Has Mike Woodson spent all of his capital?
Within the sprawling economy that is professional sports, New York is the quintessential volatile market—a place where a single win or loss can flip the script from bull to bear and back again.
On this Wall Street of wins, few have seen their coaching currency fluctuate more wildly than the New York Knicks’ Mike Woodson.
The Knicks are reeling, and many have begun pointing the finger at Woodson himself. Less than a calendar year after leading the Knicks to a 54-win, Atlantic-crown-capturing renaissance, the coach and his team have fallen on hard times.
Given New York’s unique combination of clumsy management and precarious priorities, it would seem harsh to place all the blame squarely at Woodson’s feet.
At the same time, Woodson can in some ways be seen as a poster child for what’s wrong with the NBA coaching profession, a rank wherein only a handful succeed—and succeed wildly—while so many others eventually succumb to faults and flaws.
A known quantity
With Woodson, it took less than two years for the cracks to surface.
Despite three straight playoff appearances, a pair of winning seasons and compiling the fourth-most wins in the history of the Atlanta Hawks, Woodson was let go following the 2010 season.
Even to this day, the reasons why remain somewhat unclear, although the way it went down—an expired contract, rather than an outright firing—may yield some answers.
Respectable performance aside, Woodson’s tenure was in so many ways a monument to mediocrity: an uncreative offense tailored to the isolation tendencies of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, a middling defense and a playoff record (18-28) that left much to be desired.
So when his contract came up for renewal, the Hawks surveyed the scene, saw Larry Drew—sterner, more cerebral, decidedly more creative—waiting in the wings, and bid Woodson adieu.
Up in New York, the Knicks were dealing with a coaching conundrum of a different kind with Mike D’Antoni’s effective but decidedly offense-first coaching philosophy.
Enter Woodson, brought aboard ahead of the 2012 season to help bolster the team’s lackluster defense—despite, as CBS’s John Schmeelk and many others have pointed out, his label as a "defensive coach" being something of a misnomer.
When the pressure became too much for D’Antoni to handle, Woodson was there to snap up the reins—a seasoned skipper who seemed to command the attention and respect of his troops in a way the more effete D’Antoni never could.
A growing currency
And just like that: boomtown in New York.
The Knicks would finish the season 18-6, buoyed by Linsanity on the one hand, Woodson’s culture of accountability on the other and a famished fanbase desperate for a winner—however tenuous.
Another 50 wins and a second playoff appearance later—this one to the second round, a decade first for the Knicks—it seemed like owner James Dolan had finally found his coach of the future.
But as the staples of last year's gangbusters run departed, the loosening of Woodson’s grip started to show.
Indeed, for a man who trumpets accountability—to self, to coach, to team—as a hallmark of tenure and tenor, why does it so often ring hollow?
How is it that, despite you yourself claiming a more tempered strategy, your charges remain hell-bent on switching every pick?
Why is Andrea Bargnani’s near-unparalleled aversion to help defense never met with so much as a quarter’s benching?
Why does Iman Shumpert or Tim Hardaway Jr. get the stage hook after a couple of relatively minor miscues, while J.R. Smith fires away, fails spectacularly at the other end and generally makes a fool of himself, all without any real repercussions?
How can a team be so contextually unprepared that not one, but three instances of atrocious, unprecedentedly bad clock management all take place within a three-week span?
Worse yet, how can this coach—Mr. Accountability himself—manage to throw the wrong person under the bus in all three cases?
When Beno Udrih let Bradley Beal score the game-winner and the Knicks neglected a full timeout in lieu of a lackluster Melo heave? Blame Beno for the initial miscue.
When Andrea Bargnani nearly turns a game-icing rebound into a double-overtime loss? Hey, stuff happens.
When virtually that same mistake happens again—this time against the Houston Rockets—when J.R. Smith launches a straightaway three with 23 seconds left despite the game being tied? Blame Beno, the guy who passed Smith the ball.
A coaching carousel
Thanks to a dismal Eastern Conference stock, the Knicks are far from out of the playoff picture. But you wouldn’t know it watching Woodson, whose coaching guffaws and bipolar overtures paint a picture of a paranoid general whose once-glorious coup is suddenly crumbling beneath his feet.
That Mike Woodson commands the respect of his players used to be treated as gospel. On a personal level, that might well be the case—as it no doubt should.
But on the basketball court, where the nature of respect is inherently more diffuse, the Knicks too often look like they’re making it up as they go along.
That wasn’t the case a year ago, when Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby each served as their own kind of proxy coach both on and off the court.
This season, those voices seem fewer and farther between. Beyond Tyson Chandler (injured more than half the season with a broken leg), and Carmelo Anthony (vocal, but by no means exacting), the Knicks are severely lacking in on-court vocal leadership.
Looking at Mike Woodson’s career regular-season record (289-342, a winning percentage of 46 percent), it’s easy to wonder how such mediocre results were ever mistaken for contract-extending success.
At the same time, the ranks of NBA coaches are rife with brilliant minds who, by sheer dint of time, saw their records shade to the middle. Hubie Brown, Mike Dunleavy, Bill Fitch: respected coaches all, none of whom ever managed to crack the .500 mark, despite each coaching at least 400 NBA victories.
That’s not to say that Woodson is somehow destined to double his win total; examples abound of NBA coaches wearing out their welcomes and forging second lives as assistants. But even that logic is subsumed by the NBA—like just about any other professional sports league—being a place where the caution and comfort of the coaching carousel so often trumps all.
Which is precisely why Woodson, who is by no means Isiah Thomas, will most likely land on his feet, if and when his New York tenure comes to an end.
A plummeting stock
On September 30, the Knicks officially picked up Mike Woodson’s option for the 2014-15 season. Meaning that, even if the team decided to cut ties, they’d essentially be paying Woodson the entirety of his $4 million annual salary just to go away.
Such a pittance means little to a team continuing to take in record-breaking revenues, of course.
Still, Dolan knows the real rage is aimed at him, and like any tyrant taken to consolidating his power, he is moved by one motivation above all: stability around him.
It’s why he’s put management on the record stating Woodson’s job is safe, and it’s why—until the collapse is final and the playoffs are officially out of reach—it’s liable to stay that way.
That’s good news for Woodson, at least in the short term. But as any hot-seated coach in New York knows, this market measures success and failures in far shorter quarters.