New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson has had a historically good start to his tenure in the Big Apple, but with the guaranteed portion his contract expiring next summer, he still has work to do to earn an extension.
Considering their cap situation, the Knicks will struggle to add any major pieces in the 2014 offseason without giving away some of their own talent or putting their presumed 2015 rebuild in jeopardy, so it might be smart to explore alternative coaching options as a way of improving the team.
The likes of Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Lionel Hollins and Jeff Van Gundy could be convinced to return to coaching if New York came calling with a talented roster like this. Alternatively, the Knicks could take a look at the college coaching scene. But either way, Woodson will have to prove he's worth keeping around.
Based on his first two years in charge, Woodson does appear to be deserving of a long-term contract, but that could change if he doesn't meet the team's high expectations in 2013-14. He's had successful regular seasons, but if he doesn't show signs of being able to take that success further into the playoffs, he may not be the man for the job.
Plenty of money has been spent building a talented roster with depth at every position, and on paper, this is a team that has a chance to contend for a title. It could all go to waste, however, if Woodson doesn't manage this squad the right way.
As a solid defensive coach who struck gold with the dual-point guard offense last season and managed to get career years out of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, there's good reason to believe Woodson should return next summer.
This isn't an article dismissing Woodson's body of work in New York or saying that he should be let go at season's end. It's simply a look at the reality of the situation—if he doesn't do these things, he may not be back in 2014-15.
You could make a very strong case that the Knicks have the deepest roster in the NBA, but the first obstacle for Woodson is finding a rotation that will get the best out of the talent in front of him.
The Knicks had plenty of success last year playing Carmelo Anthony at power forward, Iman Shumpert at small forward and using a dual-point guard system, but Woody may have to let that go for the better of the team.
While the small-ball lineup did help out in terms of spacing and ball movement, it also created issues elsewhere—namely putting Melo's health and Shump's development at risk.
Just because New York was able to win playing small ball, it doesn't necessarily mean it's the only way it can win. In Andrea Bargnani, the Knicks made an addition that will afford Woodson the opportunity to benefit from the same spacing of small ball without actually having Anthony at the 4.
Ideally, Woodson will start Melo and Bargnani at the forward spots and move Shumpert back to shooting guard, thus solving the two biggest problems with last year's lineup. Ball movement shouldn't be an issue with Pablo Prigioni moving to the bench because Shumpert is a solid passer for his position.
If Woodson decides to go with a different lineup—which is very possible since he's still unsure of the five he'll go with—it could cause a lot of problems for New York.
Keeping Anthony at power forward will not only put his body at risk, it will also create a situation where the Knicks have Bargnani, Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin on the same bench. Essentially, the frontcourt rotation becomes a mess.
Another issue for Woodson will be finding a way to get playing time for all three of his point guards without playing Shump at small forward for large chunks. Possible solutions could be to cut Raymond Felton's minutes or play J.R. smith at the 3 more often.
With the frontcourt, injuries and old age are likely going to make sure everyone gets their fair share of playing time, but keeping all the guards on the roster happy will be a difficult task.
Admittedly, there hasn't been too much to criticize Woodson for over the last year and a half, but if there's one thing that stands out, it's his reluctance to make changes when they're needed.
It's okay to trust your game plan and rotation, but there's a certain point during a game or a season where you have to go in a different direction if things aren't working.
That's why it was so frustrating last year for Knicks fans to see the team consistently switch on screens to create bad matchups, go with isolation on offense when it clearly wasn't working and leave Chris Copeland on the bench despite him proving himself to be a viable scoring option.
Woodson needs to be much more open to change in 2013-14 because his stubbornness was a big reason the team fell short in the second round against the Indiana Pacers. He kept going with Jason Kidd and J.R. Smith despite them being ice cold while Copeland never got the chance to play over 20 minutes in any one game.
Despite his lack of playing time, the Pacers certainly saw the value in Copeland, offering him a two-year, $6 million deal to pry him away from New York this summer.
Even with Cope and Kidd gone, the point is still clear for Woodson. He must avoid overuse of isolation on offense and not be afraid to pull inconsistent players like Smith when they're not playing well. Glen Grunwald has certainly given him the luxury to do so with the additions of Beno Udrih, Metta World Peace and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Most importantly, though, Woodson has to make sure his team doesn't settle for isolation plays so often. With a player like Carmelo Anthony, it can work on occasion, but when the offense revolves completely around it, chemistry is going to break down like we saw in the playoffs. The Knicks looked much more like the Mike D'Antoni-era Knicks against Indiana, and that can't happen again this year.
Over the course of his career, Woodson has been hailed as a defensive specialist, but you wouldn't have known it looking at last season's mediocre performance.
