On Monday, Knicks President Phil Jackson, as expected, relieved head coach Mike Woodson of his duties after two plus seasons with the third best winning percentage in franchise history (.580). Woodson’s departure from the organization was inevitable from the moment Jackson was hired, but seeing the entire coaching staff dismissed was still a little jarring. The fate of Woodson’s staff, however, really is not the story (even if it means the end of the Herb Williams era) ; the person who succeeds Woodson will be afforded the opportunity to bring on their own, like-minded assistants (as he should be). This is about the head coach, both his successes as a player motivator and his failures as a strategist.
Woodson took over as head coach of the Knicks in 2011 after Mike D’Antoni was unable to make the Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler front court work. Ultimately, this Knicks ill conceived dream would never come to fruition, but Woodson found success late in the season, as a motivated Carmelo Anthony (who did not buy into D’Antoni’s system) led the Knicks to an 18-6 record.
The respect Carmelo Anthony has for Woodson has been the coach’s biggest strength as Knicks head coach, as Anthony has enjoyed the best two seasons of his career under Woodson. It could be argued that Anthony’s progression has more to do with a variety of other factors, such as Anthony’s improved three point shooting or an increase in minutes at the power forward position, but there is no doubt that if one asked Melo that he would say that Woodson put him in the best position to succeed.
The trust between a coach and his players is an essential part of a successful team, and there is no doubt that Woodson was able to handle a locker room full of volatile players. Woodson was able to convince Amar’e Stoudemire to accept a role on the bench and helped give J.R. Smith the opportunity to have the best stretch of his career, culminating in the Sixth Man award.
Woodson gained the trust of his players through his unquestioned loyalty towards them. When the Knicks were struggling this season and Woodson was peppered with questions about his job security, he handled himself with class and rarely threw his players under the bus – except Beno Udrih, for reasons I still do not understand. He made some unfounded excuses, like blaming injuries for players, such as Andrea Bargnani, but he did so because he did not want to call out any of his players.
His loyalty, however, was also to a fault at times. He refused to decrease the minutes of “his guys,” players like Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith, who at times were not playing up to their perceived role. Keeping Smith in for 35 minutes looks smart when he hits a clutch three pointer, but more often than not, Woodson’s over-reliance on certain players led to a series of crushing defeats.
In Woodson’s first full season as head coach, however, all of his decisions seemed to be paying off. Anthony and Smith enjoyed career years, the back court of Kidd and Felton was successful (especially in the fourth quarter), and the Knicks won 54 games with an innovative style of play. Hindsight tells us that many of Woodson’s unique lineups were more due to necessity than innovation, but at the time, it looked like the Knicks had found an identity.
This identity, however, was not the identity that the coach wanted to play. Woodson was just as loyal to his basketball ideologies as he was to his players, even if his ideologies did not fit the team. His emphasis on playing a traditional “big” lineup doomed the Knicks in the playoffs against Indiana and hurt them mightily this season as well. A seemingly offhand comment, “the East is big, man”, has been viewed by many as representative of Mike Woodson’s 2013 season. He did not want to play a small lineups and have other teams try to change their style of play, but rather match up to the size of other teams. He wanted to win, but he wanted to win his way, with a big front court, a defensive scheme reliant on switches, and a late game offense centered on the idea that your best player should take the final shot.
These beliefs failed him as the Knicks lacked a power forward that meshed with Anthony’s style, gave up a countless number of open corner threes, and lost a myriad of late heartbreaking losses. The decline of the Knicks from the 54 win 2nd seed to the 37 win 9th seed in just one season was in part due to some baffling decisions that predictably flopped (the Bargnani trade) and other sensible decisions that did not pan out (the Beno Udrih signing). Ultimately, however, the regression of the Knicks had a lot to do with the head coach, whose decisions served as a detriment all season.
This season, the Knicks lacked the leadership to recover from adversity and in turn began to sour on their once beloved coach. The team rallied at the end of the year around the idea of making the playoffs, but there were too many mistakes early in the season, too many inexplicable losses, and too many opportunities given to players who did not deserve them.The firing of a coach is not something anyone should take personal joy in, but that does not mean that Woodson was not treated fairly. No matter how classy or loyal he is, Woodson did an inadequate (borderline incompetent to some, although I would not go that far) job as head coach of the Knicks this year. We will always have 2012, but it is time for a change.