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NBA Analysis: Should the Knicks Keep Mike Woodson as Head Coach?

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In a nod to…I don’t know…realism…sanity…continuity…stability…all those, rumors have emerged that the Knicks are in preliminary discussions to make Interim Head Coach Mike Woodson a permanent fixture on their bench. My twitter timeline, which I try to populate with fans I consider very smart, has generally greeted this news with a mix of what I’d characterize as ambivalence and annoyance.

I don’t see a lot of outright antipathy for Woodson, as no one seems to dispute that he’s a capable coach who has certainly done a good job this season. What I see are more nuanced concerns about whether his offense is imaginative enough and, tangentially, whether he’s the guy who can, tactically, get the most out of the superstar pairing that will define this era of Knicks basketball. While I’ll concede that those are probably his two biggest weaknesses as a candidate, I still think Woodson is the right coach for this team and the fact that the Knicks appear to be leaning towards keeping him–coupled with their recent retention of Glen Grunwald–has me feeling the most optimistic about the franchise that I have in a while. It’s going to take me a few minutes to get there, but please allow me to explain.

* * *

While I still believe going all-in on 2010 free agency was the right plan–even though it produced neither James nor Wade, one of the side effects was that it created a sense of urgency within the fan base that verges on super-duper unreasonable. All the daydreaming about the Knicks’ seemingly inevitable pairing of James with a second superstar and the multiple championship rings that would surely follow caused fans’ already sky-high expectations to rise even higher and harden into a “championship or bust” mentality. Even the team’s failure to land James (or Wade) in free agency did little to stymie this line of thinking. These days, there’s a segment of the fan base that feels every personnel decision the team makes must move them incrementally closer to winning a championship, no matter how far away, in reality, they are from achieving that lofty goal, and no matter how costly the move is to the franchise’s long-term future.

And the truth is, the Knicks are pretty far away. Don’t get me wrong. This is a very good team, probably third best in the Eastern Conference based on how they performed in the second half of the season under Woodson. At full strength and without an almost comical (tragical?) amount of misfortune, I strongly believe the Knicks would have pushed Miami more during the actual games, even if they couldn’t seriously threaten the outcome of the series. But superstars and fanfare and promises (implied or otherwise) notwithstanding, the Knicks are a team only at the beginning of what hopefully becomes a sustained a run of success.

Last year marked the first time in a decade that the Knicks finished with a winning record, and that team got a total face-lift midseason with the Carmelo Anthony trade. They finished this lockout-shortened season with the equivalent winning percentage of a 45-win team over a normal 82-game tilt. That result included an 8-15 start, an impossible-to-believe 7 game winning streak spearheaded by a Taiwanese PG who emerged from NBA marginalia while the Knicks two superstars sat, a subsequent walls-are-crumbling losing streak that caused Mike D’Antoni to resign with the team at 18-24, and an improbable 18-6 finish under Woodson that saw the Knicks realistically gunning for, and only narrowly missing out on, the division title. It was a crazy, topsy-turvy season, not the type of season you’d expect a serious championship contender to endure, and certainly not the type of season that screams out “If only we had _____, we’d win the whole thing.” (Unless we’re filling that “____” with “Lebron”.)

It was the type of season you can build on, though, and in the short and medium term, the Knicks have a lot going for them.  What the franchise needs to do at this moment is take stock of who they are and where they stand within the context of the East and the NBA and, rather than chase ghosts of 2010, continue to build rationally on this very promising thing they’ve got going. To me, the fact that Grunwald and Co. are prepared to move forward with Woodson indicates (1) that they think they’re onto something (I agree), (2) that they’re realists about who they are right now and (3) that they crave stability and continuity. For a franchise that’s been out in the wilderness (and out to lunch) for so long, these all seem like good things.

* * *

For most teams, greatness is a process. Players rarely just come together, find instant chemistry, and voila, championship.  It’s happened, but when it has it’s been because the team gelled unusually quickly (See 2008 Celtics, 2006 Heat) or simply had overwhelming talent that allowed it to overcome chemistry deficiencies (See the Heat of today, though, significantly, they haven’t won anything and nothing is promised to them this season either). For everyone else it seems, greatness, if it’s ever even achieved, is the hard-won reward for years of collectively grinding through 55-win regular seasons and bitter, lesson-infused playoff losses. For most, these steps can’t be skipped and, by now, it should be apparent to all the Knicks won’t be doing any skipping.

