NBA Power Rankings: Lakers move to top spot with fast-charging Rockets right behind

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The Lakers hot start to the season continues (especially against a soft part of the schedule the rest of the month), but nobody is hotter than Harden’s Houston Rockets, who have raced up the standings to the No. 2 spot.

Lakers small icon 1. Lakers (12-2, Last week No. 2). In something we didn’t see coming, Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense in the NBA. Coach Frank Vogel gave JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard a big chunk of credit for that: “One of the pleasant surprises has been the mobility of our bigs. I knew we knew we were going to have great length at the basket and rim protection, but we’ve really been able to have those guys play up in pick-and-rolls and on pin downs and [dribble hand offs] and challenge three-point shots.” The Lakers have won five in a row against a soft stretch of the schedule, which continues through the end of the month. December will be a much, much stiffer test.

Rockets small icon 2. Rockets (11-3, LW 9). Winners of eight in a row and that doesn’t happen because of just one man, no matter how great The Beard is playing. For example, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double Monday night, and Houston’s defense has been respectable. That said, James Harden is putting up ridonkulous numbers. He’s averaging 39.2 points, 7.6 assists, and 5.6 rebounds a game, with an insane 61.8 true shooting percentage. The faster pace of play from the Rockets this season is giving him more opportunities, and it has led to Harden taking 71 more three point attempts than anyone else in the NBA. And he’s making history.

Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (11-2, LW 1). It was the question around Boston coming into the season: How are the Celtics going to replace Al Horford and Aron Baynes on defense? Turns out, with a rotation of different bigs — Daniel Theis and Robert Williams in particular — and steps forward from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. The Celtics have the sixth-best defense in the NBA this season, to go with the fourth-best offense. Many didn’t see the Celtics as contenders entering the season, but having a top 10 offense and defense is the definition of a contender.

Bucks small icon 4. Bucks (10-3, LW 3).
Giannis Antetokounmpo is cranking it up in the second half of games, averaging 18.2 points a night on 61.9% shooting, and getting to the lines seven times on average in that half. For comparison, he averages 12 points on 53.6% in the first half (not bad but not otherworldly like after halftime). Antetokounmpo has eight 30 point games this season and two where he scored 29. The Bucks are 5-1 in a run of recent road games (with one more on Wednesday in Atlanta) before 6-of-8 at home.

Nuggets small icon 5. Nuggets (9-3, LW 10). Winners of 6-of-7, and one of the keys has been fourth quarter defense, when the Nuggets have a defensive rating of 101, sixth best in the NBA (and a couple of points better than the rest of the game). That defense will get put to the test this week against three of the best offenses in the league: Houston, Boston, and Phoenix (all three games are in Denver).

Raptors small icon 6. Raptors (9-4, LW 6). Pascal Siakam’s improvement this season has him being talked about as a possible back-to-back winner of the Most Improved Player award (although it’s early), but that has overshadowed the leap made by OG Anunoby this season. He’s averaging 12.4 points a game (up from 7) and 5.5 rebounds a night (up from 2.9), and that’s not just a minutes thing, his true shooting percentage has jumped from 54.4 (around league average) to 70, which is insanely efficient (and probably unsustainable at that level). After a 3-2 road trip the Raptors have a home-heavy schedule for the rest of 2019.

Heat small icon 7. Heat (9-3, LW 5). Winners of three in a row and 4-of-5, it leads to the questions “is this sustainable?” Look at the shot quality data on Second Spectrum (the NBA’s tracking data) and the answer is probably not — they have been fortunate teams are just missing shots against them. That likely balances out. Miami’s three-game win streak is against a soft part of the schedule, and that continues until Philly on Saturday night (in the second half of a back-to-back). Houston on the road in a week will be even a bigger test.

Clippers small icon 8. Clippers (9-5, LW 4). Paul George is back and put up a ridiculous 70 points in his first 44 minutes on the court. What was impressive was how fluid his game looked after the time off, George looked like the guy from the first half of last season, the one in the mix for the MVP trophy (he ultimately finished third after fading). George credits the offseason surgery, saying he feels like he has two new shoulders. We have yet to see George and Kawhi Leonard paired with George because Leonard has missed three games with a bruised knee. This week we should finally see the duo together.

