It came in March 2012, when Carmelo Anthony stopped listening to Mike D’Antoni and D’Antoni stopped trying to sway him, opting instead to seek the nearest exit, saving himself the aggravation.
In stepped Woodson, who enjoyed Anthony’s unconditional support and, as a consequence, a brilliant start to his Knicks career—an 18-6 record over the season’s final weeks, earning the city’s adulation and a rich three-year contract from Madison Square Garden.
Woodson was everything the Knicks needed then, all tough love and growling soliloquies. He preached defense and accountability and, critically, he catered to Anthony’s ball-dominating proclivities.
He was everything the Garden wanted, too: a coach so eager to get the job that he would fire his longtime agent and hire the Garden’s business partner, Creative Artists Agency, at management’s request. Woodson was a company man who played by company rules, qualities that James L. Dolan, the Garden chairman, seems to value above all else.
None of that matters now, with the Knicks lurching toward irrelevance and flirting with disaster.
The “Fire Woodson” drumbeat began weeks ago, gained volume across the course of a nine-game losing streak and spiked anew in a 41-point rout by the Boston Celtics on Sunday. His status has never seemed more tenuous.
The Knicks needed a late surge Wednesday night just to put away a depleted Chicago Bulls team, securing an 83-78 victory only after blowing a 23-point lead in the second half.
If not for a late jumper by Amar'e Stoudemire and a flurry of free throws from Anthony, the night would surely have ended with another round of chants and, quite possibly, an actual firing.
“From a mental standpoint, if this game would have got away from us, ain’t no telling what would have happened,” Anthony said.
As it stands, the Knicks are still a sickly 6-15, their playoff hopes sustained only by the embarrassingly dismal state of the Eastern Conference. They are, stunningly, just 2.5 games behind division leader Boston (10-14) and 2.5 games behind the Derrick Rose-less Bulls (8-12) for the eighth seed.
Every game now is framed as Woodson’s last stand, every loss reigniting speculation about potential successors.
“It’s going to be like that, man,” Anthony said. “When we win, the heat is off; when we lose, the heat is on. That’s just our business. That’s society. That’s New York.”
This is the bargain that Woodson accepted two years ago, along with the understanding that he works for the most impulsive, erratic, shortsighted owner in the league.
If Dolan can fire general manager Glen Grunwald in September, just months after completing a 54-win season, then he can surely fire Woodson on a moment’s notice in December, without considering circumstances or context.
There is plenty to criticize in Woodson’s coaching: his stubborn reliance on mind-numbing isolation play; his lack of faith in Pablo Prigioni, who is easily the Knicks’ best passer; his refusal to use the dual-point guard lineups that were so successful last season; his inexplicable marginalizing of Iman Shumpert, the franchise’s most promising young player.
A staunch traditionalist, Woodson still prefers a “big” lineup, with a 7-footer at center, even if that 7-footer is the pillow-soft Andrea Bargnani; and he prefers Anthony at small forward, though Anthony thrived last season as an undersized power forward.
While Woodson styles himself as a defense-first coach, his team ranks 27th in defensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Sacramento Kings and the Philadelphia 76ers. And though he once preached accountability, he gives far too much latitude to J.R. Smith, whose questionable shot selection is matched only by his questionable tweeting.
But the Knicks’ greatest frailties are more structural than strategic, owing to an awkwardly constructed roster, mixed agendas in the front office and the physical frailties of too many players.
Stoudemire only recently was cleared to play on consecutive nights, after opening the season on a strict minutes restriction to protect his fragile knees. Kenyon Martin also just had the cap on his playing time lifted.
Smith is erratic, Shumpert looks lost, and Raymond Felton (when healthy) is looking more like the poorly conditioned bust who was run out of Portland than the valued spark plug who directed the Knicks offense last season. The Knicks are a collection of one-dimensional players -- scorers who can't defend, defenders who can't score -- with a dearth of playmakers.
Bargnani has provided some scoring pop, but the Knicks’ two other summer pickups, Metta World Peace and Beno Udrih, have been on the fringe of Woodson’s rotation.
The Knicks never obtained a solid big man to back up Tyson Chandler, and they immediately paid the price when Chandler broke his leg in the first week of the season.
In training camp, the Knicks had two viable veterans, Josh Powell and Ike Diogu, but they waived both in order to keep Cole Aldrich and Chris Smith (brother of J.R.), neither of whom belong in the NBA. (Chris Smith, in fact, is toiling in the D-League, but he continues to take up a roster spot. His employment can only be explained by his family ties and his business ties. Both Smiths are represented by CAA.)
To understand the Knicks’ offseason agenda, you have to go back to last season, when the team (at Woodson’s behest) loaded up on late-30s veterans: Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby. Kidd and Wallace were especially critical in propelling the Knicks to an 18-5 start. But Kidd’s play eroded over the course of the season, and the other three broke down physically.
So the predictably reactionary Dolan sent down a new edict: sign and develop young players. That led to the acquisitions of Aldrich, Chris Smith and Toure Murry—and the decision to jettison Powell and Diogu, regardless of how they performed in the preseason—according to a person with ties to the front office.
“I think there’s a real toxic environment there, all the way through,” the person said.
Woodson’s preferences seemed clear in the preseason: He played Powell (18.6 minutes per game) and Diogu (16.2 minutes) far more than Aldrich (11.4 minutes), who performed miserably.
Even with Chandler out and the options limited, Woodson has used Aldrich for just 35 minutes in 21 games this season.
Chandler’s return, expected in the next few weeks, will help. But his absence alone cannot account for the Knicks’ dismal results, nor will his presence erase their varied blemishes. Woodson will continue to be imperiled by every losing streak.
The usual names have already been floated as replacements, but the most intriguing candidate might be the gravelly voiced coach barking at the opposite bench Wednesday night. Tom Thibodeau is under contract with the Bulls for three more seasons, but his widely reported tension with the front office could push him out the door much sooner, especially if the Bulls opt to rebuild next summer.
Already disenchanted with management, Thibodeau could use a rebuilding plan as a reason to ask out of his contract—a request the Bulls would likely grant. If the Bulls remain contenders, however, sources believe he will stay put.
If he’s available, Thibodeau would be everything the Knicks need. His teams play hard every night, without fail, even when key players are out. They play an elite brand of defense. A former Knicks assistant, Thibodeau is already well versed in Garden politics. He’s tight-lipped with the media, a practical requirement to work there.
And, perhaps more significantly, Thibodeau has the right representation: CAA.
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