By John Schmeelk
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Despite his plea after the Knicks’ final game of the season on Wednesday night against Toronto, the clock has reached zero on the time left in Mike Woodson’s coaching career for the Knicks.
Contrary to his statement that he is the “only guy” to coach this team, there will be another guy sitting on the bench next season. Phil Jackson is going to want to put his stamp on this team, and one of his biggest decisions is going to be who will lead this team from the bench. It is not going to be Woodson.
Woodson’s performance as head coach of the Knicks has been very much like a roller coaster. He did an excellent job taking over for Mike D’Antoni as an interim coach two seasons ago, and then carried that success into the regular season last year. It’s fair to say the team overachieved to win 54 games. But looking back on that successful regular season, there were warning signs.
Woodson was forced into the small lineup that had so much success, and often said he would prefer to play big despite the success he was having. Looking back now, it is also fair to wonder if it was Woodson who was the voice behind that team’s success, or was it veterans like Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas? The severe deterioration of consistent play this year with those players no longer here makes it a fair question. Despite Woodson’s reputation, the Knicks didn’t become a better defensive team either, languishing in the latter half of the league rankings.
Woodson’s shortcomings became obvious in the playoffs against the Pacers, when he was severely outcoached by Frank Vogel in terms of matchups and strategy. He ran back to the comfort of a big lineup as soon as the team started to struggle, and decided to try to beat Indiana at its game, rather than play the same basketball that got the Knicks to the second round of the playoffs. Woodson has still never advanced past the second round of the playoffs, and I don’t foresee that changing wherever he winds up.
The wheels came off this season with ever-switching lineups, an insistence on playing a big lineup despite clear evidence it didn’t work and the regression of one of the Knicks’ only young assets in Iman Shumpert. There were also a number of boneheaded plays at the end of games, which made fans question the IQ of the team, which reflects poorly on the coach.
Without the veterans on the roster from the previous year keeping the team in check, effort was inconsistent, the defense took another step back and the team finished with 17 fewer wins than it did in 2012-2013. There’s little doubt in my mind that the Knicks would have been a playoff team this year if they had a better head coach.
Woodson was never known as an offensive coach, relying way too much on isolations and simple pick-and roll-plays. This especially hurt the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony at the ends of games, where they often ended up taking a contested shot after a slow developing one-on-one play. Despite his reputation as a defensive coach, Woodson’s Knicks relied far too heavily on switches, which created matchup problems on many possessions.
It would lead to double teams (sometimes unnecessary), poor rotations and open shots for the Knicks’ opponents. Woodson would also refuse to play the team’s best defensive players major minutes, gluing Tour’e Murry to the bench and limiting the minutes of Pablo Prigioni and Shumpert.
Woodson said before the season he wanted the Knicks to be a top 10 defensive team, but that was an impossible goal to reach if Woodson insisted on playing Ray Felton, Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrea Bargnani (he was never used enough as a center), and Tim Hardaway, Jr. major minutes. All those players are below-average-to-awful defenders, and having three of them on the floor together for large stretches was never going to work defensively.
Woodson stubbornly stuck with them despite the fact that the defense continued to be awful game after game. The Knicks never developed an identity because their coach never had one in mind. The team was lost for most of the season, and that falls on the shoulders of the head coach.
Woodson isn’t a bad guy or a bad coach. By all accounts he is a good guy, and for the most part it seems as though he is a pretty good communicator. He seems to be able to reach a lot of his players. But as a basketball tactician he is lacking, and that will hold him back from ever being a championship coach.
It’s why Jackson is going to make a change, which will start transforming this team into what he wants it to be. If Woodson is still coaching this team by the weekend, I’ll be shocked. A new era of Knicks basketball begins now, and it will begin without Woodson.
Sometimes, change is good.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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