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The New York Knicks fired head coach Mike Woodson on Monday, five days after the end of a tumultuous, disappointing season that saw the Knicks freefall from Atlantic Division champions to an also-ran unable to reach the postseason in the worst Eastern Conference in recent memory. It was the right thing to do, and yet it might solve nothing; such is the state of the New York Knicks at the end of the 2013-14 NBA season.
After an early Monday meeting, new Knicks president of basketball operations Phil Jackson announced that Woodson and his entire coaching staff had been "relieved of their duties, effective immediately."
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mike Woodson and his entire staff," Jackson said in a team statement. "The coaches and players on this team had an extremely difficult 2013-14 season, and blame should not be put on one individual. But the time has come for change throughout the franchise as we start the journey to assess and build this team for next season and beyond."
Turner Sports announcer Steve Kerr — who formerly served as the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, played for Jackson for five years with the Chicago Bulls and knows the triangle offense that Jackson ran during his coaching career — is rumored to be the Zen Master's pick to take the Knicks' reins. Reports circulated last week that Kerr expected to be offered the job should it become available and would accept it. Kerr refused to comment on the Knicks' coaching situation on Sunday.
Woodson exits New York having compiled a 109-79 record in parts of three seasons, leading the Knicks to two playoff berths and the franchise's best season in more than a dozen years. But he was also the public face of an excruciating 2013-14 season in which virtually everything that could have gone wrong did, and often in spectacular fashion.
Woodson joined the Knicks in August 2011, one year following his firing after six years as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks. He was brought in to serve as an assistant coach, and something of a defensive coordinator, on the staff of Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni prior to the 2011-12 season. D'Antoni resigned (under dubious circumstances) 42 games into that lockout-shortened campaign amid reported clashes with star forward Carmelo Anthony that helped quell Linsanity and short-circuit the most exciting era in recent Knicks memory. The spark that had made an expensive collection of mismatched parts into something exciting was gone, and the Knicks were once again a squad that seemed to be going nowhere. Woodson got them going somewhere.
Upon being elevated from assistant to interim head coach, Woodson turned to his wing-isolation-loving Atlanta roots and turned the Knicks' offense back over to Anthony on the bully block. He largely eschewed the pick-and-roll prowess of Lin, who was later sidelined by a knee injury, in favor of the (kind of) caretaker point-guard tandem of Baron Davis and Mike Bibby. The mix, along with renewed buy-in from the boys in blue and orange, led to an 18-6 finish to the 2011-12 regular season that got the Knicks into the playoffs.
They were smoked in the first round by the Miami Heat, but they did score a win over the eventual NBA champions, the franchise's first postseason victory since 2001. On the strength of that finish, Woodson received a multi-year contract extension and a chance to run the Knicks for a full season with a full offseason and training camp.
The next season, Woodson — his hand forced by a preseason knee injury to oft-ailing star Amar'e Stoudemire — slotted Anthony at power forward alongside reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler, shooting guard/small forward Iman Shumpert, and the two-point-guard backcourt of offseason additions Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd. As Seth Rosenthal of Posting and Toasting has written, this was a move Woodson likely never wanted to make and with which he likely never felt comfortable ... but it worked.
Behind a newfound commitment to spreading the floor, swinging the ball around the perimeter, running lots of pick-and-rolls, hunting open 3-pointers and giving Anthony loads of room to operate, the Knicks fielded the third-most potent offense in the league. They rode a hail of long-balls and Felton-to-Chandler lob dunks to a 54-28 record that earned the franchise's first Atlantic Division title in 19 years and the No. 2 seed in the East. New York beat the Boston Celtics to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2000 before falling to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Again, Woodson was rewarded with an extension, this time running through the end of the 2014-15 season. (Yep, the Knicks will be paying him not to coach for them next year.)
The wheels came off for Woodson this season, though, as a year that began with championship expectations — in some quarters, at least — quickly disintegrated.
Kidd retired and moved to the bench in a different borough, leading the Brooklyn Nets to the playoffs in his first year as a head coach. Sweet-shooting end-of-the-bench find Chris Copeland left, signing a free-agent deal with the Pacers. Big men Kurt Thomas and Rasheed Wallace hung 'em up, too, taking two more veteran voices out of the Knicks' locker room. Marcus Camby exited as well, sent with sharpshooter Steve Novak, late-season addition Quentin Richardson and multiple draft picks to the Toronto Raptors in an offseason deal that brought back former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani, who had fallen out of favor north of the border due to his declining shooting touch, lacking rebounding and poor defensive play.
