Does Mike Woodson Deserve to Be an NBA Head Coach Ever Again?

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Does Mike Woodson Deserve to Be an NBA Head Coach Ever Again?
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

By the start of next season, the New York Knicks will have found a new head coach—some fresh avatar onto which fans will heap both heartbreak and hope.

Mike Woodson? He’ll get another shot.

But should he?

NBA teams weighing firing their coach midseason tend to oscillate between one of two dueling philosophies: Hit the reset button as soon as possible, or heed continuity and wait until the summer.

The Knicks have settled on the latter option, it would seem.

If owner James Dolan was going to dispatch Mike Woodson, he could have picked from any number of final straws: the team’s nine-game November losing streak, the strategic debacle that was the Knicks’ 102-101 home loss to the Washington Wizards (see below) or even their six-game mini swoon ahead of All-Star Weekend.

According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, even Woodson seems to grasp the ominousness of his situation.

They know it’s dangling. My theme to our players is that ‘Woodson’s a big boy. He’s been around the block a few times.’ It’s a part of the business if it happens. It’s never been about me. You got to worry about the makeup of your team and how you compete on the practice floor and when you take it to the court.

Such hand-wringing would've seemed an impossible stretch a year ago, when Woodson and the Knicks were rattling off wins by the bagful and jockeying for top billing in the Eastern Conference.

Sadly, somewhere along the line, the tight-knit trust that propelled New York to an 18-6 home stretch in 2012 and a 54-win campaign last season buckled and bent—and finally broke.

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

To pin it to a singular game or play or remark would miss the point. Woodson’s was a demise born out of accumulation—of letting the snow pile up on a too-level roof without ever thinking to grab a ladder and shovel.

From his inability to stop the endless perimeter switching to the awkward, size-heavy lineups, from botched play calls to late-game boondoggles, Woodson’s has been a season from hell, sure, but a hell that is largely of his own making.

You don’t reach basketball coaching's highest ranks without being at least a little bit stubborn. But Woodson’s brand of bullheadedness has become so pronounced that it borders on outright hostility.

Weirder still, that hostility is being directed at the very facts and figures that he helped foster in the first place: by featuring Carmelo Anthony at power forward, by emphasizing lineups with a pair of point guards—the list goes on.

Case in point: a tweet from the Wall Street Journal’s Chris Herring, who pressed Woodson on his initial reluctance to ride the two-point guard lineup:

Woodson would eventually relent, less because he believed it was the right thing to do and more because injuries demanded as much. The resulting boons would be humorous, if it weren't all too little, too late for New York’s embattled coach. Herring again:

To recap: Mike Woodson was reluctant to roll with the lineup configuration that was arguably most responsible for yielding the league’s third-most efficient offense a season ago. He finally found a reason to go back to it and—with the team quickly fading out of the playoff picture anyway—now boasts the most efficient five-man lineup in the entire NBA because of it.

It might be the most egregious example of Woodson’s rigidity, but it’s by no means an isolated incident. Taken in total, the rap sheet is long enough—and detailed enough—to render the sentence all but assured.

That doesn't mean it’ll be a long one, however.

The NBA, like many of its pro-sports brethren, boast quite the coaching carousel. If Don Cheney can register barely a .400 coaching clip over 12 years—and not win a single playoff series—it stands to reason that someone, somewhere will give Mike Woodson another shot.

And not without reason, either: This season will mark the first time Woodson has finished with fewer wins than in his previous campaign, a stretch—discounting his 24-game takeover at the end of 2012—that dates back to his days as head coach of the Atlanta Hawks.

Toss out his first season with the Hawks (13-69), and Woodson’s .501 win percentage trumps that of such long-time NBA staples as Dick Motta (.479), Gene Shue (.477), Hubie Brown (.461) and Bill Fitch (.460).

Name Win-Loss Win % Playoff Win-Loss
Mike Woodson 298-352 .458 18-28
Gene Shue 784-861 .477 30-47
Dick Motta 935-1017 .479 56-70
Lawrence Frank 279-335 .454 18-20
Bernie Bickerstaff 419-518 .447 12-21
P.J. Carlesimo 239-315 .431 6-13

 

At just a few weeks shy of his 56th birthday, few doubt that Woodson has the energy or stamina to keep up the coaching grind.

Rather, it's Woodson's intellectual flexibility—whether he’s willing to embrace the age of advanced analytics or whether, as was the case with colleague Lionel Hollins, he'd just as soon fall on his per-game sword—that will be the biggest question mark.

As with any political regime, who surrounds you—from ownership to management to the players themselves—can be just as important as any track record or tactical oeuvre.

Woodson absolutely deserves a sizeable share of the blame for how the Knicks have performed. But the clumsy roster construction, the injuries, the panic-riddled, patience-averse ownership—that's where a coach’s culpability ends.

The rest of the NBA knows exactly how dysfunctional the Dolan-led Knicks have been, and that knowledge alone might be all the cover Woodson needs to eventually land on his feet. 

Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

It remains to be seen whether he can reverse the curse cast by this year's demons—the death of small ball, the strategic second-guessing and  the sordid 'Melo speculation—and finish his career with a feel-good third act.

Given the league’s recent influx of well-reared assistants—Gregg Popovich proteges Mike Budenholzer (Hawks) and Brett Brown (Philadelphia 76ers) being the most recent examples—there’s a chance Woodson won’t even get another try.

If he does, it might well be with a team not unlike his mid-2000s Hawks: young, inexperienced, unaccustomed to winning and a record that proves it—all for a franchise more interested in tanking and teaching than taking the next big step.

Or perhaps as a fill-in for a fired friend, or with a middling team trying to do little more than tread financial water.

If and wherever he lands, Woodson’s final season in New York will not be an easy one to outrun.

But if we've learned anything about the sometimes insular nature of the NBA coaching fraternity, it’s that the devil you know can, in just the right arena light, be better than the devil you don’t.

 

Jim Cavan is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JPCavan.

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