It almost didn't seem real—the kind of basketball mirage that only a desert-bound franchise like the New York Knicks could somehow mistake for water just over the next dune.
Four games, four blowouts, all orchestrated by a coach who looked like he’d finally found a permanent home.
When Mike Woodson assumed the reins of the Knicks on March 14, 2012, he was inheriting a team weathering one of the weirdest seasons in NBA history. Within a week, the horizon—after seasons of endless sand—seemed positively shimmering.
Mike D’Antoni—architect of Seven Seconds Or Less—had fallen on his own sword just days before, leaving a fragile, fractured husk of a ballclub to his closest assistant, brought on just months before to shore up New York’s woeful defense.
At the apex of Linsanity, with the team reeling and desperate for some modicum of momentum, Woodson would spearhead a miraculous 18-6 home stretch, propelling the Knicks into the playoffs and solidifying his spot as the franchise’s coach of the future.
But in a city where time is measured in quarters and patience is always at a premium, the cloak of invincibility Woodson would wear for the better part of two calendar years has suddenly given way to that all-too-familiar timepiece: the looming New York noose.
The Knicks—just as they were during D’Antoni’s final, doomed days at the helm—are struggling. Only this time, the pain doesn’t seem so contextual, so sad or circumstantial.
If Mike D’Antoni’s was a failure of theory, Mike Woodson’s has become a failure of praxis—an inability to so much as pantomime methods and means so passionately preached.
A false prophet
Somewhere along the line, through season after season of middling finishes and forgettable rosters, Mike Woodson earned a reputation as a premier defensive coach.
No one knows where this came from.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, in five seasons as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, Woodson’s squads never finished higher than 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency—the go-to statistic for determining a team’s ball-stopping prowess.
And yet, when James Dolan and the Knicks front-office brass brought Woodson on ahead of the 2011-12 season, belief had it—however oversimplified—that New York was finally coming to grips with the one essential flaw in the Mike D’Antoni system: the complete dismissal of defense.
But it didn’t take long for the Knicks—throttled by the Miami Heat in a five-game first-round mercy killing—to once again prove their organizational instincts dead wrong.
New York would rattle off 54 wins during the 2012-13 season, the most in over a decade. And it had scarce little to do with defense.
Led by a career campaign by Carmelo Anthony and owing to an offensive attack strong in both personnel and execution, New York finished last season third in the NBA in offensive efficiency (108.6).
With an Atlantic Division title and playoff series win notched to belt, Woodson and the Knicks—in spite of somewhat desperate offseason moves—entered the 2013-14 season secure in the singular success of their offensive-minded science.
Two months into the season, even that has proven to be a Mike Woodson mirage.
After parlaying a pair of happy accidents—Anthony at the power forward position and lineups featuring a pair of point guards—into one of the league’s premier offensive juggernauts, Woodson has pulled a complete philosophical 180, forsaking last season’s uncanny success for cartoonishly conventional strategies and hollow overtures.
On the one hand, Woodson’s sudden offensive conservatism makes sense. Any coach who watched his team be helplessly bludgeoned by the brutish Indiana Pacers—as the Knicks were last spring—could be forgiven for at least second-guessing what had gotten them there in the first place.
But Woodson’s knee-jerk instinct to toss both bathwater and baby reveals a coach more concerned with saving face and surviving than sticking with what works.
It would be one thing if Woodson were only eschewing two-guard lineups. For as successful as that configuration has been for the Knicks, concerns abound as to how viable a long-term strategy it can be—particularly in a relatively slow and plodding Eastern Conference.
But Woodson hasn’t merely scaled back from unconventionalism; he’s renounced it with the full-throated fervor of a onetime revolutionary rendered suddenly pliable.
Death from above
Indeed, when it comes to working for James Dolan and Madison Square Garden, not even a midseason shift in allegiances—what Woodson did when he dumped his longtime agent to join the infamous Creative Artists Agency—is enough to free one from fear.
Why else would he continue to trot out a frontcourt troika of Anthony, Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire, despite registering a putrid net rating of minus-34.1 in 104 minutes of floor time?
What else could explain doubling down on J.R. Smith over Tim Hardaway Jr. on offense; Beno Udrih over Toure’ Murry as a defensive ball-stopper; Andrea Bargnani over Metta World Peace as a late-game defensive option?
For all of Woodson’s flaws—and there are more than a few—one in particular has proven the most destructive: coaching in fear, as if blinded by the wincing of knowing what’s coming.
Following a recent home loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Anthony was quoted by Newsday as saying that not even he knows “what lineup we are going to have out there. ... We come in and it's on the board that this is the lineup that is going to be out there and we have to adjust from there.''
When even your supposed superstar isn’t sure of what to expect, how in the world do you expect to win?
Granted, Woodson has withstood his fair share of circumstantial setbacks: losing Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni to weeks-long injuries being chief among them.
At the same time, the team has yet to look the part of last year’s confident contender—on either end of the floor.
The lack of cohesion, putrid defensive communication, awkward lineups that change seemingly by the game, a stubborn refusal to give benchwarmers any burn: All that blood falls, first and foremost, on the hands of the head coach.
When Mike Woodson first took hold of the helm following Mike D’Antoni’s self-dismissal, the buzzword bandied about most often was “accountability.”
Accountability to the coaching staff. Accountability to the organization. Accountability to one another. Accountability to the game itself.
In the near two years since, Woodson’s standing amongst his players has remained largely intact.
At least that's the perception.
Because when you keep getting beat by your own mistakes; when matters of strategy turn to questions of loyalty; when even the most obvious numbers no longer breach the bias of too many years entrenched in convention. When all that becomes the new normal, it's only a matter of time before the most common of coaching rites finally rears its ugly head.
(All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of December 23, 2013, unless otherwise noted.)