How bad were things at the Garden on Saturday night? This bad:
That's bad, folks.
And while J.R. Smith's much-maligned brother never actually saw the court, it wasn't for lack of opportunity. Both teams emptied their benches at the end of a dispiriting 110-90 loss at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks.
With the loss, the New York Knicks have now lost their past five games at the World's Most Famous Arena, and the Garden fans are letting the team have it. Their vitriol has not been directed at the team's star, Carmelo Anthony, who played his heart out Saturday night at both ends of the court. They have stopped booing former punching bag Andrea Bargnani, who played yet another decent game with 16 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
Instead, the crowd has turned their anger on head coach Mike Woodson.
Some might find it a bit crass to call for the firing of a coach who led your team to its first division championship in nearly two decades after fewer than 10 games. Woodson's supporters will point to the fact that star center Tyson Chandler—the team's most irreplaceable player—and say it isn't fair to judge this team as if it were a finished project.
Forget all that. The fan's are right: Mike Woodson has been a disaster for this team.
Loyalty to the Wrong Players
When forward Amar'e Stoudemire has played this year, the games have taken on a distinct rhythm. He comes in near the end of the first quarter or beginning of the second quarter, and the opposition immediately makes a run.
Saturday night's game was no different: Amar'e came into the game at the start of the second quarter with the Knicks up 26-26, and just four minutes later the Hawks had opened up a 39-29 lead.
He played 14 minutes, adding to a disturbing trend: New York is now 0-4 when he plays more than 10 minutes in a game, according to Basketball Reference. He is a shell of the player he was on offense, and his defense has deteriorated to the point where he is now virtually unplayable. But he is a star, he has a big contract and Woodson continues to give him minutes over better defenders like Cole Aldrich.
Point guard Raymond Felton is by no means a star, but he is another player who has earned Woodson's undying trust, whether he is playing well or not. Last season, he was a terrible defender but earned his starting spot with solid offensive contributions. This year, however, he's been a disaster on both ends, but Woodson continues to stick with him for extended stretches, even as he brings the Knicks down around him.
But no player has earned a free pass from Woodson quite like J.R. Smith. The reigning Sixth Man of the Year stupidly earned a five-game suspension to start the season, and Woodson rewarded him with a starting spot in just his second game back. In the loss to the Hawks he repeatedly destroyed the Knicks' offensive flow, shooting 3-of-18 thanks to plays like this.
Smith knows he can get away with plays like this because Woodson has established over the past two years that he will never bench him for erratic play.
Now compare that with Woodson's treatment of third-year guard Iman Shumpert, who, despite his early-season struggles, at least attempts to play team basketball. Woodson's multiyear feud with Shumpert is legendary among Knicks fans, and the subject of this article from the New York Post's Marc Berman:
Woodson has had a problem with Shumpert’s cocksure attitude for some time, and according to a source, some of his superiors view the Georgia Tech product as “a head case’’ because he always doesn’t take coaching well.
So if you're scoring at home, Shumpert moves the ball, plays unselfishly and is generally associated with team-first mistakes like passing up open looks and over-helping on defense, and he is a "head case." Smith dribbles the ball into four defenders or jacks up contested 30-footers on a regular basis, and he can do no wrong.
A Defensive Coach Whose Teams Don't Defend
The pick-and-roll and the three-point shot are the two most critical facets of modern NBA offense; in the year 2013, any NBA defense that can't even bother a simple pick-and-roll and gives up wide-open threes on nearly every possession might as well not even take the court. Well, anyone who has watched at least five minutes of any Knicks game this season knows they have proved utterly incapable of defending either.
The Knicks couldn't really defend last year, either; they simply made up for their lack of defense by shattering the league record for made three-pointers. Now that the threes aren't falling at the same clip, New York needs to tighten up the defense.
At first blush, Woodson would seem like the man for the job. He took over for Mike D'Antoni on account of his reputation as a defensive coach. But is that reputation well-deserved? Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal investigated Mike Woodson's coaching career and made some startling discoveries:
In his seven full seasons as a head coach, he's never overseen a team that finished in the league's top-10 in defensive efficiency. (For context, since 1973, there have been 48 other coaches who've coached as long as Woodson has. And 43 of those coaches, or nearly 90% of them, have led at least one team to a top-10 finish in defense, per Stats LLC.)
Even in his eight full seasons as an assistant, Woodson worked with top-10 defenses just twice: once with Philadelphia (2001-02) and once with Detroit (2003-04), which went on to win an NBA title. In both cases, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, among the better known defensive-minded coaches in recent memory, was leading the team. (Woodson landed his first head-coaching job weeks after winning a title with the Pistons.)
Woodson's defensive schemes with the Knicks—which rely on switching nearly every screen—are unconscionably counterproductive. If anything, the scheme plays into the hands of New York's lazier defenders, who are not interested in fighting through screens. Instead, they switch on every screen, giving the opponent a quality shot attempt on nearly every possession.
If some Knicks are unwilling to fight through screens, and Woodson is simply catering to them, then Woodson is guilty of letting the inmates run the asylum. If Woodson is designing these schemes because he genuinely believes they will work, then he is guilty of extreme tactical deficiencies.
There Might Not Be a Solution
Knicks owner James Dolan is a stickler for loyalty—or at least his perverted idea of loyalty. No other owner on Earth would have stuck with Isiah Thomas as long as Dolan did. Woodson has been a good soldier for the Dolan regime—he even fired his old agent and signed with the Knick-friendly agency CAA.
But Dolan is nothing if not capricious, so the axe could fall on Woodson at any time. If it does, he will deserve it.
Will that help the Knicks? Probably not. When D'Antoni left in the middle of the 2011-12 season, Woodson, the assistant coach at the time, was at least a competent veteran replacement. Right now, there is no assistant coach on the Knicks' roster with previous head coaching experience except Herb Williams, who filled in as their interim coach for 44 games from 2003 to 2005.
In the end, there's always one important factor to keep in mind when dealing with the Knicks' front office incompetence: It can always get worse. The Knicks might trade a first-round pick to the Clippers for Vinny Del Negro, not realizing he doesn't work there anymore until it's too late. Or they might just call a former Pistons star who has a relationship with Dolan and the Knicks (and no, I'm not referring to Rasheed Wallace).
Sound too crazy to be true? A few months ago, perhaps. But the madness of the Dolan regime has devolved into such a shock-a-day circus that nothing can be taken for granted.
Changes eventually need to be made, it's true, but when it comes to Dolan's team, things can go from bad to Isiah in a heartbeat.