPN Daily Podcast: Inside the Knicks dysfunction