Mike Woodson deserves some blame for Knicks’ dreadful start, but not all of it
With the losses mounting for the 3-13 Knicks, it was only a matter of time before Mike Woodson’ job security came into open question. Such was inevitable after New York dropped nine straight games to claim the worst record in a historically terrible division and joint ownership of the worst record in the entire league. The dysfunction of the Knicks organization and the blinding glare of the coverage surrounding the team demand a source for immediate blame, and Woodson is both a convenient target (as all NBA coaches are) and far from inculpable in the team’s tailspin.
From that flittering doubt came the predictable trickle of replacement rumors — shots in the dark should things go even further south. With Woodson still fighting to get his team its first win since November 13th, Jeff Van Gundy has already been explicitly linked to a hypothetical opening, albeit in the least substantial way possible. Putting aside the fact that Van Gundy has said in the past that he would not replace a fired coach in-season, the occasion inspired Van Gundy to respond outright to the circulating rumor. From Peter Botte of the New York Daily News, who transcribed a portion of Van Gundy’s appearance on ESPN Radio Wednesday morning:
Van Gundy to Mike Lupica on ESPN Radio, re: Knicks job: "You’re drawn into commenting on a rumor that there’s no basis of fact."—
Peter Botte (@PeterBotte) December 04, 2013
Van Gundy: "This isn't a coaching issue; this is a roster issue…The last problem Knicks have, the very last problem, is a coaching issue."—
Peter Botte (@PeterBotte) December 04, 2013
While the latter of Van Gundy’s comments seems a bit colored by the fact that he often goes out of his way to protect and support his coaching peers, there’s merit to the notion that Woodson’s work is among the lesser of the Knicks’ problems. It’s true that Woodson hasn’t done a particularly good job of putting his players in positions to succeed, whether through curious rotation choices or his continued reliance on odd bits of strategy. His unconditional commitment to J.R. Smith is perhaps strangest of all; Smith is unabashedly shooting 33.1 percent from the floor while impeding the Knicks’ offensive flow and efficiency, and yet he remains one of the few bulletproof members of New York’s rotation.
Ultimately, though, Woodson has done a poor job with an imperfect roster. Tyson Chandler has missed the last 12 games, Raymond Felton has been in and out of the lineup with injury and generally out of sorts, and Smith — though so vital to the Knicks last season — has been so bad as to warrant suspicion of sabotage. There are elite coaches who could make the most of those circumstances, but should Woodson be held accountable for failing to provide an exceptional remedy?
Your answer to that question likely depends on which facets of the game you believe coaches should be held accountable for in the first place. On-court effort? Woodson’s players have generally played hard (on offense, anyway), they just haven’t played particularly well or cohesively. Lineup decisions? Woodson’s oft-criticized starting lineup — in which Carmelo Anthony moved back to his customary small forward spot — has actually been among the Knicks’ better five-man units for the season. The greater problem is that most every lineup saddled with Andrea Bargnani or Amar’e Stoudemire at center has been so explosively bad that it undoes whatever the Knicks have been able to accomplish in their better moments.
For minutes at a time, New York is capable of moving the ball effectively or stringing together bits of adequate defense. But stretch this injured, ill-equipped roster out over time, and things get messy. More messy than you’d probably expect at 3-13 with one of the five worst pace-adjusted point differentials in the league, but it’s not as if New York’s travails were totally unexpected once Chandler went down. The bigs playing behind him are in no position to anchor the Knicks for consistent minutes, and in that Woodson’s team endures a now-inescapable flaw.
It’s on Woodson that he hasn’t at all been able to help his team compensate — that he continues to let Smith run amok at the expense of Iman Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni, that he continues to rely on a baffling, switch-heavy defense despite employing defenders with a poor feel for those principles, and that he doesn’t do enough to get the offense in motion before setting up Anthony. All of that and more rests on his shoulders, and I’d suspect he grows weary under the weight. But flawed coaching is very different from fire-worthy coaching, particularly in light of all the good Woodson did for a similar roster last season. Patience surely runs thin in New York, though at the moment it seems odd to distinctly blame the foreman any more than the architect, the craftsman any more than his tools. All are to blame, even if it’s Woodson’s job that winds up as forfeit.