With that said, there's good reason to believe things can be turned around in 2013-14. After all, it was only a year ago that they had a top-five defense despite a lineup that included notoriously weak defenders in Anthony, Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin.
Defense—especially in terms of rotations and knowing where to be at the right time—comes down to chemistry, so it's understandable that New York struggled last season. Teams typically establish their systems during training camp, but the Knicks had key players (including Stoudemire, Shumpert, Marcus Camby and Kenyon Martin) who were either injured or not yet on the team at that tine last year.
Now that he has a full training camp to work with a relatively healthy squad that should stay put for the majority of the season, Woodson should be expected to make this an elite defensive team once again.
Building a strong offense should be simple. All the Knicks will need to do is ride Melo, pass the ball and field a lineup that spreads the floor, and they'll be a dominant force once again. Consistency was an issue last year, but even then, the solution was just to move the ball around more.
While the Knicks' offense was pretty woeful in the second round against Indiana, the poor play of their defense went under the radar. The Pacers were not a good offensive team and should not have been allowed to breach the 100-point mark twice in the series.
Because of that, defense will have to be a priority in training camp. The likes of Stoudemire and Bargnani need as much coaching as possible, and the Knicks will be relying on Woodson to provide just that.
Mike Woodson's tough love led to a career year for J.R. Smith in 2012-13, but it wasn't quite enough to keep him focused when it mattered most in the playoffs.
Asking Woody to turn Smith into a consistent second option is a little unfair, but it would be nice to see him shoot above 33 percent from the field in the postseason, which he hasn't managed during his two years with the Knicks.
It's hard to blame Woodson for J.R.'s antics, but as the team's head coach and a man that Smith looks up to, he certainly has a role to play in keeping him in line.
Woody's future in New York won't be dictated solely by Smith's play, but if he can get the 27-year-old to continue making strides, it will act as proof that he's one of the league's best motivators.
The same applies to Bargnani. His career in Toronto was defined by a distinct lack of intensity, but if Woodson can get some effort out of him, it will be great for the team and also great for Woodson's chances of earning an extension.
Again, looking at the history of these two players, it would be unfair to expect Woodson to turn them into reliable options every single night, but it certainly won't hurt his case if they improve their consistency.
One thing Woodson does have to do, however, is make sure he pulls Smith out of games when he goes cold. Smith wasn't just non-existent in the playoffs; he was a detriment to the team, and the Knicks would have been better without him attempting 15 shots per game against Indiana while hitting only 29 percent of them.
Iman Shumpert looks like he's going to be a key part of New York's future, and unlike last season, Woodson is going to have to make his development a priority.
Obviously, winning supersedes everything, but the ideal situation would be to field a winning team that has Shumpert playing 25-plus minutes a night at his natural shooting guard position.
That wasn't the case last season with the dual-point guard offense, mainly because Shumpert came back at a time when the partnership of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd/Pablo Prigioni was too good to break up. This time, however, he'll have a full training camp to build chemistry with Felton and earn a spot in the backcourt.
Shumpert was still a productive player at small forward, but watching him struggle to guard bigger players made it clear he's better suited to play at the 2.
At times during his first two years, Shumpert has also been over-aggressive on both ends of the floor, and Woodson will need to help him calm down and play more consistently. He'll need to take better shots and be more selective with when he goes for the steal on defense.
Woodson understands how talented Shumpert is, and it's safe to assume he'll be used properly this year. Woody was put in a difficult situation with him returning in the middle of the season, but this time he'll be able to get him involved from Day 1.
For the majority of his career, the knock on Woodson has been that he always coaches teams that are competitive but not quite good enough to actually compete for a title.
That was true of his entire tenure with the Atlanta Hawks, during which his team made the playoffs five times and never once made it out of the second round.
During his first two seasons in New York, Woodson has continued to get knocked out before the conference finals, and if that happens again in 2014, the Knicks may move on from him to avoid being a reincarnation of the Hawks.
Woodson has had plenty of excuses these last two years, especially looking at the injury report, but with the squad Glen Grunwald has built for him, there will be no excuses this time round. He has a team that goes two-deep at every position with a good mix of offensive and defensive personnel.
With the Eastern Conference growing ever stronger, Woody needs to prove that his coaching is good enough to vault the Knicks over the likes of the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets. If he can't do it this year, things are only going to get tougher in the future.
Unless the Knicks are agonizingly close, nothing else in this article will matter if it doesn't result in a conference finals berth. The converse is also true—if the Knicks struggle defensively, for example, but still make it past the second round, that may be enough to earn Woodson an extension.
For a team with expectations of a title, this is all that really matters. The other slides in this article are simply steps toward the overarching objective, and if Woodson can't take the team there, it won't be surprising to them go in another direction next summer.