The Knicks announced right before the holiday weekend that Mike Woodson would have the “interim” tag removed from his title and become the head coach of the Knicks. They rewarded him with a reported 2-year deal worth about $4 million dollars annually.
Knowing that Phil Jackson would have, at least, talked to the powers that be at MSG, is it a wise move by Dolan and company to jump on Woodson? To show how non-descript this hire is, the Knicks didn’t officially announce terms or have a press conference. It was thrown out to the media right before the long Memorial Day weekend when fans were thinking more beach than hardwood, and the Rangers were the big story.
Does the lack of flash mean this is the wrong hire? Certainly not, as Woodson was able to accomplish two things that we haven’t seen since Jeff Van Gundy walked out on the Knicks a decade ago: team defense and a superstar/coach on the same page.
The Knicks, when healthy, were a better offensive and defensive team under Woodson than Mike D’Antoni. Even Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire- defensive agnostic superstars- seemed to buy into the fact that playing hard on the other end of the floor is important. Why did these two historically difficult stars agree to the increased effort? Because Woodson called them out and challenged them. Don’t forget, even though Tyson Chandler was the heart and soul of this club, he too was chastised by Woodson for his effort. Woodson didn’t care whether his stars’ feelings would be hurt, he came in and established the ground rules. Instead of worrying about losing the head coach job he went about solidifying his position. All three played their best basketball last season under Woodson.
In return Anthony got what he wanted: the ball. Instead of being a component player in D’Antoni’s speedball offense, Anthony became the focal point of the offense and rewarded Woodson with one of the best scoring stretches in team history. During the April playoff push, he averaged 29.8 points and hit on 49.5% of his shots. For all the criticism, Anthony carried this point guard-less team into the 7-seed.
Everyone points out how poorly Stoudemire played in the Miami series, but I attribute that to rust more than STAT not fitting into the Woodson offense. Before injuring his back, Stoudemire was on a solid five-game run that saw him average 19 points and 9 rebounds; by the way, the Knicks won 4 of those 5 games. The season could have turned out far different if Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin didn’t go down with injuries.
Everybody thinks of Woodson as someone who presided over a mediocre Atlanta team. It’s true the Hawks were a 45-50 win team- NBA purgatory- but without a superstar Woodson got his club to win two playoff series and scare the Boston Celtics on their run to the ’08 championship by taking them to 7 games in the first round. If only they could win a game at the Boston Garden, it could have went down as one of the biggest upsets in league history. The following two seasons he was able to guide his club to Game 7 victories in the first round. That is not too shabby.
The Knicks have done designer label coaches and failed, as Harvey Araton points out in a recent NY Times article. He reminds us that Garden politics dates back to the days of Red Holzman, and even the great Pat Riley wasn’t immune to it. Woodson seems to understand how to manage his players and bosses, a good recipe for long-term MSG success. It was something that even Van Gundy didn’t do during his 7 years on the Knicks bench.
But how do you pass up Phil Jackson? It’s a tempting thought and would have been a great story. The former disciple of Holzman coming home to return the franchise to glory they haven’t seen since he was wearing the uniform. The problem is Jackson has nothing to prove and MSG can only tarnish his Hall of Fame legacy. The latter was a very realistic scenario even for Jackson. Look at the indignity that Don Nelson, Lenny Wilkins and Larry Brown faced during their short tenures. Of course, Jackson could learn from their mistakes and be the first name coach since Riley to survive and thrive at MSG on his terms. I don’t think that ending was guaranteed, and anything less than a title would be considered a failure. That is a difficult mandate to live up to, even for Jackson.
Tommy Dee of the Knicksblog points out the Knicks current roster is not setup for Jackson’s triangle offense, but adding the component pieces (see Lamar Odom, veteran shooter) could change that in a hurry. You have to believe veterans would be willing to take less money to play for Jackson at MSG because of his resume. We don’t know if that will be the case for Woodson. Also, Jackson was able to get some of the most selfish players in the history of the game to play team ball, why wouldn’t he do it with Anthony?
All good questions, and its likely he would have been successful, but how long would Jackson want to coach? Would he be a year-to-year guy? How do we know his health would stand up? He reportedly has the fire today, but will he six months from now? Will he be able to sustain it for the length of a 3 or 4 year deal? Legitimate questions, but I don’t think any of us know the real answer. The Knicks need consistency not someone who is a “one and done” on the job.
The Knicks haven’t had stability as a franchise for nearly 15 years. Even the final few seasons under Van Gundy saw turmoil in the front office. The longest reign of peace was under Checketts/Grunfeld and it should be no surprise the organization nearly won its winning its first title since 1973 during that time.
Is Mike Woodson the best coach the Knicks could have chosen? No. But he might be the right coach for this group and, more importantly, these superstars. If he can take a very good Atlanta team to the playoffs and nearly knock off Boston, I don’t see why he can’t be successful with a better roster foundation in New York.
Remember, even the great coaches like Jackson and Riley were nobodies at some point. The Bulls plucked Jackson out of the CBA when he was hired in 1989. Riley was broadcasting Lakers games. We might look at Woodson a lot differently two years from now. He actually has a better coaching resume than the aforementioned Hall of Famers when they took over their teams.
The Knicks are going for it with Glen Grunwald as the GM and Woodson the head coach. Not the All-Star front office/coach duo we envisioned, but that doesn’t mean it won’t work. So far, it appears to be headed in the right direction.
Let’s give it a chance before we deem it a failure.