Woodson began the season with the 'Melo-at-the-four, two-point-guard look that was so successful in 2012-13, notching an opening night win over the Milwaukee Bucks. He quickly abandoned it, though, inserting Bargnani in the starting lineup for Game 2 against the Chicago Bulls, which the Knicks lost on a game-winning floater by Derrick Rose. Much as he had throughout the Knicks' postseason loss to the Pacers, when given enough healthy fours and fives to do it, Woodson insisted on using "big" lineups featuring heavy doses of Bargnani and Stoudemire. Such lineups were roundly trounced by the opposition, largely due to their inability to get stops or secure rebounds on the defensive end.
Knicks fans began booing Bargnani almost immediately. (He offered many reasons to do so.) The 7-foot Italian had a largely undistinguished first season in New York before tearing a ligament in his left elbow while trying to dunk from very far away from the basket against the Philadelphia 76ers and missing the remainder of the season. Before Bargnani's injury, the Knicks ranked 19th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession and had the league's eighth-worst "net rating," which measures whether you score more than your opposition over the course of 100 possessions, or vice versa. After the injury, the Knicks ranked fourth in the NBA in points scored per possession and were 14th in net rating, posting the sixth-best mark in the East. Still, near the end of the regular season, Woodson referred to Bargnani as a "big piece of the puzzle" whose absence hurt the Knicks' chances of competing.
Bargnani was far from the only Knick to struggle, though. J.R. Smith followed his Sixth Man of the Year award by getting suspended for a third positive marijuana test, missing the first five games of the season after rehabilitating from a a post-contract-signing knee surgery, shooting 35 percent from the floor over his first 30 games, and getting fined for Twitter fights and "recurring instances" of trying to untie opponents' shoes on the court.
It was that fine — not the routinely negative play on both ends of the court over the prior nine weeks — that got Woodson to bench Smith for a nationally televised win over the Miami Heat, which made some sense. When Woodson benched him again a week later for a loss to the Charlotte Bobcats, nobody, J.R. included, seemed to know why. Smith responded to Woodson, though; after the second benching, he averaged just under 17 points per game on 45 percent shooting and a 42.3 percent mark from 3-point range. ("He was great to me," Smith told ESPN New York's Ian Begley on Monday, after news of the firing spread. "I think I got a fair shake for the first time in a while under him. He treated me how he wanted to be treated. It sucks, but there is nothing I can do about it.")
Knicks games continued to be marked by punchless offense, porous defense (especially after defensive centerpiece Chandler suffered a fractured leg) and poor play from a slew of contributors — Smith, Bargnani, Felton, trade-rumor-constant Shumpert, and more. New York lost 13 of its first 16 games, including a nine-game losing streak, and ended 2013 with a record of 9-21, tied for the third-worst record in the NBA.
There were lots of embarrassing home losses, lots of glaring defensive lapses, bouts of in-fighting, and near-nightly dysfunction. Following a nationally televised blowout by Kidd's Nets, Chandler bristled at Woodson's switch-heavy defensive schemes, and said during his season-ending interview that the Knicks needed to "alter a lot of stuff ... offensively and defensively, honestly." In his exit interview, Stoudemire said "there was times that we didn’t totally buy into" Woodson's coaching on either end of the floor.
New York won six of seven after the calendar flipped to 2014, earning victories over the likes of the Heat, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, to give fans a glimmer of hope that the tide had turned. This was immediately followed by a five-game losing streak in which the Knicks were outscored by a combined 79 points, including a home loss to a 76ers team that would go on to lose 26 straight games.
That was the way of things for the 2013-14 Knicks — a four-game winning streak followed by a three-game losing streak; a nice road win over the New Orleans Pelicans followed by a double-overtime loss to the woeful Orlando Magic; a chance to make hay and gain ground on the injury-plagued and spiraling eighth-seeded Hawks scuttled by a seven-game losing skid that dropped the Knicks to 21-40. Every time the awful East seemed to leave the door open for the Knicks, Woodson's crew seemed determined to slam it shut as loudly and forcefully as possible.
Woodson heaped a monstrous workload on Anthony, riding him to a league-leading 38.7 minutes per game and his heaviest single-season total minutes load since his rookie year. Inexpensive offseason additions Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih found themselves out of favor with Woodson right away, with World Peace playing sparingly after the first three weeks of the season before getting injured and being relegated to the end of the bench and Udrih becoming a frequent Woodson scapegoat when given a chance to play by an injury to Felton. The two were waived midseason. Udrih is now serving as the backup point guard for the Western Conference's No. 7 seed, the Memphis Grizzlies.