Jazz small icon 9. Jazz (8-5, LW 7). Utah’s offense still has not found a consistent rhythm — they are 24th in the NBA over the past two weeks, via Cleaning the Glass — but the problem is the defense has slipped a little in recent weeks, too. Part of that is how much they miss backup center Ed Davis. The Jazz don’t want to play Rudy Gobert heavy minutes this early in the season (but Gobert has been impressive on both ends when he is on the court), which has forced Tony Bradley into heavy minutes, and their offense drop to well below a point per possession when he is on the court. Davis is expected to be out a couple more weeks.

Mavericks small icon 10. Mavericks (8-5, LW 13). It feels like all we do with Dallas is praise Luka Doncic… but have you seen him play this year? LeBron James is right, Luka is a bad man (not his exact words, but this is a family power rankings). Doncic joined LeBron as the only two players in NBA history with a 40+ point triple-double before age 21. Doncic is averaging 29.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game, all with a ridiculously efficient 61.2 percent true shooting. He has pushed himself into the early-season MVP conversation — and he’s in just his second year in the league.

Pacers small icon 11. Pacers (8-6, LW 12). That Indiana looks like a lock playoff team in the East, has a top 10 defense, and is above .500 without Victor Oladipo is impressive and a good sign for the team moving forward. The Pacers have won 5-of-7 and the two losses in there were to the Rockets and Bucks on a back-to-back. Oladipo has been getting in some work with the Pacers’ G-League team, a sign that he could be back a little before the Christmas date that quietly always seemed to be the target.

Sixers small icon 12. 76ers (8-5, LW 8). It was expected that Philadelphia’s offense would take some time to find a groove this season, with Jimmy Butler and J.J. Redick gone and more now on Ben Simmons plate, but the defense was going to carry the Sixers to start the season. Except it hasn’t, it’s been just okay. On the season, the Sixers are not even a top 10 defense, and in the last eight games (when Philly is 3-5), the defense is a middle-of-the-NBA pack team giving up 106.2 points per 100. All that length is not keeping teams from shooting well against them, and that is even true in the half court when the defense should be set. It’s early, but the Sixers need to clean this up.

13. Timberwolves (8-6, LW 14). Andrew Wiggins playing well — not “I have earned that max contract well, but well — has been one of the biggest surprises of the season. A few things are helping that, such as the five-out offense Minnesota can play (Karl-Anthony Towns has to be respected at the arc), which has opened up driving lanes. His assists are up, his shooting percentages are up, but a lot of it ties back to his handles — Wiggins has been much better with his ball control. He’s more comfortable running the pick-and-roll, he doesn’t feel rushed and surveys the court now, making better decisions, and it all ties back to being more comfortable and confident with his handles.

Suns small icon 14. Suns (7-6, LW 11). Phoenix has lost 3-of-4, and while the offense has dipped slightly during that time, the bigger issue is the defense has struggled to get stops. Devin Booker and the Suns have not been a team in the national spotlight much in recent years, which is why them being the late TNT game on Thursday night — against a Zion-less Pelicans — feels like such an important game. New Orleans is a feisty team that plays hard, and if the Suns defend like they did giving up 120 to Sacramento on Tuesday they will be in trouble in front of a national audience.

Magic small icon 15. Magic (6-7, LW 23). I keep hearing the same whisper from different sources around the league (something Shams Charania reported already as well): Teams are interested in trading for Aaron Gordon. Officially the Orlando front office wants no part of this and shoots the idea down, but around the league a lot of teams think the Magic brass will change their minds on this. Just something to watch. In the short term, the Magic have won 4-of-5 and the reason is they have the third best offense in the NBA over the past two weeks.

Kings small icon 16. Kings (6-7, LW 24). Sacramento has gone 3-1 without De’Aaron Fox so far, and what has fueled that is the team playing top-10 defense during that stretch. In fact, so far November has been good to Sacramento despite all the injuries, they are 6-2. However, now they head out on an East Coast road swing and have 8-of-10 away from home.

