Tick-tock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock.
It's only a matter of time before the New York Knicks, now 3-10 on the season and falling fast, show their true colors. Either they'll climb out of the current hole they've bulldozed or bury themselves so deep, the hole becomes a bottomless pit.
In the middle of this carnage is Mike Woodson, the sideline-meandering savior turned doormat. The shepherd of talent turned potentially powerless victim.
James Dolan, the Knicks' capricious owner, has openly conveyed support for his head coach. But he's also laid the groundwork for his departure, telling the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro that a coach isn't done until he loses his team:
I have a lot of confidence in Woodson, and one thing I can say about Mike is he has the respect of all the players. They all respect him. And he treats them fairly and relatively equally, and that’s part of where the respect emanates from. And those are hard things to get from a coach. When a coach loses a team … that’s when a coach is kind of done.
By Dolan's decree, once a coach loses his players, he's done. How long will it be before Woodson reaches that point? Before he forfeits that respect?
Or is it already too late?
"Fire Woodson" chants have reverberated throughout Madison Square Garden early on, where the Knicks are an indefensible 1-6. In Portland, almost 3,000 miles away from the Big Apple, the hecklers found him, too.
Opposing patrons taunted New York's head coach, reminding him that his rotations wouldn't change the outcome, assuring him the Knicks were destined to lose and continue their free fall.
Portland inevitably pummeled New York 102-91, in a game that was lost in the first quarter, when the Knicks fell behind 34-18 and the Blazers barley looked back. Afterward, the Knicks sat seven games under .500, losers of six straight contests and tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the second-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Coach Woodson returned to his (scalding-) hot seat, a residence many before him have occupied and ultimately been evicted from. Through all this, following another loss like this, one cannot help but wonder if Woodson is asking himself: Am I next?
The question, crass and insensitive this early in the season, is slowly, surely becoming a fair one.
"We came out not ready to play," Woodson said, via Berman. "We were awful. The game was won in the first quarter. We just weren’t committed defensively."
Even losses should come with a full 48 minutes of effort. The Knicks weren't committed to anything in Portland. They've barely been committed to anything over this six-game skid.
And when effort, when will becomes a question, it's time to question a coach's hold on the situation.
Iman Shumpert was the first domino to fall.
The subject of incessant trade rumors, Shumpert's production has been inconsistent and his defense unreliable. His athleticism is trending in the wrong direction, and his general lethargy makes you wonder if he's still recovering from covert surgery, or if he's just mentally disengaged.
In New York's loss to the Blazers, Shumpert became the first Knicks player in over 30 years to log more than 20 minutes and finish the game without a single point, assist or rebound, according to Hoopsworld's Tommy Beer. The Knicks were also a minus-22 with him on the floor, the worst mark of anyone who played.
To Shumpert's credit, he refused to cite the trade rumors as the source of his struggles.
"I don’t think so," Shumpert said, per Berman. "I think we’re just losing. Losing affects everybody. I don’t think trade talks do."
Whether it's rumors fracturing a player's psyche or whether the team is "just losing," it's on the coach to ensure his players haven't checked out. It's on Woodson to keep Shumpert's spirits up. On him to give J.R. Smith cause for optimism, not panic.
"Iman didn’t have much in his tank in the first quarter," Woodson admitted of his guard's performance. "He was just out there. I’ll sit and talk to him and see where his head is at."
Where exactly his head is, Woodson may not want to know.
Eye Off the Ball
Focus. The Knicks don't have it. And when they are trying to diagnose their woes outside of effort, they're complaining about the wrong things.
"Right now, the ball is just sticking," Shumpert said following New York's latest loss to Portland, via MSG Networks' Alan Hahn.
Indeed, the Knicks offense has vacillated somewhere between awkward and stagnant, resembling an uncoordinated, choppy disaster. They rank 21st in offensive efficiency after coming in at third a season ago. Their three-point percentage is down from 37.6 to 33.0, and they rank 23rd in assists per game, confirming Shumpert's previous comments.
"Right now, the ball is not moving," Amar'e Stoudemire said, echoing Shumpert, via Hahn. "We're playing one pass, one shot at this point. Teams that move the ball win, teams that don't lose. It's pretty simple."
In the past, "the ball isn't moving" proclamations have served as subtle digs at Carmelo Anthony, a talented scorer and notorious ball-stopper. Much too often we've seen him and the Knicks revert back to iso-heavy sets, failing to ignite the offense until late in the shot clock. This is nothing new.
Problem is, these observations are coming at the wrong time. Shumpert and STAT implore the Knicks to move the ball more after they recorded 24 assists on 38 made field goals. Stoudemire himself, who rarely kicks the ball out after it's fed down low, is urging his team to move the ball after taking 12 shots in 24 minutes.
In other words, the fingers have come out. And the Knicks are pointing them at each other, citing ball movement as the driving force behind their demise when they're defensively inept.
Woodson, as noted previously, appropriately spoke of defense. Because the Knicks aren't playing it. Without Tyson Chandler, they've dropped to 29th in defensive efficiency, ahead of only the Nets. And still, the Knicks have tunnel vision.
Offense is an issue, for sure. But these Knicks aren't built to move the ball, in case you haven't noticed. They have no established point guard or point forward. This is what happens when there is no floor general.
Never mind that Anthony is creating a similar number of assist opportunities to that of revered distributors like Paul George. Or that the Knicks have allowed at least 98 points in five of the last six contests. Or that this team is a mess in so many ways. This comes down to ball movement, to culprits claiming to be the victims.
"Honestly, I don't know what's going through his head," Melo said of Shumpert, via Hahn, "or anybody else's head."
The same may go for Woodson. He and the Knicks are not on the same page. At this point, we have to question if they're even reading from the same book.
Woodson, to a point, has already "lost" the locker room.
"It's tough times right now," Anthony said, via USA Today's Sam Amick. "The only way we're going to do it is we've got to do it together, to dig ourselves out of this hole."
Saying the right things is easy. Simple. Implementing them is far more difficult. But once saying the right things becomes a struggle, an arduous battle, then it's time to start questioning the leadership.
Since dropping a winnable road game against the Washington Wizards, the Knicks have become increasingly pessimistic, straining to say the right things, let alone do them. Anthony has even commented on Woodson's dissonant rotations.
Asked about the lineups New York was running after the loss in Washington, Anthony admitted that Woodson is "searching" for answers, according to ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
I think there are times we're just searching. At moments like that, Woody's just searching, trying to figure it out on the fly, figure out rotations and who play with who and things like that. It's a tough situation.
I don't know. You got to ask Woody that. I'm not searching. We're not searching. But as a coach, I understand that could be a tough situation, to try and figure out what's the best lineups, who can play, who can't play. It can be a tough situation for him.
Players are no longer speaking out in support of their coach or fiercely protecting his game plan. Truthfully, we don't even know if they're Woody's lineups, either. The New York Daily News' Frank Isola reported that the front office was leaning on him to make changes. Maybe he doesn't want to keep running traditional, dual-big men lineups, which are 0-7 on the season. Perhaps his hands are tied beyond resolution.
It's a problem either way. Heads aren't held up high in New York, and it's on Woodson to fix that. Firing him won't solve everything or even much at all, but it will become a necessary outlet if things don't change.
"But if we keep digging and digging and digging, this hole is going to get deeper," Anthony concluded, per Amick.
If Woodson cannot rally his troops and regain whatever control he's already squandered soon, his players and the hope he once instilled will be lost forever.
All stats in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference unless otherwise attributed and are accurate as of Nov. 26, 2013.