The Case for Coach Woodson


After the Knicks got off to a hot start at the beginning of the season, it was popular to discuss what a great candidate for Coach of the Year Mike Woodson would make. When the Knicks cooled off over the course of a mediocre midseason, so did the COY talk. Now New York has ended the season even hotter than it began and won its first Atlantic Division title in 19 years, yet Woodson remains out of the COY conversation in many experts‘ circles. I decided to take a close look at his candidacy.

There is a strong COY narrative for almost every team in the playoffs this season. The two biggest exceptions to this are the Lakers and the Bucks. After acquiring all-stars at two key positions, the Lakers were expected to challenge for the best record in the NBA. Finishing as the 7th seed in the West is too big of a disappointment to foster any serious COY talk for Mike D’Antoni. Sure, the Bucks made the playoffs, but finishing with a losing record is too much to overcome for any serious COY talk. So, as we take a look at whether Woodson should be the COY, I’ll be comparing him to the other 13 playoff coaches.

There are five major criteria commonly used for evaluating if a coach would make a good COY candidate.

  • Team performance compared to the previous season. If a team’s record has a big spike in wins from the previous year, this is a huge point in favor of their coach.
  • Team performance compared to pre-season expectations. Various things happen during the offseason that clearly hurt a team or improve a team. Much like the Lakers, this creates an expectation for the team’s performance (for better or worse) that may have little to do with the previous year’s results.
  • Overcoming adversity. Some teams face greater challenges to achieving success than others. This usually comes in the form of injuries to key players and major losses via free agency.
  • Demonstrating high level coaching technique. One thing that sets the best coaches apart from their brethren is elite technique and innovation. This often takes the form of formulating offenses and defenses best suited to personnel and finding ways to take advantage of major NBA trends, as well as starting trends using innovative methodology.
  • Player development. Some coaches are just better at getting the best performance from their players. When a veteran player suddenly has a career year or a younger player suddenly blossoms, often much of the credit is due to good coaching.

Let’s see how our candidates stack up using these criteria.

Team performance compared to the previous season. This is the easiest one to measure. Normally, you could just compare the number of wins, but not this time, since last season was strike shortened to 66 games, instead of the usual 82. This is solved by using winning percentage and then measuring the increase or decrease in percentage from last season to this one. Five of our candidates actually led their teams to a worse performance this season than last season:

  • Pacers -4%
  • Spurs -6%
  • Hawks -6%
  • Celtics -8%
  • Bulls -20%

This should be a serious obstacle to the COY prospects of these coaches, especially Tom Thibodeau. On the opposite end, there were five coaches that led their teams to a double digit improvement in winning percentage:

  • Heat +10%
  • Knicks +11%
  • Nuggets +12%
  • Warriors +22%
  • Nets +27%

Based on our first criteria, this makes Erik Spoelstra, Mike Woodson, George Karl, Mark Jackson and PJ Carlesimo our COY frontrunners. Probably the two biggest surprises to me here are the Heat and the Nets. After winning it all last season, who knew there was room for the Heat to improve their record by 10%? This season they won an astonishing 80% of their games. The Nets are surprising because there is an absolute lack of COY buzz for Carlesimo, despite the astronomical 27% improvement. Avery Johnson actually led them to a mediocre 14-14 record at the beginning of the season, before Carlesimo replaced him and turned their season around. If you were to just consider the games coached by Carlesimo, the improvement from last season jumps to 32%. Shockingly, there is even talk about replacing Carlesimo this offseason.

Another thing to consider along these lines is the improvement shown by New York last season when Woodson replaced D’Antoni midseason. The Knicks were actually 18-24 under D-Antoni, but finished an impressive 18-6 under Woodson. If you to compare this season’s winning percentage to just last season’s record under D’Antoni, the improvement dramatically increases to 23%. Clearly New York responds much better to Woodson’s guidance than they have done to any of their other recent coaches. The Knicks won 66% of their games this season. The last time they did as well was 16 years ago, when they won 70% of their games with the guidance of Jeff Van Gundy and featured the talents of Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Allan Houston, Charles Oakley and John Starks.

Team performance compared to preseason expectations. For this criterion I scoured the internet for preseason NBA ranking and in incredibly scientific fashion, I chose the first three that I could find to work with: ESPN, Fox Sports and Hoopsworld. I averaged the preseason rankings of the 14 teams in question and compared them to their actual order of finish based on record. Two of the teams actually did worse than predicted. The Pacers finished eighth, after being ranked seventh in the preseason rankings and the Celtics finished 16th, after being ranked fourth. This is probably explains the lack of COY buzz for Doc Rivers and is a definite strike against Frank Vogel’s candidacy. The Heat showed zero improvement to their preseason ranking of first, but it’s pretty impressive that they lived up to that ranking.

Four teams showed an improvement of five spots or more from their preseason ranking.