Nets small icon 17. Nets (5-8, LW 16). Kyrie Irving has missed time with a shoulder impingement (and could miss more), Caris LeVert is out a few more weeks with a broken thumb, Wilson Chandler remains suspended (PEDs) and all the puts more on the shoulders of Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie — and when those two share the court this season the Nets are -5.1 per 100 possessions. Brooklyn hits a soft stretch of the schedule this week, a chance to right the ship (before a home-and-home with Boston).

Thunder small icon 18. Thunder (5-9, LW 18). Watch the Thunder play in person and the word that comes to mind is scrappy. They are not the most talented team in the league, but they are tough to play against. One change this season is they are no longer an elite offensive rebounding team — at 21.8% they are worst in the league. Coach Billy Donovan says there are a couple of reasons for that. One, strong rebounders for their positions in Russell Westbrook and Paul George are playing elsewhere. Second, they are pulling Steven Adams out farther from the basket this season to use his versatility, but that takes him off the glass more.

Blazers small icon 19. Trail Blazers (5-10, LW 17). Portland turned to Carmelo Anthony to help fill their frontcourt void — and it’s a smart, low-risk gamble. Watching his first game (small sample size alert), he’s not going to hurt the Trail Blazers because they are so desperately in need of help at the four. Does he make them better? Not sure he does. The 4-of-14 shooting first game with 5 turnovers certainly was in part due to rust. However, the bigger issue is the other side of the ball, Anthony looked lost at points, and things are only going to get tougher because teams will target him. We need more games to really judge this, but so far the reaction to his play is “meh.” Portland is 1-2 to start their six-game road swing.

Spurs small icon 20. Spurs (5-9, LW 15). Losers of six in a row and the problem is on the defensive end where they are second worst in the NBA in that stretch. The problem starts right when the game tips off — San Antonio’s starting unit has a minus-33.3 net rating in 71 minutes of first quarter action, something Tom Osborne of the Express-News pointed out. Dallas recently put up a 36 spot on the Spurs in the first quarter, and that was pretty much ballgame.

Hornets small icon 21. Hornets (6-8, LW 22). They remain one of the NBA’s luckiest teams, they have the net rating of a 4-10 team, but Charlotte’s ability to fall behind by double digits and come back has them flirting with the idea of a playoff spot early. Devonte Graham in the starting lineup now helps with those comebacks, as does Malik Monk hitting game winners.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (4-9, LW 25). Detroit has the best offense in the NBA the past couple of weeks, thanks in part to the return of Blake Griffin, but the team still can’t get stops and that’s why they have lost four in a row. The Pistons’ defense has been bottom five in the league the past four games and for the entire season, there is no way a return trip to the playoffs is happening if the Pistons don’t clean up that end of the court.

Pelicans small icon 23. Pelicans (5-9, LW 27). Despite a training room starting to resemble a television drama ER, the Pelicans have won 4-of-6 behind some strong play from Jrue Holiday (22.4 points and 8.2 assists per game in his last five) and J.J. Redick (21.8 points per game in his last five). Things get tough coming up with 4-of-5 on the road, and the one home game is the red-hot Lakers.

Bulls small icon 24. Bulls (4-10, LW 19). Lauri Markenneen has looked lost and is not taking the step forward everyone expected of him in his third season. He is shooting 36.2% overall and 26.8% from three, both career lows. It’s not just the three ball, Markenneen is taking more shots than ever before at the rim but his hitting just 51.2 percent on those. The Bulls have lost 4-of-5 and look nothing like the playoff team they hoped to be this season.

Cavaliers small icon 25. Cavaliers (4-9, LW 20). When you have a young team — particularly a young backcourt such as Collin Sexton and Darius Garland — consistency is not in the cards. The Cavaliers can destroy the Knicks and look good in a one-point loss to Philly, then turn around a week later and get blown out by those same two teams (with an ugly loss to the Heat in between). It can be rough to watch sometimes, but it’s about getting them reps so in a couple of years we see a polished product that is consistent (and wins more).

Knicks small icon 26. Knicks (4-10, LW 30). New York has the third-worst offense in the league this season in part because they have had the worst half court offense in the league and they play at the 27th slowest pace in the league, so they spend more time in the half court. That and they can’t seem to buy a make in the paint. Despite that, the Knicks have won 2-of-3 and their one loss was a close game to the Hornets (and of their four wins this season, two are against Dallas, it must be a Kristaps Porzingis revenge thing). The bad news: Starting tonight in Philadelphia the schedule is brutal for the next few weeks.