With perimeter defense and rim protection profiling as arguably the Knicks' two most significant problems this year, Woodson largely refused to give rookie point guard Toure' Murry (their second-best perimeter defender) and center Cole Aldrich (who rebounded a third of opponents' misses and blocked 8.1 percent of their field-goal attempts during his floor time) consistent opportunities to play. Intriguing big man Jeremy Tyler remained stapled to the bench, even with veteran defensive big man Kenyon Martin out due to ankle injuries and Chandler looking like a shell of his former self for much of the season. There might not have been many attractive solutions on the roster, but Woodson largely stayed with the unappetizing status quo, which went a long way toward digging the hole that doomed the Knicks, and Woodson himself.
New York did finish off the season on an uptick, winning 16 of its final 21 games to make a last-gasp effort to catch the Hawks in the race for the No. 8 spot. The Knicks did briefly overtake Atlanta before dropping a pair of early April contests that put the Hawks back in pole position and gave Mike Budenholzer's club the chance to clinch a playoff berth by beating the Heat on the final weekend of the regular season. They did, eliminating the Knicks and effectively sealing a fate that most observers had long since assumed Woodson would suffer following the conclusion of the season.
The Knicks finished the year at 37-45 — which was, in a sense, perfect — despite Anthony turning in perhaps the best and most productive season of his 11-year career. Still, despite that disappointment, Anthony said during his season-ending interview that he supported Woodson.
“I would back him,” Anthony said. “I mean, if he needs my recommendation, whether it’s here or anywhere else, I’ll back him. I have nothing bad to say about Mike Woodson. I support him, and for me, as a player, I had some of my best years under Mike Woodson.”
With Woodson now gone, the biggest question facing New York this summer is whether Anthony will follow suit.
Anthony intends to exercise the early termination option for the final year of his contract and enter the market this summer as an unrestricted free agent. The collective bargaining agreement affords the Knicks the opportunity to offer Anthony a longer and more lucrative contract than any other team; a full maximum contract from the Knicks would pay Anthony roughly $129 million over the next five seasons. The most any other suitor could offer him is a four-year deal worth just under $96 million.
Anthony said earlier this season he'd be amenable to taking a bit less money than the absolute maximum in free agency. But after missing the postseason for the first time since entering the NBA in the 2003 draft and feeling "like we gave away this year," he made it clear during his season-ending media session that finances will not be his primary deciding factor.
"Let’s be quite frank. At this point in my career, I’m not concerned about the money. The contract will be the contract regardless,” Anthony said last week, according to Peter Botte of the New York Daily News. “Without a doubt, at this point in my career it’s about winning. Nothing else even matters. That’s not going to change. That’s still going to be my mind-set, it is my mind-set. You know, that’s going to be my No. 1 thing.”
If that's the case, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller noted, Anthony could be on his way out of town.
The Knicks are totally capped out and over the luxury tax for next season, meaning they have very little financial flexibility to be able to add free-agent talent. They have no picks in the 2014 NBA draft, thanks to prior trades (including the deal that imported Anthony from Denver); they cannot trade their 2015 first-round pick for more immediate help, due to league rules; and they have no picks in the 2016 draft, thanks to prior trades.
They have extremely expensive players no other team is likely to want (Stoudemire, Bargnani); a very expensive player (Chandler) who might draw some interest, but whose value is likely lower than it's been in several years after a down season; two players on movable deals whom no other suitor is likely to want (Smith, Felton); and two inexpensive young players (Shumpert and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr.) who are very tradable, but also the only two Knicks likely to get better over the course of their contracts. Building the next competitive iteration of the Knicks will require many things — shrewd moves, careful management, lights-out scouting on inexpensive end-of-the-roster types, etc. — but the most important one is probably time. With the minutes piling up and the years going by, Anthony may not be willing to give his anymore.
This is the untenable situation that Jackson was brought to New York to manage, the intractable problem he was hired to solve. We don't know yet what his grand plan might look like, but we now know that it won't be carried out by Woodson. I'd say that whichever coach comes in to replace Woodson will have a hard time matching the weirdness of his two-plus-year tenure, but this is the Knicks, bar-raising weirdness is the rule, not the exception.
In that spirit, let's bid farewell to Coach Woodson with the final, and definitive, Mike Woodson Reaction Reel, brought to us by Oakley and Allen:
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