The first step in this process is putting together a team that has the talent to make the playoffs (mission accomplished), but the next step is building an organizational culture that renders making the playoffs a foregone conclusion. That’s where the Knicks are now. They have the talent to be a perennial playoff team. In fact, they have the talent to be a perennial top-4 team in the conference. The challenge now is imbuing the franchise, up and down, with the sentiment that winning is expected and anything less is unacceptable. Mike Woodson seems very well suited to guide the Knicks through this phase. In fact, it seems like he’s already begun.

We’ve all laughed at how frequently Woodson talked about instilling within his team and his individual players “accountability” for their actions on and off the court, and it is funny how much of a buzz-word he made it, but I’d submit that the “accountability” thing was pretty brilliant in its simplicity. When Woodson took over, he was staring at two superstar forwards, a center who would go on to be voted DPOY, a rookie guard proving to be one of the best one-on-one defenders in the game, Jeremy Lin, and a mob(b) (deep) of talented bench guys who, by many accounts, were routintely killing the starters in practice. In addition, the Knicks had an offense that had been designed by a coach who is still generally regarded as the finest offensive mind in the game and a defense that Woodson himself designed, was top-10, and he surely believed in. Surveying that landscape, it took an intelligent and restrained man to conclude that what needed to change most was that the players needed to play hard and take winning a little more personally. The Knicks problems weren’t with talent or acumen.  They were with culture and, yes, accountability. (And, of course, getting your coach-killing superstar to buy in.)

In short order Woodson’s imprint changed a loosey goosey, “I’m ok, you’re ok” team into one that expects to win, and makes demands on each other in the name of winning. Even better, he’s done this while preserving what was already a strong locker room and seemingly without alienating any particular players. Maybe this is easy to do and any coach could do it, but I doubt it.

 * * *

I’ll concede that Woodson isn’t the strongest Xs and Os coach available. In particular, he isn’t the most imaginative and he’s not the best tactician. He’s by no means bad at these aspects of the job (people seem to forget how much more varied the offense was as the team went 6-1 before Stoudemire and, particularly, Lin went down), but no one’s going to mistake him for Stan Van Gundy. Likewise, I’ll concede that he doesn’t bring Phil Jackson’s championship gravitas. I’ll even concede that it’s likely he won’t be the Knicks coach the next time the team raises a championship banner to the Garden rafters (I continue to believe this will happen someday).

But what if the Knicks hired Stan Van Gundy and he failed to connect with this group of players? What if he sowed discord in the locker room and his shrill, hard-driving personality pushed the Knicks further away from their goals instead of bringing them closer? And what if Phil actually did come and simply couldn’t summon the energy to coach a developing team through its inevitable growing pains, particularly knowing that it might not be good enough to someday win him another ring? In short, what if both of these guys are better coaches than Woodson but aren’t as well suited to coach the Knicks at this moment? It’s at least possible, right?

Moreover, to the extent these are potential problems with Woodson, they’re for another day. The Knicks first need to establish themselves as a top-tier playoff team before they can start trying to get over the hump. No matter how badly we want them to be, they aren’t there yet. They first need to work on today’s issues, something that Woodson is doing very well. Woodson’s deal isn’t done yet, but the fact that it appears the team realizes all of this is why I’m so pleased about the potential hire. It’s not just that I think he’s a solid coach. It’s that extending Woodson is evidence of long-term thinking and good process, two things that have been in too-short supply around MSG for ages.

For the first time in a decade, it seems as though the Knicks have taken stock of their position and, instead of worrying about ticket prices, or jersey sales, or media perception, they’re taking the long view. They’ve surveyed and said,  ”The GM built a good roster with good players in their prime and good developing players and we have a good coach the team plays hard for. We don’t need hire or fire anyone and we don’t need to trade anyone. Now we can get started.”


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