By John Schmeelk
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Dear Mike Woodson,
Let me start by saying I’m sorry.
Last season, I wrote (endlessly) in this space that you were the main culprit of the Knicks’ failures. It was your switching defense that turned New York into one of the worst units on that end of the floor in the NBA. It was your inability to hold all your players accountable in the same way without playing favorites that killed chemistry. It was the isolation offense that put too much onus on Carmelo Anthony that stagnated the offense. It was your late-game play calls, or lack thereof, that often ended in contested Melo 22-foot jump shots after a boring isolation play that turned potential wins into losses.
It was terrible to watch, and all those things were, in fact, your fault. But it was better than the first 24 games we’ve been forced to suffer through this season. I realize now there was a method to your madness.
The truth of the matter, Mike, is that you deserve far more credit for getting this dysfunctional group of misfits to win 50 games in 2012-13 than blame for missing the playoffs last season with a 37-45 record. Those 50 wins were a miracle. You saw what this team was, played to their strengths as best as possible, and reaped the benefits. The remaining vestiges of Mike D’Antoni’s offense that you were wise to adopt in between the one-on-one opportunities for Anthony and J.R. Smith helped make the team elite offensively. You quickly recognized the weaknesses of the players on the roster, and got the most out of them. For one year, it worked. The team overachieved. You did a great job.
But that is where the praise, and my apology, ends.
Here’s the problem: your plan was never sustainable. That 50-win season was an aberration. By catering to guys like Smith, Raymond Felton, and yes, even Anthony, you set this team on the path they are on today. You played isolation ball because that’s what they wanted to do, not because it was best for them or the team. The switching on defense became a basic tenet of your strategy because guys like Anthony, Smith and others had no interest in putting forward the extra effort of fighting over screens. Switching was the easy and lazy way out, and you embraced it to win in the short term. You didn’t bench players for loafing on defense, which took any facet of accountability out of the equation.
You sided with some of the knuckleheads, which turned one of the only conscientious players on the team, Tyson Chandler, into a pariah. The one player on the team who knew how to play defense and win a championship had to be traded because he didn’t fit into the culture you helped perpetuate on the roster. As we sit here today, no one with a straight face can argue that the Chandler-Jose Calderon trade was anything short of a debacle. The Knicks are significantly worse defensively with their big man playing in Dallas, and Calderon’s presence on the court has done nothing to improve the offense.
You embraced your players’ fatal flaws, got some wins out of it, but that strategy was never going to lead to sustained success. Embracing those bad habits became a slippery slope to 4-20 this year. Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher are trying to get these guys to play the right way. They are asking them to move without the ball, and to cut hard to the basket for easy opportunities. They are being asked to be unselfish and move the ball in a structured team system. They are being asked to play fundamental defense that requires an extra effort to do things like get over screens. They are being asked to practice on a more consistent basis.
In other words, they are being asked to do all the things you allowed them to get away with for three seasons. Those bad habits were ingrained for your two-plus seasons as head coach. The players aren’t going to let them go, especially with most of them impending free agents this summer. You enabled them, and the result is what we are seeing this year. It’s the same thing we saw when D’Antoni asked this group to embrace a system they didn’t love — or even like. They refused to play for him. Players had no interest in doing what their coach was telling them to do.
Now they want to play the Woodson way. The team isn’t at the point of mutiny yet this season, but can it really be far away?
Thanks for that legacy, Mike. You were dealt a bad hand and made the best of it. You won the most games you could, but the peak was not high enough, and the valleys far too low.
The difference is that Phil Jackson is going to back his coach — and his style — no matter what. Every single player on this roster will be gone this summer if that is what it takes. Jackson has that type of authority, something your general managers never had. You did what you had to, and so will Phil. These players are the problem more than any coach or strategy. If this season has proven anything, it’s that.
For that Mike, I apologize. Happy trails, and enjoy the remaining vestiges or your Knicks legacy.
You can follow me on Twitter @for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports.
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