For 48 hours, fans of the New York Knicks had cause to hope.
Last week, the Knicks finally stormed their way out of the Atlantic Division basement with a pair of 30-point blowouts over the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic. Suddenly head coach Mike Woodson had reintroduced ball movement and three-point shooting into the offense, reminiscent of the 2012-13 Knicks squad that captured the division.
Nope. Instead, those two wins look like a mere blip on the radar following the Knicks' second humiliating defeat in a row, a 109-94 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Tuesday night. Woodson's team showed the same wretched isolation-heavy offense and nonexistent help defense that has plagued them since the start of the season.
The loss to the Cavs wasn't merely one long blowout, like the 41-point beating the Celtics handed them on Sunday. Instead, the Knicks managed to get blown out by 12 in the opening quarter, climb all the way back to almost even before the half, and then get blown out all over again in the third quarter, 33-20.
And so New York once again find itself 10 games under .500, at 5-15—a special record in Knicks history:
The Knicks are 5-15 this season, matching the worst 20-game start in franchise history (done 5 previous times, last in 2009-10).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 11, 2013
Throughout this dreadful start, Woodson has managed to keep his job. But now things might be coming to a head. Per ESPN's Marc Stein.
Word on street suggests Woody far more concerned about job security in private than he lets on publicly. Have to ask: Can he survive this L?— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 11, 2013
All coaching change can really do w/current state of roster is get NYK playing harder. But momentum sure building for A. Houston as interim— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 11, 2013
Was Tuesday night's loss truly the last ride for Mike Woodson? If so, he went down according to his own personal code of "defense" and "accountability."
Does He Even Know What Those Words Mean?
Possibly not. But they are certainly his two favorite words. Nary a press conference goes by without mentions of "defense" and "accountability."
Unfortunately for Woodson, the numbers don't back up his constant mentions of defense. The Knicks came into Tuesday's game ranked 28th in the league in defensive efficiency.
The Cavaliers looked like an easy mark for New York's weak defense; coming into the contest, they were ranked dead last in the league in offensive efficiency. Instead, the Cavs shredded the Knicks' D like tissue paper.
Yes, Kenyon Martin was out with a sore ankle, but Woodson's response was peculiar. Instead of starting Pablo Prigioni—a player who has a sterling 16-1 record when paired with fellow point guard Raymond Felton over the past two years—he inserted Metta World Peace, a player who had fallen out of the rotation altogether a few games ago.
From the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Asked Woody why Pablo doesnt start when he usually helps NYK get back 2 last yr's principles. "The East is big, man." Cites need to match up— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 10, 2013
Woodson suggested he feels Eastern Conference is too big and tough to match up with defensively w/ 2 smaller guards on the floor.— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) December 10, 2013
When most basketball observers look at the Eastern Conference, they see the NBA's redheaded step-child, but when Mike Woodson looks at it, he sees rampant, unchecked bigness!
Woodson's biggest problem this season has been that he constantly equates size with defense, and defense with winning. While that isn't a bad idea for most teams, it's deadly for the Knicks, a team that won last year despite its defense. The 2012-13 Knicks made up for a mediocre defense—18th in the NBA—with a stellar offense that played brilliant small-ball lineups and broke the league record for made three-pointers.
Sadly, Woodson seems to have come down with a case of selective amnesia. He has abandoned proven lineups in favor of "big" lineups that he seems to think will improve the defense, despite the irrefutable fact that "big" players like Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani are terrible defenders.
Woodson's other buzzword, "accountability," is always interesting to consider while watching the performance of J.R. Smith, who shot 5-of-14 all the while producing gems like these versus Cleveland:
Longtime Knicks observers have never been able to rectify Woodson's talk of accountability with his treatment of Smith, a player who can seemingly do no wrong in the coach's eye.
After the game, Woodson spoke of his unwillingness to curtail another player, Andrea Bargnani, who shot 5-of-17 for 11 points. Seth Rosenthal of SB Nation had the perfect response for the coach:
Well, *I* can't, but you actually can! RT @HerringWSJ: Woodson, on Bargnani's open looks: "You can't tell him to stop shooting."— Seth Rosenthal (@seth_rosenthal) December 11, 2013
The Case Against Firing Woodson...and Why It Doesn't Hold Up
Two arguments can be made for keeping Mike Woodson on as Knicks head coach, and neither of them hold up to scrutiny.
The first idea is that is isn't fair to can Woodson for the Knicks' terrible play in the absence of All-Star center Tyson Chandler.
Not only is that not a valid reason to keep Woodson, it might just be the most crucial reason he should be fired on the spot. Chandler was also lost for a chunk of last season, but the Knicks thrived in his absence with a starting lineup of Felton, Prigioni, Iman Shumpert, Carmelo Anthony and Martin. New York held a spotless 8-0 record in games those five players started.
Now ask yourself this, Knicks fans: Isn't every one of those five players still on the roster? Shouldn't that lineup—that undefeated starting lineup—be given another chance?
Woodson doesn't seem to think so. Not only has that lineup not started a game in Chandler's absence, those five players have played a combine zero minutes together. Zlich. Nada.
The second argument is that Woodson hasn't "lost the locker room;" meaning players aren't calling for his head. Charlie Zegers of The Knicks Wall does a brilliant job of crushing that argument:
They seem to genuinely like the guy and they want to keep him around.
Well, of course they do!
You see, Woodson doesn’t make them fight over screens on defense. He doesn’t hold them accountable when they ignore wide-open teammates on offense. (It’s no coincidence that Woody’s staunchest defenders, Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, don’t seem to be held accountable for much of anything, while, say Iman Shumpert or Pablo Prigioni are relative anti-christs, apparently.) It’s no surprise, really. When pundits talk about “player’s coaches,” they really mean coaches who let their inmates run the asylums.
That is what Woodson is bringing to the Knicks right now. And it might be enough in the eyes of the Knicks' sycophantic front office, who seem more interested in luring potential star players than they do in building a quality organization.
Will firing Mike Woodson accomplish much? Probably not. This is still James Dolan's team, and he will continue to run it to the ground.
But that doesn't mean that Woodson should remain. He was given a flawed roster, to be sure, but not only has he failed to get the most out of that roster, his decisions have actively hurt the Knicks' chances to win on a nightly basis. It's time for some actual accountability at Madison Square Garden, and it might as well start with the head coach.
*All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.