The New York Knicks will have something of a reunion tonight, when they take on the Los Angeles Lakers. Their opponent's coach is none other than Mike D'Antoni, who coached the Knicks for three and a half seasons before resigning last spring and being replaced with Mike Woodson.
Needless to say, the change has been far for the better.
Since Woodson took over as head coach, the Knicks have gone 34-11 and are currently the best team in the Eastern Conference. Though they showed flashes of potential under D'Antoni, the team right now is absolutely perfect for Woodson.
Look at it this way. Mike D'Antoni is an offensive coach, with a very specific system that needs a reliable point guard to run the pick-and-roll with a big man and also be able to provide some offense. Everyone else in the lineup basically takes on the role of spot scorer/shooter.
This can be seen in his current situation with the Los Angeles Lakers, though point guard Steve Nash is hurt and the team is struggling as a result. Just the same, Dwight Howard is often on the receiving end of the pick-and-roll, while Kobe Bryant serves as the lead scorer and sometimes playmaker. Everyone else from Pau Gasol to Metta World Peace to Antawn Jamison, serve as jump shooters who can also provide damage from three-point range.
D'Antoni used this very system in New York, and it worked well last season when Jeremy Lin was the star at the point with the regular stars injured or away from the team. The only problem was that Carmelo Anthony did not adapt to simply waiting for the ball on the wing, preferring to create his own shot and play his own game.
Because of the specificity of his system, D'Antoni would not adjust his offense as such, and the team's underachieving led him to resign. Woodson, then an assistant, took over, and the Knicks went 18-6 for the rest of the season.
Woodson is the exact opposite type of coach that D'Antoni is, and that is why the Knicks roster is perfect for him. As a defensive coach, who runs an isolation offense, he trusts his stars to play their game and the results have spoken for themselves.
All that he asks is that everyone put in a great effort on defense, and so far everyone has done just that. Going into tonight's game against Los Angeles, the Knicks rank 10th in points allowed per game, at 95.3.
The team is playing some great basketball and are easily among the favorites to win a championship, all because their coach trusts them to use their talents wisely and play for the good of the team. On top of that, the players seem happy.
Carmelo Anthony is having an MVP-caliber season, ranking second in the NBA in scoring at 27.7 points per game and trailing only Kobe Bryant. He is allowed almost total freedom with the ball, and is the unquestioned star of the team. His performance, combined with those of his teammates, is positive proof of just how great this roster is for Woodson.
This leads us to the most important reason as to why the current Knicks roster is a great fit for its coach. All numbers and performance aside, this roster is such a good fit because the players actually enjoy playing for Woodson.
Keep in mind that entering the offseason, Woodson did not have a contract for 2012-13. The Knicks players thought of him so highly, that Anthony was vocal to ESPN in his support of wanting him back on the sidelines.
"I'm a big supporter of what coach Woodson has done. His approach to the game, and what he gets out of all his players, even me. He holds everybody accountable and that's what we need."
He was asked again about supporting Woodson after practice on Tuesday.
The reasons Anthony cited included, "the confidence that [Woodson] instilled into everybody, the belief that he has in everybody. Just his coaching style, the way he's coached, [he's] kind of a hard-nosed coach. [He] holds everybody accountable out there, saying that everybody is responsible for their own actions. I would love to see him back around here."
The fact alone that Anthony, the man who essentially ran D'Antoni out of town, endorsed Woodson says it all. The mark of a great coach is not just a good win-loss record, but one who has the support of his players. Sure enough, Woodson landed a multiyear deal.
Based on the Knicks' performance this season, it is clear that the team has accepted Woodson's philosophy. Anthony is the star, and nobody can take that away from him. Everybody has their role, and there is no selfish play.
This is completely the opposite of what D'Antoni has done with the Lakers. They are a far more talented team than New York on paper, but have struggled to adapt to their new coach's system primarily because of his refusal to adjust the offense to get the best out of certain players.
Woodson, meanwhile, is enjoying the loud cheers of happy fans and getting great production out of equally happy players. This Knicks team is perfect for him, and their performance with him at the helm shows it.