Grizzlies small icon 27. Grizzlies (5-9, LW 29). When we talk Grizzlies youth movement we talk Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. — and those two have shown a lot more chemistry the past week or so — but don’t sleep on Brandon Clarke being part of what is built in Memphis. The first-round pick out of Gonzaga has proven to be a solid role player averaging 12.7 points and 6.1 rebounds a game, plus shooting 44% from three. The Grizzlies aren’t winning much, but they remain a team worth watching.

Wizards small icon 28. Wizards (3-8, LW 26). The Washington Wizards have the third-best offense in the NBA this season (overall and even when you filter out garbage time like Cleaning the Glass does). Bradley Beal averaging 30.1 points per game and playing like an All-Star is at the heart of that, but Thomas Bryant, Isaiah Thomas, and Rui Hachimura are all pitching in points and balancing the offense as well. If Scott Brooks could just coax a few stops out of this team, well, at least they’d move up these rankings.

Hawks small icon 29. Hawks (4-9, LW 21). This really shouldn’t be a surprise, but we’ll detail it anyway: When Trae Young is on the court, the Hawks offense scores 108.4 points per 100 possessions, which would have them a little above average in the NBA this season. However, when he sit the Hawks cannot get buckets, averaging a dreadful 89.6 per 100. This team desperately misses John Collins (out with a PED suspension).

Warriors small icon 30. Warriors (3-12, LW 29). What a world we live in, where a year ago we weren’t sure the Warriors would ever give up the top spot in these rankings, and now their fall to the bottom is complete. The one bright note remains rookie Eric Paschall, who is proving to be surprisingly efficient in isolation sets for the Warriors.

Knicks’ president Steve Mills reportedly on hot seat, too

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David Fizdale is out as coach of the New York Knicks.

He also was just a part of the problem with the Knicks. Fizdale did a poor job as chef trying to cook up a decent meal, but he was also given a list of ingredients — the roster built by the front office — that would make a “Chopped” contestant wince.

It looks like the people responsible for putting that roster together — specifically the long-entrenched Steve Mills, who is currently the team president — are in trouble, too. Mills is on the hot seat, too, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

“[The Knicks 18 losses this season] go on Fizdale’s permanent record but the failed Fizdale experiment belongs to Steve Mills, whose days as a Teflon executive under Dolan are about to end.

Mills hired Fizdale over Mike Budenholzer, and [Phil] Jackson and without even considering [Jeff] Van Gundy. Mills looked at Fizdale as the hip young coach with connections to today’s young stars. The Knicks were all in on the free-agent class of 2019 and Fizdale was going to be the guy to get their foot in the door.

We all know how that went — the Knicks didn’t even get a meeting.

These last two seasons fall directly on Mills, who, according to sources, will either be reassigned or simply removed from the building. His expiration date is long overdue. The Athletic reported last month that Dolan will try again to pry Raptors President Masai Ujiri from Toronto. If that doesn’t work, maybe NBA Commissioner Adam Silver will point Dolan toward R.C. Buford, Sam Presti, Neil Olshey and Daryl Morey. The Knicks are in the early stages of another massive overhaul that will only work if Dolan gives his next executive savior full autonomy.

What happens to Mills is a bellwether to watch.

Not simply is he removed as team president (and before he can make trades to try to save his job at the deadline), but is he re-assigned to a new position with the Knicks — so owner James Dolan keeps his man in the building — or is he shown the door? It matters. A lot. As Isola notes, when Phil Jackson was hired he was told he would have full autonomy over the front office, but he wasn’t allowed to remove Mills or other entrenched figures (and when Jackson was let go Mills was promoted to his spot). Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to have that shot down.

This is the real test for Dolan. If he going to spend the money to hire Ugiri or some other big name, will he give that person the complete autonomy to overhaul basketball operations, like New Orleans did last summer with David Griffin? Then, is Dolan willing to be patient enough to wait years for it to all come together? The Knicks do not need another quick fix, another shortcut to getting back in the playoffs. They need to build a culture, a foundation that can succeed for years. That takes time. And the right guy steering the ship.

