Grading Mike Woodson's Season for the New York Knicks
Mike Woodson has received plenty of blame for the New York Knicks' disappointing season. However, there have been several factors beyond the coach's control which contributed to New York's downfall. It is fair to ask whether Woodson has really done that poor of a job.
In order to answer that question, I examined every aspect of Woodson's coaching, from offensive and defensive schemes to how he dealt with his players and the media.
I kept in mind that a coach can only work with the talent that he is given and at times it was difficult to distinguish between the faults and limitations of the Knicks players and that of their coach. On certain occasions, I relied on the comments of the players themselves to distinguish between the two.
I also considered how well Woodson adjusted to his personnel and the adversity the team has faced. Lastly, I looked at what Woodson could have done differently to improve the team.
Coach Woodson has tinkered with the Knicks' offense throughout the season in a desperate attempt to regain the efficiency that led the team to 54 wins last year.
In 2012-13, they excelled with a lineup of Carmelo Anthony at the 4, surrounded by three shooters, two of whom were point guards, to facilitate ball movement. Melo went one-on-one when played straight up and kicked the ball out to open shooters when double-teamed. His scoring was complemented by a steady diet of Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton pick-and-rolls and the shooting and penetration of J.R. Smith.
It was evident early this year that the formula was no longer working. Smith and Felton were not getting to the basket, Iman Shumpert had regressed, and the loss of Steve Novak hurt New York's spacing. Woodson complicated matters by beginning the season with a bigger lineup—Anthony at the 3 and the newly acquired Andrea Bargnani at the 4.
New York has dropped from first to fifth in three-point attempts per game and fifth (37.6) to 10th (37.1) in three-point percentage, via basketball-reference.com. That, combined with the fewest free-throw attempts per game (20.1) via teamrankings.com has resulted in a dropoff from third (108.6) to 11th (105.0) in offensive efficiency, via ESPN.com.
Woodson's hands are somewhat tied by a lack of options, yet the coach could have been a lot more creative with his schemes, beginning with involving Anthony in more pick-and-rolls. On a grander scale, Woodson should have developed an offensive system involving more player and ball movement, rather than simply dumping the ball into Anthony.
The Knicks defense has been horrendous this season, beginning at the point of attack, where New York's guards have been unable to keep opposing point guards out of the paint. Teams have carved the Knicks up with pick-and-rolls.
Woodson is stuck with a number of awful defenders, including Felton, Bargnani and Amar'e Stoudemire, though the coach could have done a lot more to hide them in the team's defensive scheme.
The biggest problem with New York's defense is that they switch far too often, particularly on pick-and-rolls. Tyson Chandler noted after the Knicks Jan. 20th loss to the Brooklyn Nets what had been obvious to everybody following the team, that New York does not have the personnel to play that type of defense, via Al Iannazzone of Newsday.com. Still, Woodson has refused to change.
Another possible solution to some of the team's defensive woes would have been to give more playing time to the team's best perimeter defender after Shumpert, Toure' Murry. The rookie's lack of offensive game has held him back, though he could not perform much worse than Felton, who is averaging just 11.0 points per 36 minutes and has a true shooting percentage of 47.2, via basketball-reference.com.
In addition to Woodson's unwillingness to make schematic changes, he has regularly failed to make the in-game adjustments necessary to put his team in a position to win. Rarely does he give opponents a different defensive look, such as a zone, or alter the Knicks' offense based on how teams are defending them.
Last season, Woodson diagrammed a few excellent plays for game-winning shots, including two buzzer-beaters by Smith. This season, New York does not run any offense late in games. They continue to give the ball to Anthony in isolation, despite the fact that opponents know what is coming, and that Anthony has had a very poor conversion rate in the closing minutes of games.
Melo's late-game struggles are likely due in large part to another tactical error by Woodson. The coach is playing his star far too many minutes. Carmelo is averaging a league-leading 38.8 minutes per game and is typically fatigued by the fourth quarter. It is not a coincidence that he is shooting 48.5 percent in the first half of games, 42.4 percent in the second half and 37.6 in the fourth quarter, via NBA.com (subscription required).
Woodson has inexplicably played his starters heavy minutes on several occasions after the outcome had already been decided. The Knicks lost by a combined 55 points to the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns within a few days during the last week in March, yet, Anthony averaged 39 minutes in the two contests.
The myriad of injuries which have plagued the Knicks this season made it very difficult for Woodson to develop any continuity with his rotations. Chandler missed 26 games with a broken leg. Felton was sidelined by hamstring and hip problems. Bargnani has not played since late January. Kenyon Martin has been in and out of the lineup, and Stoudemire had a minutes restriction for most of the season.
However, the coach exacerbated the problem by vacillating between a small and big starting unit. Instead of committing to a specific rotation and style of play, he began the season by selecting his starters based upon New York's opponent.
Woodson admitted on ESPN radio on Nov. 6th, that "It's been proven since I've been here that the small lineup works," via Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com. Yet, it was not until injuries forced his hand that he committed to the small lineup full time and he went away from it once again when Chandler returned from injury and in recent weeks.
Woodson also refused to commit to a starting shooting guard at the start of the season, leaving the door open for Smith, rather than handing the job to Shumpert. And while it is understandable that Woodson experimented with different lineups in an effort to jump-start the offense, he did not allow any of those units enough time together to gel.
Woodson has grossly mismanaged his roster and failed to motivate his players to compete on a nightly basis. There have been countless games in which the Knicks simply did not show up, including over the past few weeks as they have been fighting for their season.
The players appeared to be near mutiny in late January when Chandler, one of the team leaders, publicly suggested that the Knicks had been out-coached twice in one week, via Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal. Anthony also noted that unlike their opponent, the Knicks did not make any in-game adjustments during their blowout loss to the Indiana Pacers on January 16th, via Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal.
Woodson was unable to manage veterans Beno Udrih and Metta World Peace, who the Knicks released in February, months after signing them last summer.
The coach's biggest personnel blunder has been his mishandling of Smith. Woodson, who regularly preaches accountability, actually rewarded the erratic shooting guard with a shot at a starting spot after Smith was suspended five games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. That was not the first time that Woodson overlooked one of Smith's transgressions.
Put yourself in Mike Woodson's shoes for a moment. He is a lame duck coach during what he has described as "a disaster of a season." He has to answer the same questions on a nightly basis about an incredibly disappointing team which routinely does not come to compete and his bosses in the front office make him take the heat as part of a public relations policy that can only be called a media blackout.
Given the circumstances, Woodson has held up quite well. It would be perfectly understandable if he erupted after being asked about his team's effort or inability to stop the pick-and-roll for the 100th time, but the coach has maintained his composure and respectfully answered questions.
His post-game comments have grown repetitive, but so have the Knicks' blunders. And though his continued optimism is incredulous, it is his job to remain so. He has demonstrated leadership by maintaining an even keel and not pointing fingers at anybody.
Sure, he made excuses, such as citing injuries as the reason for the team's struggles, though that is a minor offense during a disastrous season in which he was reportedly been close to being fired on at least one occasion, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.
The Knicks' awful season cannot be blamed on Mike Woodson. The coach was handed a flawed roster with unreasonable expectations after the team overachieved last season. To make matters worse, several of the Knicks' key players were injured or regressed.
However, there were steps that Woodson could have taken to improve the situation, beginning with the implementation of an offensive system and a defensive scheme better suited for his personnel. His poor game and player management contributed to the team's struggles.
Mike Woodson is a decent coach, who did an excellent job last year, but lacks creativity. He was unable to adapt to the changes that took place this season.