Q&A: Knicks leaders confident franchise is back on path to winning ways

A team can’t prepare for the NBA draft lottery. That’s up to chance. But it can prepare for what happens after the draft lottery.   

The New York Knicks say they are not only prepared for the draft but for free agency in the summer with financial flexibility and they are confident in the direction of the franchise.

“I’ve seen the ups and downs of this organization and this team a lot,” Knicks president Steve Mills told USA TODAY, “and I can honestly say that we feel really good about where we are from the flexibility we’ve been able to create with the (Kristaps) Porzingis trade to the development of young players that happened over the course of the season to the ability to add draft picks to having a coaching staff and Me and (general manager) Scott (Perry) all in the same place and moving in the same direction.”

The Knicks have a 14% chance – Cleveland and Phoenix have the same odds – of getting the No. 1 pick in the draft lottery on Tuesday (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET). They can’t get any worse than the No. 5 pick.

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Mills and Perry are confident no matter what pick the Knicks get they can turn it into a player who helps.

“Wherever we land, we’re going to embrace it and get this team better,” Perry said. “That’s really how we’re approaching it. Wherever our pick may fall, we’re going to execute that position to our advantage and help us become a better team.”

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USA TODAY Sports talked with Mills and Knicks general manager Scott Perry before the draft lottery. They talked culture, accountability and what they want to accomplish.

(Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Where are the Knicks at this stage?

Mills: We feel good about where we are and where we’re headed. I’ve seen the ups and downs of this organization and this team a lot, and I can honestly say that we feel really good about where we are from the flexibility we’ve been able to create with the Porzingis trade to the development of young players that happened over the course of the season to the ability to add draft picks to having a coaching staff and Me and Scott all in the same place and moving in the same direction.

Perry: I’m most pleased about the foundation we were able to establish. What I mean by foundation is, a major part of who we are and what we’re about is about player development both on and off the floor. We see that at work every day. You see the growth of the young people we’ve had here. That’s very encouraging and we feel like we’re trending in the right direction. We’re confident headed into the draft and whoever we may get will be coming into an environment where they’re going to get better as a player and grow as a person. That strong developmental foundation we firmly believe will allow us the best opportunity to ultimately create a long-term sustainable winner.

Q: What is essence of your player development program?

Mills: A lot of it has to do with the staff we put together, and it starts with our entire organization. We have a holistic approach to player development. Everybody in this building is responsible for helping develop our players from the people who serve food to our assistants to the coaches to trainers – we are all in the player development business, and everyone embraces their role in that. We feel it’s important to find ways for these guys to be very comfortable that we are in their corner, we’re trying to develop them and we’re giving them everything they can possibly need to develop into good or great basketball players, but we know that has to be coupled with learning how to be great men. We have an approach – Scott, Fiz (coach David Fizdale), (vice president of player development) Craig (Robinson) – we all sit and talk about it. We treat each one of these men as if they were one of our kids, my son, my nephew. They know that’s how we feel about them, and we can be straight with them and tough with them, but they know it’s coming from a place of just wanting them to be successful. That’s at the core of every single interaction we have with our players both on the court and off the court.

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Q: What do accountability and culture mean to the Knicks?

Perry: You’re going to be held responsible for being on time, working hard and being respectful to everyone in the building. We want guys to come in here to be great, and in trying to be great, there are certain steps that can’t be skipped and there has to be a certain focus that each guy brings every day and we’re going to hold them accountable to that standard.

Mills: One thing about the accountability, we believe you have to accept honesty with us. We are going to be honest with each other and with our players. I happened to play for a coach (Princeton’s Pete Carril) who was the most brutally honest dude I’ve met in my life. What I learned is you have to be willing to say what you believe and give it to a guy the way he knows it’s coming from a good place. We’re just trying to make him better, and we have to be willing to listen to what he says.

Steve Mills and Scott Perry in 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig, AP)

Q: How is the draft preparation going?

Mills: Scott has done a great job of organizing our scouts and structuring what they have to do; there are no shortcuts they’ve taken in terms of doing intel, getting out and seeing guys and make sure we see the guys we need to see; I feel confident we’re prepared for this draft just like we were prepared for last year.

Q: If you don’t get a top-three pick, are you willing to trade it?

Perry: We have to wait to draft night to see that.

Q: What does the financial flexibility mean for you guys?

Perry: The obvious answer is that it puts you in the free agency game. What gets lost and doesn’t get talked about, you’re at the table for trades. The flexibility allows you to be involved in a multitude of discussions about a multitude of things to help your team get better. It’s hard to get to this point. A lot of people will say they want to be in this position. The key for us is being very wise and prudent on how we go about using that and maintaining that until we get to the place where we can lock in and say this is the group we’re locked in with financially for a number of years. What we’re not going to do is invest long-term money into guys we don’t think can make us a championship contender.

Q: Is this summer of free agency make-or-break for the Knicks?

Mills: We believe this summer is a good summer for free agents. That’s clear. For us, it’s not make-or-break if we don’t sign a free agent. We have a plan. We have flexibility. We have draft picks. We have a good young core. We are being patient. We have an owner who has given us the room to be patient and develop this team the right way without sidestepping or taking shortcuts. That’s what we’re focused on. If there’s an opportunity to sign one or two free agents, that’s not going to be the defining moment for us. We’re going to develop this the right way with guys who want to be here.

Q: You’ve mentioned before that others are taking notice of what the Knicks are doing? What are you hearing?

Mills: We hear that people understand culturally what we’re trying to do in reshaping the organization and making this a comfortable place for players, that’s about players and about us making them better players and people. They understand the family dynamic we’re trying to create here. That’s becoming clear. You can read it when certain players are talking about the Knicks in the media. We felt it last summer when at the Chicago pre-draft camp when we interviewed players. … We’ve heard it from the veterans we’ve taken in on trades, a guy like DJ (DeAndre Jordan). DJ could’ve asked for a buyout and asked to go someplace else. He wanted to be here. We conducted exit interviews and every single player wants to come back. Their belief in Fiz has a lot to do with this.

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