Like subjects of any despotic, dysfunctional regime, fans of the New York Knicks have lately found themselves in the full throes of a familiar phenomenon: waiting in vain for someone's head to roll.
That someone is Mike Woodson.
The clamor reached new heights following a pair of double-digit losses to the Toronto Raptors (95-83 and 115-100, respectively) after a Christmas Day massacre in which the Knicks were throttled 123-94 by the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Even without Carmelo Anthony, that's unacceptable—three losses by a combined 56 points, for those keeping score at home.
When it comes to a fanbase desperate for a scapegoat, just about everyone can be appropriately blamed. More and more often, those exacting, number-crunching stares are being fixed on Woodson himself.
But even if the Knicks bit the bullet and cut ties with their embattled coach, the prospects of righting the ship and sailing free and easy into the postseason remain as thin as seams on a Spalding.
We’ll get to the finer points of firing Woodson—both for and against—in a bit. First, let’s recall how we got here.
Remembering better days
As with any nation where chaos is the default setting, it wasn’t that long ago that the Knicks found themselves mired in their last coaching coup.
It was 2012, the apex of Linsanity, when Mike D’Antoni—who just one year earlier had guided the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 2004—chose to relinquish his post following a tumultuous first few months of the lockout-shortened season.
Whatever the underlying motive, it was clear that not even the good manna and mania brought on by Lin's singular ascendance was enough to trump the team's hidden maladies.
Mike Woodson, the former Atlanta Hawks skipper was brought aboard the prior summer to help with the team’s lackluster defense. In the wake of D'Antoni's departure, Woody took over.
The Knicks responded with a torrid 18-6 home stretch. And while they would eventually bow out in five lopsided games at the hands of the Miami Heat, the Knicks’ newfound chemistry, camaraderie and philosophical continuity suggested they’d finally found the one chef capable of turning a pantry full of tricky ingredients into something both potent and palatable.
Still, even during last year’s 54-28 renaissance, some foundational fissures began to show: the disconnect between what was being preached and what was being practiced, a steadfast stubbornness and an increasing sense that the sane were no longer in charge of the asylum.
With this season’s mounting losses and sleeve-worn frustration, those cracks have cratered completely, crumbling beneath a weight proven unsustainable seemingly only in hindsight.
Even if Dolan wanted to pull the trigger and can Woodson—what then?
Another breath of fresh air
Unless the Knicks were somehow able to find an immediate replacement, the most likely scenario would see one of the team’s troika of chief assistants—Darrell Walker, Herb Williams and Jim Todd—assume the reins for the remainder of the season.
All three boast NBA head-coaching experience: Walker with the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards, Todd as interim coach for the 2000 Los Angeles Clippers and Williams as a Knicks fill-in in both 2004 and 2005. But it's difficult to see any of them sticking on any kind of long-term basis.
History is rife with examples of players responding positively to midseason coaching changes, the Knicks of 2012 being just one of the more recent examples. And in an Eastern Conference where 35 wins might well garner a playoff spot, any spark—be it by a change in coach or chemistry—could be enough to make nut.
As a matter of social graces, whoever took over would likely be looking to endear himself to the team’s resident core: Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Andrea Bargnani, J.R. Smith, and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Walker, Williams or Todd might be able to accomplish that in the short term, but if the Knicks want a coach proven in both record and ability to command respect they might have to curb a full-fledged search until the offseason.
By then, there’s no telling what the team’s psyche might be—shaken and shattered as it already is.
As far as Dolan goes, getting rid of Woodson could be seen as a sign of genuine penitence or one of petty impatience, depending on your perspective.
But you can only push the reset button on your team’s prospects so many times before the glitches in the game start to look normal.
Like bandaging a burn victim
For every tale of a mid-season changing of the guard igniting better basketball, there is one of a downward spiral continuing apace.
With a team as fractured and fragile as these New York Knicks, that’s a real possibility.
Indeed, the Knicks’ main concerns on the court are abhorrent defense, a stagnant offense and the complete lack of the gestalt that so defined last season’s gangbusters campaign— issues no coach, no matter how respected or decorated, is liable to turn around in half a season.
And if Walker or Williams is somehow able to salvage the slim dignity of making this year’s playoffs, next summer will only find the Knicks right back where they started: high on overpaid talent, low on cap space and with a head coach-sized hole no sane person would assume without considerable compensation or assurances.
Jeff Van Gundy, Lionel Hollins, George Karl, Phil Jackson: these and other names—each with their own specific scenario and particular pitfalls—have all been rumored as possible replacements over Woodson.
Knicks fans assume any or all of them would jump at the chance to try their coaching hand in the World’s Most Famous.
And that’s part of the problem.
By now, the tales of insipidity and ignorance at the heart of the Dolan regime have become gospel. As such, anyone who would risk their well-being—mental, physical or financial—for the sake of overseeing sport’s weirdest asylum would either have to be too idealistic or too naïve to know the difference.
Needless to say, neither profile would be a good fit for this year’s crop of Knicks and the psychological profile that underlies them: fickle, fragile and in need of a hand both steady and stern.
A question of culture
In the midst of the team’s most recent string of befuddling losses, Dolan went on the record to assure both the players and coaching staff that no major moves—be it trade or termination—were imminent.
Such overtures might’ve helped assuage his embattled troops, but for the orange-and-blue faithful, it merely amounted to more of the same, cynical wagon circling that has defined Dolan’s destitute reign for over a decade.
Chalk it up to what you will: Dolan’s fierce loyalty, the influence of Creative Artists Agency, a fear of the unknown. Whatever the team’s underlying motivation, it's clear that the Knicks will have to fall much further before their jefe deems it time to pull the toughest of triggers.
On the one hand, the perspective makes sense. The new faces, untimely injuries and fast-changing conference power structure aren’t, after all, entirely the fault of the coach.
If you’re Mike Woodson and, to a lesser degree, Dolan himself, these are the things upon which you hang your hat—the inconvenient truths that any "true fan" will take to trust that things are bound to get better.
If you’re one of the team’s millions of weary fans, however, no amount of platitudes or PR-spin can placate a rage brought to boil through years spent over an omnipresent philosophical flame:
In this kingdom, making excuses is much easier than making changes.