Moke Hamilton, NBA Analyst
Has Mike Woodson seen his last game as the head coach of the New York Knicks?
Losing five of your last six games before the All-Star break, including losses to the worst team in each conference could finally force James Dolan to reluctantly pull the plug on the coach who once led a spirited revival.
In the NBA, memories are just as short as the leashes that head coaches find themselves on. Just ask the recently deposed Maurice Cheeks, now formerly of the Detroit Pistons.
Or, better yet, go have a chat with two other Mikes — D’Antoni and Brown.
When you are coaching all-time greats like Steve Nash and LeBron James, it sure is easy to look like a genius.
But when things go terribly wrong, like they did for Cheeks and like they are for Woodson, the coach usually takes the fall, and whether or not he should depends on both the circumstances behind his team’s plight and the spirit that his players exude as they wade through the mud of mediocrity.
And unfortunately, for Woodson, the only thing left keeping him around is the mercy of his owner, because Woodson has done absolutely nothing to help himself.
Years ago, as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni won the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award in 2005. His tenure in Phoenix saw the Suns competing amongst the NBA’s elites. Brown, on the other hand, won the award four years later in 2009. His lack of offensive aptitude was easy to overlook since his Cavaliers managed to go 66-16.
In each instance, each head coach received per se credit for his team’s success, despite the fact that each team ran a motion based pick-and-roll system that benefitted greatly from the court vision and passing ability of Nash and James.
That is not to say that neither coach deserves some credit for their respective team’s success. One of a coach’s most difficult undertakings is to keep his team motivated, maintain his team’s trust and respect and get his team to buy in to what he is preaching and how he wants his team to play.
In that realm, D’Antoni and Brown both succeeded, but it is there that Mike Woodson has failed.
As Carmelo Anthony packs his bags for New Orleans and the Knicks sputter into the All-Star break at 20-32—12 games worse than the 32-20 record they had after 52 games last season—it does not take 30 more games to deem Woodson’s 2013-14 performance a failure.
Even if the Knicks go undefeated over their final 30 games, they will end the season four games worse than they did last season, despite the laughably bad Eastern Conference.
For these Knicks, things have gone terribly wrong. For the success of the Suns and Cavs, D’Antoni and Brown, respectively, got per se credit.
Woodson deserves per se blame.
All too often this season, the Knicks have looked sluggish and have played with a serious lack of effort. Wednesday night’s effort against the Sacramento Kings was the latest example. Without J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, the Knicks certainly had a tough task ahead of them, but the Kings entered Wednesday just 6-19 on the road.
With the loss, the Knicks now join the Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls as the only three teams to lose to the worst team in each conference.
The team’s offensive predictability is something that any defensive stalwart of a head coach can crack and Woodson’s questionable rotation decisions have certainly contributed to his team’s floundering this season. In overtime on Wednesday night, if it was not a pick-and-roll, it was an Anthony isolation. For better or worse, that is what Woodson has stuck with as his first, second and third option.
In the coach’s defense, his team has dealt with injuries all season long and he himself cannot control whether or not Shumpert, Felton, Metta World Peace or anyone else clanks wide-open looks, but he certainly can be blamed for not finding a way to maximize the pieces at his disposal.
For Exhibit A on that front, see the Chicago Bulls. Over the past few years, no team has dealt with more injury issues than them—When was the last time Tom Thibodeau complained about injuries and blamed them for his team losing?
The aging San Antonio Spurs are having a tough time staying healthy. Have you ever heard Gregg Popovich bring up attrition whenever his team seems to suffer a setback?
Of course not.
Still, Woodson never turns down an opportunity to remind anyone that will listen of his team’s plight.
After the Knicks suffered one of their worst losses of the season, a game which was there for the taking, Woodson answered the very first question asked of him with a reminder that Shumpert had gotten hurt earlier in the game. As true as it may be, good leaders—one capable of turning things around over the season’s final 30 games—don’t make excuses. They lead.
Instead, Woodson pivoted better than DeMarcus Cousins in the post.
“When Iman went down, that hurt, because we had a bad matchup problem with Timmy playing at the three spot,” Woodson said when asked what went wrong for his team.
“When [Shumpert] went out, I elected to ride Melo the rest of the way and we didn’t get it done,” he said.
In other words, when asked what happened, the first thing that Woodson elected to do was remind everyone that Shumpert went down. As true as it may be, winning coaches only mention injured players when specifically asked about them—not Woodson.
“We can’t go back and get this game,” he said. “Surely not having J.R. and Iman, when he left the game, that put us behind,” Woodson said before admitting he still believed that his team played well enough to win.
He thought wrong.
Back in 2009, when the Portland Trail Blazers were tearing up the NBA’s Western Conference to the tune of a 54-28 record, coach Nate McMillan’s rotation found an identity and was capably led by Brandon Roy, widely considered a prodigy at the time.
The following season, that 54-win team’s core of Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Fernandez, Greg Oden, Joel Pryzbilla and Nicolas Batum missed a combined total of 177 games, mostly due to injury.
A midseason trade saw two of the team’s other key pieces—Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw—traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for Marcus Camby. And despite it all, the Blazers followed up their 54-win season by going 50-32 the following year.
Capable leadership yields capable results. It starts from the top. Back then, McMillan proved that and since then, Thibodeau and Popovich have hammered the point home.
Wednesday night’s 106-101 loss to the Kings was just more of the same for these Knicks—Woodson’s Knicks. And although his removal may not yield more fruit, there is simply little reason to believe that he still has the faith of his locker room or the know-how to bail his Knicks out.
Even Anthony is getting tired of the questions about Woodson’s future.
“I’m not thinking about that at this point,” he said, not using the opportunity to give his coach a vote of confidence. “That’s been an ongoing issue, ongoing story,” he said. “Everyday it’s a new story. He’s still here and that’s what we’re dealing with,” he said.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
It took an overtime, but the well-rested Knicks were dispatched by the Kings, despite the fact that the Kings had played in Cleveland on Tuesday night before and entered play on Wednesday with a 6-19 road record.
Now, with just 30 games remaining in their season, the Knicks must go 20-10 just to avoid their 10th losing season since 2002. With 19 of those remaining games on the road and 14 of them against teams with winning records, it will be a tall task.
With the first 52 games of this season as a healthy sample, there is no reason to believe that Woodson is capable of leading such a turnaround. His players, for a long time now, have simply seemed to have tuned him out.
As All-Star Weekend approaches, the Knicks have been making calls and attempting to find a move that will bolster them in the present without sacrificing too much of their future. Maybe with Kyle Lowry or Andre Miller, the fortunes can change, but at this point, Woodson has given the public no reason to believe it is and it is quite likely that his players feel the same.
With Anthony’s deteriorating body language and passivity, for Woodson, the writing may be on the wall.
The life of a head coach simply isn’t fair. But if D’Antoni and Brown get per se credit.
Fair or not, Woodson has to shoulder the per se blame.
Moke Hamilton is the NBA Analyst for SNY.tv and, along with Lead Writer Harris Decker, hosts the Knicks Blog Podcast each and every Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter: @MokeHamilton