We’ll see if Dolan makes that step, or if the Knicks continue business as usual.

How Jaylen Brown snuck into Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show and sat next to Kanye West

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Celtics forward Jaylen Brown has a huge contract extension and bright future.

But he isn’t a star yet.

That’s why Brown, despite his emerging presence in the fashion scene, didn’t get invited to Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton show last year.

Brown on All The Smoke:

I didn’t get invited to that one, but I wasn’t tripping. At the time, I’m second year in the league. My merit ain’t like that. I ain’t got the clout. But I’m like, I can’t miss that. They ain’t never had a person of color being a Louis V designer ever. It’s history. So, I’m like, I don’t got no ticket, but I’m going to pull up and just see what’s going to happen. The least I can do is say I tried. I’m from Atlanta, so you know.

So, I had photographers with me, and I had videographers and my manager is with me and stuff like that. So, I had a little group of people with me. So, I said, “This is what we’re going to do.” I said, “We’re going to get in the car. We’re going to pull up real fast, come to a stop real quick. Everybody jump out.”

“Everybody jump out quick. When we jump out, everybody open the door. Slam it open. The driver, you got to slam on the brakes. Rrrrrrrr. Everybody jump out, slam the door open, we’re going walk fast. ‘No pictures. No pictures. No pictures.’ We’re going to keep walking. We’re going to walk so everybody causing a commotion. All the people trying to take pictures. “Who is it?” Du, du, du, du, da. Then, we get to the front. I said, when we get to the front, there’s probably going to be a list.

“Look, there’s probably going to be al list.” I thought the whole thing out. So, I told my manager, I told her, I was like, “When they say they can’t find my name on the list, I need you to go crazy.” I didn’t even think she was going to be ready for it. I’m surprised, a little small. I didn’t even think she was going to be ready for it. I’m like, “When you see the list, just go crazy. Act like this is an outrage.”

She sold it.

She surprised me. So, we get to the list. She’s like, “You’re not.” “This is crazy! He should be on this list!” Du, du, du, du, da. And they’re like, “OK, OK, calm down, calm down, calm down. Calm down, calm down, calm down.” Just let them go in. And I ended up going in, and I ended up sitting right next to Kanye and Travis.

It’s crazy, right? I ended up meeting Diddy’s sons in there, just seeing them and saying, “What’s up?” Just walked in with them from the jump and just finessed my hole way in.

Look, I’m sitting right next to Kanye, Travis. I’m sitting dead across from Rihanna. When the show is over, Virgil came out and gave Kanye a hug. At the end, he was crying. I was on like, man, if I was in my right mind, I’d go out there and [hugging motion].

All The Smoke has the best stories.

Chris Paul calls out Jordan Bell for untucked jersey, wins technical that helps OKC force OT, win

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This may be the ultimate savvy veteran play, or it was a guy winning by snitching. Either way, it’s very Chris Paul.

The Oklahoma City Thunder were down two with 1.1 seconds left and had just fouled Karl-Anthony Towns, who went to the free throw line with the chance to ice the game. When KAT missed the first free throw, Minnesota coach Ryan Saunders sent Jordan Bell into the game for Jeff Teague — but Bell’s jersey was not tucked in and Chris Paul called it out (you can hear him on the audio) and referee Scott Foster takes notice.

Chris Paul knew exactly what he was doing.

The untucked jersey led to a delay of game penalty on the Timberwolves and, since Minnesota already had a delay of game warning from earlier, a technical foul and free throw for Oklahoma City. Which they sank, so now it was a one-point game, but the Thunder still had no timeouts. If KAT had missed the second free throw intentionally, the scramble for the rebound would have forced a full-court heave by a Thunder player to win it. Instead, KAT sank the free throw, putting the Timberwolves up by two (still with 1.1 on the clock).

Then this happened.

The game went to overtime, where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander got hot and scored 11, and the Thunder pulled away for the 139-127 win.

CP3 may have just lost a few votes if he runs for players’ union president again, but he got the win.

David Fizdale wasn’t the solution for the Knicks. No coach is.

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David Fizdale’s tenure as New York Knicks coach fits the pattern.

