Woodson took over for an 18-24 Mike D’Antoni and went 18-6 with essentially the same roster. Then became the only Knicks coach' to win a playoff game in over a decade.
His first full year started out even better, taking this season’s squad to a 21-8 start and a grip on the East’s top seed.
Along the way, New York played defense, something that hadn’t been seen around this town in a while. Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony showed they can play together, or at least better than before.
Woodson had J.R. Smith come off the bench over the shooting guard’s protests. As a result, Smith has blossomed into an All-Star caliber player posting the best statistical line of his career. J.R. has made innumerable contributions in Knicks’ wins (and losses).
Woody embraced Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace from the outset with faith and confidence. It breathed new life into their old games; both oozed leadership on and off the court and were extensions of the coach.
Woodson has had to navigate long-term injuries to Stoudemire, Wallace, Iman Shumpert, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas. Carmelo Anthony has missed 13 games, 20 percent of the season. Raymond Felton has missed 12. All of this, and the Knicks are still atop the Atlantic Division and just a game off the second seed.
Woodson’s manner and tone is smooth, and it’s his own brand of TLC that has brought this group together as a team. He’s a player’s coach. You would like to play for him.
This is all very impressive stuff, and Mike Woodson deserves a lot of credit for it and for turning the Knicks into a serious contender—certainly more serious than anticipated.
No one really saw that start. No one imagined the Knicks would go up a dominant 2-0 on the Heat. No one believed Carmelo Anthony could get along with a coach.
And though injuries and age have really caught up to the Knicks since the turn of the year and can be primarily blamed for the team’s relative unraveling, some culpability must head Woodson’s way.
He doesn’t deserve to be lambasted. But let’s be fair—Woodson’s made some personnel and strategic missteps that have led to losses and maybe even injuries.
The Knicks are 19-18 since that 21-8 start, and a coach, if he’s a good one, must take some responsibility for such a slide. Woodson doesn’t shy away from the blame and he deserves additional credit for that.
But where could he be doing better?
Let’s start with the age and injuries. Despite his seemingly slow and delicate handling of Stoudemire’s return, Woodson has overused much of this fragile roster and at the wrong times, too.
Jason Kidd has fallen off the cliff thanks to minutes he can clearly no longer handle. He’s on the court 27 minutes a game, at least seven more than he should be.
Why not boost Pablo Prigioni’s playing time at least five of those minutes? Prigioni has enough of the endurance and can cover both sides of the floor. Isn’t that the point of Prigioni, to preserve the Knicks’ main backcourt players for the final stretch of the season and the playoffs?
Finally, Pablo has gotten two starts in a row in the Knicks' last two games. James White was an obvious mistake.
“Down double-digits in the second half, showing no real signs of fight, Woodson kept the Knicks’ two indispensable stars, Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler, on the floor far longer than he should have. A comeback attempt was futile, and it seemed Woodson was simply running up the odometers of his two most important players on the opening game of a tough, important Western Conference swing.”
This was two days after Stoudemire was declared out for the season. And so, Anthony and Chandler would miss more than three games each of the five-game trip, and the Knicks would luckily go 1-4.
Woodson has been overusing J.R. Smith, too, but in a different way. Smith is averaging over 30 minutes for the first time in his career, but that’s not the issue and not even necessarily a bad thing. He is good enough to be a starter and put up the minutes.
The problem is the amount of time J.R. Smith is in possession of the ball and in control of the game. He’s not a point guard and he’s not usually the best player on the floor. So much of the Knicks’ fate needs not be in Smith’s hands.
The result is a diminishing of Smith’s potential, a hoard of poor-shooting games and bad decisions, and often a lack of game plan at critical times.
There is a distinct lack of set up and penetration. Things get a bit haphazard. CBS’s John Schmeelk exposes the “warts” in Woodson’s end game very much personified in Smith's erratic play:
“The Knicks never do anything creative with their late-game and final possessions. It’s often a simple isolation that turns into a low-percentage shot. His lineups are becoming stranger as the season goes along — and his end-of-game plays have been non-existent, less than inventive and downright boring all year.”
Woodson needs to rein in the late-game isolation once and for all, unless a high-percentage shot makes itself available. How about drawing something up?
One other thing Woodson needs to rein in is his team's unacceptable emotional outbursts, which are nothing but sore losing. There is almost never a fight, and more rarely a scuffle or technical, when the Knicks are way ahead.
The blame for this lack of control can be laid squarely at the coach's feet.
In the end, though, while it is fair to question Woodson’s ownership of the team and some of his strategy (or lack thereof), he’s still proven to be a solid coach and he is the right coach for Anthony and this team. However you look at it, he’s earned his right to the helm for some time longer.