New York Knicks coach Mike Woodson’s job status has been bandied about since the season’s first weeks. Despite all manner of pronouncements about his permanence from the team’s front office, his often-criticized coaching and preparation style and the team’s disappointing 19-29 record leave him as the obvious go-to lightning rod for frustrated fans, media, players and anonymous executives.
The Knicks are 10-8 in the calendar year, but that record includes both a five game winning streak and a five game losing streak. The most recent four game winning streak was run up against dubious competition, and it’s possible that Monday’s loss to the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks was the season’s low point.
In a column pitched to reveal that Knick big man Amar’e Stoudemire’s limited minutes (just 18.9 per game, no starts) were the decision of Woodson’s, and not Stoudemire’s doctors, Record columnist Steve Popper wrote that “one league source” told him that Woodson could be gone before the trade deadline in just over two weeks. A “league source” could mean anything from an agent to player to rival executive to the bloody owner of these New York Knicks, but at the very least it’s worth discussing whether or not any change would do the Knicks good.
Stoudemire joined what has been a chorus of players with little to say that sounds as if it is backing Woodson. With bad losses mounting and the season running down, earlier assurances from Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan that no changes were going to be made may be as hollow as Woodson’s insistence that the Knicks still can be a power in the Eastern Conference.
The Knicks enter tonight’s game against the Portland Trailblazers with a 19-29 record and if they hoped that the Miami Heat would be a measuring stick Saturday, perhaps the real measuring stick was Monday in Milwaukee when they dropped a game to a Bucks’ squad that has won just nine games. In measuring themselves, the Knicks are closer to the bottom than the top.
It’s true that bringing in a coach that would eschew Woodson’s long time “switch everything”-philosophy when it came to defending the endless screen and rolls an NBA team faces would be an upgrade, but what sort of mid-season upgrade could be expected from this? This is a rotation that has been playing the same way under Woodson for years, and they’re going to be expected to start talking and anticipating and executing an entirely new set of defensive rules, on the fly, without even the benefit of a training camp?
That would be tough even if personnel from the Indiana Pacers or Chicago Bulls were in place, but those sorts of talkative, long and swift defenders aren’t working in New York. Some unholy amalgamation of Jeff Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Phil Jackson could show up to take over the press conference announcing Woodson’s firing, but even that best case inhuman scenario wouldn’t result in significant change. Woodson’s techniques may be unorthodox, and they are a big reason why the Knicks are ranked 25th defensively, but they’re not easily straightened out via a new voice and new approach. Especially some 50-plus games into a season.
The great go-to interim coach legend is Jeff Van Gundy, who took over for Don Nelson in the heart of what was a disastrous turn as Knicks coach nearly three quarters of the way into 1995-96. That year’s team, under Dave Checketts, was one of the first to realize that dealing talent for expiring contracts could set up a nice financial windfall and eventual salary cap space the next summer – so Checketts dealt away several solid players for scrubs on expiring contracts that would not receive many minutes.
Van Gundy didn’t relent. In spite of the trade deadline giveaways, and finished the season 13-10 after eschewing Nelson’s offense. His Knicks swept a very good Cleveland club in the first round of that year’s playoffs, and gave a 72-win Bulls team all it could handle in the second round, despite Chicago’s 4-1 series win. Van Gundy went on to coach the team until 2001, making the Finals in 1999, acting as the gold standard for all hoped-for savior interim coaches along the way.
Not only is Jeff Van Gundy not available, but a future Van Gundy probably isn’t in New York’s ranks. Worse, despite the presence of Carmelo Anthony and one of the league’s highest payrolls, this team isn’t anywhere near as good as the stripped-bare, expiring contract-rich Knicks of 1995-96.
These Knicks, just two games behind the eighth-seeded Charlotte Bobcats, may still make the playoffs yet, because the East is that bad. And Mike Woodson may not be the best coach for this team – his removal after the season might be the best thing for both sides.
That doesn’t mean any desperate coaching switch out, in the middle of February, will make a lick of difference in New York. They’re too far in, for that.
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