When Fizdale took the Knicks job, he said, “Culture and accountability. I’ll be putting those words on walls in a lot of places” and talked about building a foundation for the franchise. The Knicks were going to build through the draft, find and develop talent, get players who fit their culture, be patient and build the kind of roster that would attract superstar free agents someday.

Except Fizdale (and management) didn’t do any of that. The same way it didn’t work for Phil Jackson in building a culture and identity for the franchise, or Mike D’Antoni, or Isaiah Thomas or Mike Woodson or Lenny Wilkins, or anyone else the Knicks have had in the coach’s seat or front office for the past 20 years — not so coincidentally how long James Dolan’s has owned the team.

The Knicks’ identity has been not hiring the people capable of executing the plan and/or not sticking with the plan long enough to make it work. The Knicks’ identity has become trying to shortcut the process and take big swings, only to miss and fall short.

Fizdale fell into that pattern. Despite his talk of slowly building a culture and foundation, it wasn’t long after Fizdale signed there were reports Knicks would clear out cap space for LeBron James if he wanted to play for Fizdale (LeBron is a fan of Fizdale from their time together in Miami). This past summer, management hoped Fizdale’s popularity with players could help land Kyrie Irving and/or Kevin Durant. Instead, that duo chose to go to another borough — one where the team had been patient, built a culture, and drafted and developed young players into the kind of roster superstars wanted to join.

The Knicks were the Knicks. Fizdale became the scapegoat, and on Friday he was fired as head coach of the New York Knicks.

The pattern was predictable, as was the fact as soon as he was let go, the chorus popped up blaming him for the Knicks woes. “Fizdale was the problem and now the Knicks can search for the right guy.” Except, there is no right guy. At least there will not be until James Dolan hires a top-flight, experienced executive to really build that culture and foundation, then gets out of the way and lets his hire do it (and by out of the way, I mean lets him clean house in basketball operations and change everything, much the way David Griffin did last summer in New Orleans).

Not that Fizdale was blameless in this or shouldn’t have been fired.

Fizdale was essentially the first contestant sent home on an episode of “Chopped” — he was asked to make a meal out of the mismatched basket of ingredients/players that absolutely did not fit together. A basket assembled by team president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry, a basket with far too many power forward a crop of rookies and second-year players that were going to have prominent roles. Nobody was going turn that group into a competitive playoff team, and the fact that was the expectation of management — and what was sold to Dolan — speaks to the bigger issues.

Fizdale, however, did nothing to turn that basket of players into a respectable team. There are very legitimate reasons for him to be chopped by management — Fizdale did not develop a team identity on either end of the floor, his rotations were head-scratching, and his team seemed listless and disinterested. The Knicks are 4-18, are losers of eight straight, have not been competitive, were blown out by 37+ their last two games, and the Knicks are a team on its way to a seventh consecutive season without a trip to the playoffs, making it 13 out of 16 seasons the Knicks have been home for the postseason.

The Knicks have had 12 coaches in the past 20 years — not exactly a sign of stability and organizational direction. There were good men in that mix. Mike D’Antoni has success in Phoenix before he was in New York, and after he left he has had it in Houston, but the Knicks brought him in and then didn’t build a roster to fit his run-and-gun style. He lasted three-and-a-half seasons, which is the longest tenure of any coach in the Dolan era. Mike Woodson had success in Atlanta (and got the Knicks to the playoffs a couple of times, including the second round once). Larry Brown and Lenny Wilkins are both in the Hall of Fame as coaches.

Yet the organization struggled through all of them. Dolan remains the one constant. We all know what the problem is, but we also know he’s not going to sell the team (maybe spin it off with the Rangers and the rest of Madison Square Garden into its own company, but that’s different from giving it up). There is a status that comes with owning the Knicks in New York City, and Dolan is not going to give up that spotlight.

Knicks fans can hope that a new executive is brought in and is given the real power to clean house — but past candidates for team president who asked for that power did not get the job. Plus, Perry and Mills (like Fizdale) have more than a year left on their contract, Dolan trusts Mills, so expecting a change may be unrealistic.

Until there is a change in how the Knicks are run, whoever is hired to be the head coach will ultimately fall into the pattern of all the coaches before him (or her). The pattern is set. Only Dolan can break it.