  • Knicks +5 (12th to 7th)
  • Nuggets +5 (10th to 5th)
  • Warriors +8 (17th to 9th)
  • Rockets +14 (24th to 10th)

Given how dramatically the Rockets have exceeded expectations, it’s a pretty big surprise that Kevin McHale isn’t getting any COY buzz. The James Harden trade isn’t an excuse either, since the preseason rankings were posted after he was acquired. To be fair, it’s not that the Rocket’s made a big improvement to last year’s winning percentage (just +3%); it’s more that they avoided the collapse that many “experts” expected from them this year. The other surprise is just how high the expectations were for the Nets, considering their 33% winning percentage last year. They finished with the NBA’s ninth best record, but they were predicted to finish 10th.

After two criteria, four pretty clear leaders are starting to emerge: Spoelstra, Woodson, Karl and Jackson.

Overcoming adversity. Injuries to major stars were a pretty common occurrence throughout the NBA this season.  The exception seemed to be the teams that experienced better health than most. This criterion is probably one of the things hurting Jackson’s COY credentials. His only major rotation player to miss more than four games was Andrew Bogut, and not only was he not on the team last season, they knew he would miss the beginning of this season when they traded for him. Last season their best player, Stephen Curry missed half the season, David Lee missed nine games (out of just 66) and Monta Ellis only played 37 games before being traded for Bogut, who played zero games. Thus it’s easy to attribute much of Golden State’s improvement to just having healthy star players in their lineup this season, rather than to elite coaching.

This is a point that also fails to work in Spoelstra’s favor. Not only did the Big Three only miss an average of eight games apiece (out of 82), but they also added more weapons this season, in the form of Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Chris Anderson. So it’s pretty hard to argue that the Heat had to overcome any major obstacles this season, other than the pressure of high expectations.

Denver has faced slightly more adversity, with Ty Lawson missing nine games, Danilo Gallinari missing 11 games and Wilson Chandler missing almost half the season. Though one could make the case missing a player to injury is less of a big deal for the Nuggets, since their rotation featured nine players that averaged 18 minutes or more and zero all stars.

New York on the other hand, has had to face a constantly changing roster of available personnel, with frequent injuries to key players. Their best player, Carmelo Anthony, missed 15 games, their starting point guard Raymond Felton 14, their starting center Tyson Chandler 16 and starting wing Iman Shumpert missed almost half the season. This is in addition to all-star big man Amare Stoudemire starting and ending the season with major injuries and only playing 29 games. Yet somehow Woodson not only kept things together, he led New York to their best season in 16 years.

Demonstrating high level coaching technique. This criterion is obviously more subjective than the previous three. One could argue that any coach that has a team do well is meeting this criterion. While I’m not going to try to argue against other coaches’ ability in this category, I will make the case in favor of Woodson. Two of the biggest ways to show a high level of coaching mastery are to adapt your offense and defense to your personnel and to be a successful innovator. Woodson shines in both of these ways. After developing a reputation in Atlanta as a defensive guru with a relatively simple isolation heavy offense that somewhat eschewed three-pointers, Woodson has completely reinvented himself and in the process, the Knicks, this season.

New York has become a team built around a complex, innovative and highly efficient offense. One of the more revealing stats relating to this is New York’s three-pointer to turnover differential of -97. This may not seem that impressive until you realize to what a degree this number led the league. In the case of the 2nd best team in this regard, the Miami Heat, they had a differential of -426! The best previous differential in NBA history was the 2005-06 Suns, who were -251. So New York’s -97 shatters the previous understanding of how much teams turn the ball over in relation to making three-pointers. This is in part due to personnel changes and in significant part to how Woodson has shaped the offense.

Woodson leaned heavily on small lineups, often with as many as three excellent ball-handlers and typically with at least two point guards on the floor at all times. This resulted in New York leading the NBA in fewest turnovers per game. In addition, Woodson has suddenly completely embraced the three point shot as a weapon, usually having four high percentage perimeter shooters on the floor at all times spacing the floor, rotating the ball and using a series of screens to set up a barrage of open three-pointers. This has led to the Knicks not only leading the league in made three-pointers, but setting an NBA record for made threes in a season. Woodson developed an offense and a defense tailored to his personnel and to the changing face of the NBA. While his innovative, constantly rotating and switching defense hasn’t always been effective, when it clicks it’s very effective, and it may well be ahead of its time.

Player development.  This is another area where Woodson shines. With the oldest roster in the NBA, you wouldn’t expect too many pleasant surprises from the roster. Best case scenario, you would think players would perform to their best previous levels of performance. Yet after nine years in the league Anthony suddenly had the best season of his already impressive career. After eight seasons, JR Smith is suddenly playing like the superstar that many had finally given up in him ever becoming. Raymond Felton’s scoring and FG% are much improved from last season. Chris Copeland has gone from playing in Belgium last season to averaging nine points a game and shooting 48%. These are stats that aren’t inflated by a Mike D’Antoni style pace either. These Knicks play at the 26th slowest pace in the NBA, yet Melo still led the league in scoring.

So, while it wouldn’t be a travesty if someone like Erik Spoelstra or George Karl won the Coach of the Year, I submit that the correct choice for the honor is Mike Woodson, as he shines in every major criterion for selecting a COY. Now let’s hope the actual voters agree.