Simplicity was certainly not a D’Antoni hallmark. His system was so complex that either everybody bought in or there was madness. When D’Antoni was here, he was known as a natty dresser and wine-rather-than-beer kind of guy, a coach who loved coaching but maybe loved life more. Woodson is comparatively dull. He lives in White Plains and says he rarely makes it into the city except for games. (He could name only three restaurants in town: Quality Meats, Cipriani’s, and Red Rooster.) His only real distinguishing attribute is that rather epic goatee, which is so solid and rectangular that it almost looks as if it’s attached to his head by Lego. “It ain’t hard to maintain,” he says. “I’ve got a good barber.” Woodson is just an old-school guy, a gym rat, someone who coaches his ass off, and, well, that’s it.
This is kind of late, but I just got around to reading this long-ish profile of Mike Woodson from Will Leitch in New York Magazine and found it interesting. Definitely worth reading the whole thing, if for no other reason than you’ll probably walk away liking Woody a bit more, although perhaps be no more or less convinced he’s the right coach for the Knicks.
What was interesting to me is that it makes a clear distinction about the styles of Mike Woodson and Mike D’Antoni as coach of the Knicks. As an aside, I should admit I personally liked D’Antoni, even though I can fully acknowledge that at this point his tenure is fairly indefensible. I used to say about D’Antoni that I felt a bit like those voters who say they disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance but like him personally, “It’s not that he’s a bad guy, just a radical socialist intent on destroying our way of life.” In this analogy, our way of life was a commitment to defense.
The piece begins by observing that D’Antoni’s practices had a certain lack of structure that Woodson has clearly eliminated, but though Woodson is a disciple of Bobby Knight — someone he credits with changing his life — he isn’t necessarily a screamer. He’s just much more detail oriented about how the team operates.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of all this and how it translates to the clear improvement of the team under Woodson. When it comes to coaching it’s always a little hard to know whether the X’s and O’s are most important, or whether it’s just the force of personality at the top. On the one hand, we’re talking about the NBA, while obviously coaches have individual beliefs, one imagines they all possess a high level of understanding of the game of basketball. Finding a clear schematic advantage is probably very difficult. So perhaps at the end of the day, the difference does come down to less tangible things like superior leadership or management of egos and what have you. There’s always a certain unknowable quality to good coaching, the right mixture of proper scheme, game management, motivation and mentoring that goes into it, with maybe a hint of nutmeg.
On the other hand, D’Antoni did make his name as someone who had truly innovated the way offense was played and was inarguably wildly successful with the Suns, despite never coming anywhere near matching that level of success with the Knicks. And yet, the problem of his tenure the last year didn’t seem tactical. It did seem like a problem of effort and organization. Leitch observes this difference from a D’Antoni practice:
When you watch Woodson run practice, it’s not only much more together and focused than it was when D’Antoni was coaching; somehow everyone also seems to be having more fun. D’Antoni couldn’t help but keep himself somewhat at a remove from the action; he had his schemes, he let his players know how to run them, and he generally left them alone to figure it out. If they didn’t buy in, that was their problem, not his.
I mean, if you watched the team play last year, a group of players aimlessly wandering around practice is kind of the exact mental image you might have drawn.
There was also the effort. Now, for sure, teams always look like they’re playing harder when they’re winning. So it’s sometimes simplistic to just observe that a team is trying harder, but it’s hard to say otherwise with the Knicks and Carmelo in particular. Melo appears to simply prefer playing for Woodson and when you’ve acquired a player of that caliber it is probably in your best interest to try and see if something can be done to get the most out of him. Woodson clearly does that. We could debate how much that fact bothers us about Melo, but for the Knicks it becomes something of a no-brainer.
So while it’s obviously not as simple as the fact that D’Antoni prefers Pinot Noir while Woodson likes Budweiser — I like both, for what it’s worth — the Knicks have been a far superior team with Mike Woodson on the bench.
And at this point, that’s really all that matters.