Mike Woodson praises Tom Thibodeau, talks Knicks ahead of NBA playoffs

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Mike Woodson claps hands while coaching Clippers game
Mike Woodson claps hands while coaching Clippers game

Mike Woodson grew up in Indiana. He starred at Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis and at Indiana University under Bobby Knight.

Now, he’s the head coach of Indiana University, a dream scenario for the 63-year-old. If the Hoosiers hadn’t called, Woodson would still be an assistant coach in New York under Tom Thibodeau.

“I would never have left the Knicks for any other job; there’s no way,” Woodson told SNY over the phone late last week. “That's just how much respect that I have for Jim Dolan and what he's done for me.”

Woodson’s focus right now is on Indiana, getting his program ready for the coming season. But he still checks in regularly with people in the Knicks organization. Last week, he spent time on the phone with Thibodeau.

“I’m just thrilled that they’re in the position they’re in,” Woodson said.

The Knicks, of course, are the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, preparing for a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks.

Not many people saw this coming. One Las Vegas sportsbook set the Knicks’ over/under win total at 22.5.

If you ask Woodson why the Knicks have been able to thrive this year, he gives you a succinct answer: “Tom Thibodeau.”

Thibodeau is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year. Julius Randle seems like a lock for Most Improved Player and has put together a strong case for a spot on an All NBA team. Around Thibodeau and Randle, the Knicks have gotten key contributions from players, coaches, and the front office.

Woodson was there for nearly all of it. Below, he shares some thoughts about this Knicks season and looks ahead to the postseason.

(Woodson, obviously, is the only Knicks coach to win a playoff series in the last 20 years, so he has a valuable perspective on the topic).

SNY: THE KNICKS ARE IN THE PLAYOFFS FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE YOUR TEAM DID IT IN 2013. WHAT HAS GONE SO WELL FOR THIS TEAM THIS YEAR?

WOODSON: Tom Thibodeau. It starts at the top. There's no doubt about that. And you gotta give Jim Dolan a lot of credit for taking a chance on Leon Rose, who has done a great job. And for bringing on [William Wesley], who’s been around the basketball world for a long, long time. And his relationships over the years are phenomenal with people from all walks of life.

At the end of the day, they decided to go with Thibs as head coach. There were a lot of people in the running for that job. They chose Thibs, that was their comfort zone and it couldn’t have worked out better. I didn’t know Tom Thibodeau (before joining his staff). Didn’t get to know him until I was asked to come back (as an assistant coach). You hear all kinds of stories, good and bad.

But I'll always judge people for who they are - when I'm with them and around them. And it doesn't get any better than Tom Thibodeau as far as Mike Woodson is concerned. He's organized; there's a reason why he's won because he’s got everything in order.

Feb 28, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to his team during the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.
Feb 28, 2021; Detroit, Michigan, USA; New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau talks to his team during the third quarter against the Detroit Pistons at Little Caesars Arena.

SNY: YOU’VE COACHED – AND WON - AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS. YOU’VE WORKED WITH SOME ELITE COACHES. WHAT MAKES THIBODEAU A GREAT COACH?

WOODSON: “He knows how to adapt; that's what coaching is all about. When we came into this season, I knew that we were going to be a good defensive team based on his track record and the fact that that's what he pushed early (in training camp). And I think what amazed me more was his offense and the way he got guys to play together.

The bottom line is when you can get your team to adapt to your system on and off the floor, you’re doing something right. And Tom has done that. I have nothing but respect for Tom Thibodeau. He should be Coach of the Year, as far as I'm concerned.

SNY: THIS WAS A NEW GROUP – BOTH THE PLAYERS AND THIBS’ STAFF. HOW DID HE GET BUY-IN FROM EVERYONE?

WOODSON: He came in very open minded. He's not that type of coach who says, ‘Hey, it's my way or the highway.’ He listened to everybody. He gave everybody latitude to voice their opinions and work. And that's what coaches should do. This idea of you not wanting to let your (assistant) coaches to advance or learn the game is bulls—t to me. If somebody's going to work for me, I want them to be successful, too. Because if they’re successful, I’m successful. It all works hand in hand.

SNY: COULD YOU TELL EARLY ON THAT JULIUS RANDLE WAS ON THE VERGE OF A BIG SEASON OR DID THIS SURPRISE YOU?

WOODSON: “I wouldn't call it a surprise because he's been a pretty solid player in the league. It wasn’t new to him. He’s put up some decent numbers (in past seasons). But I think his comfort zone with having (Knicks assistant) Kenny [Payne] around him. Kenny is a magician, man. Kenny has a way of getting in guys' heads. I have no idea what he said to Julius but the fact that he coached Julius in college, he had a relationship (with him) and he worked with Julius, I think Julius bought in at a high level in terms of what Thibs was preaching. And whatever Kenny was selling, it's been pretty damn good all across the board.

Also, Julius, to me, should be player of the year. That's just my feeling based on what he's done for that team and how he's gotten guys around him to play at a high level. That's what superstars do.

Mar 23, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) reacts during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden.
Mar 23, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) reacts during the second half against the Washington Wizards at Madison Square Garden.

SNY: WHAT WAS IT LIKE WHEN RANDLE GAVE YOU HIS JERSEY AT THE GARDEN AFTER HE HAD 40 POINTS AGAINST THE HAWKS?

WOODSON: “That was unbelievable, man. When you coach players, you don't know what players really think of you. From their heart. For all those players to do what they did -- showing me love and respect, and Julius giving me the jersey after scoring 40 points, come on. I walked away from that very touched and grateful that I've had an opportunity to coach all those guys. The short period of time I spent around them, I felt I’d known them for years.

There were things I probably said to them in the midst coaching (that were harsh). We’re battling, trying to get them to play at a high level, do the things that you ask -- that's all about coaching. And it really is. And they respected me for that.

SNY: YOU KNOW HOW TO WIN IN THE NBA; YOU KNOW ABOUT WINNING ORGANIZATIONS IN THIS LEAGUE. DO YOU SEE THE KNICKS’ SUCCESS THIS SEASON AS SOMETHING THAT THEY CAN CONTINUE TO BUILD UPON? OR DO YOU SEE THIS AS MORE OF A ONE AND DONE?

WOODSON: This won't be a one and done thing and I’ll tell you why: They’ve done something that you just don’t see in NBA basketball. When you take a team of players that buy into a system and then they win, you don’t see that a lot. That team normally has to grow two, three, four years before you actually see the dividends from it.

They blossomed early. And I don't think it's a one-and-done thing because I think there are going to be players who want to come to New York based on what’s happened. And if that's the case, they’ll get a player or two that can really help them maybe make the major jump.

SNY: WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE KNICKS IN THE PLAYOFFS?

WOODSON: Don't be surprised with the playoffs because it's wide open as far as I'm concerned. I've always said that anybody can hit it at the right time and do something special – like the Detroit Pistons in 2004. The thing that they have going for them – there’s no pressure and they defend.