When the news of Steve Mills’ appointment as General Manager surfaced, many wondered if that spelled doom for head coach Mike Woodson, and if that meant he was heading into the season as a true lame-duck. With a new regime in place and Woodson’s former college teammate Glen Grunwald relegated to the ominous “advisor” role, any slip up and Mills might look to bring in a guy of his choice. But on the first day of training camp, the New York Knicks announced that the team had picked up the option on the final year of head coach Woodson’s contract, through the conclusion of next season.
But the picking up of an option for a coach is just like the infamous “vote of confidence”, in that it really doesn’t mean much. Not that this is likely to happen, but if the Knicks get off to, say, a 6-20 start, it’s pretty safe to think Woodson wouldn’t be around much longer. The Knicks need to perform well in order for Woodson to keep his job, contracts be damned.
Basketball has always been a players’ game. When you scan the rosters of teams that have won titles, the one nearly-unanimous feature is the presence of star players. It’s not very often that a team has won an NBA title without a true all-time great, and quite often if you don’t have the current top player in the game, you’re not going to win a championship. If you’re one of the far majority of teams that don’t have Michael, Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, the possibility of truly contending for and ultimately winning a title rests heavily on the shoulders of the head coach (see, 2011 Dallas Mavericks, 2004 Detroit Pistons).
Let’s state something undeniably true about Mike Woodson: he’s a good coach. He’s proven that he can manage egos and keep headcases in check (Smiths, J.R. and Josh). His teams have made it out of the first round of the playoffs three times before. He’s won 50 games twice, and as a Knick, had the most early success than any other coach in history.
But is Woodson a great coach? I don’t think anyone can truly say “yes” to that question and expect to be taken seriously. He’s won playoff rounds, but he hasn’t been past the second round, where his record is 0-3. His career record is under .500 in both the regular season and the playoffs (though, to be fair, he piled up a lot of losses early and it’s not like he’s had incredible rosters to work with).
Numbers aside, the best way to judge Woodson might be on the highs and lows of last season. It’s interesting that the Knicks were their most successful at the times Woodson didn’t have a full deck. Injuries forced Woodson to get creative with his lineups, like the two point guard looks, and a lot of those units were the Knicks’ most effective. When did Woodson have, nearly, his entire roster to choose from? The playoffs, where the Knicks didn’t look the same as they had through their 54-win regular season. Indeed the competition is tougher in the playoffs, and it’s not like the Indiana Pacers are a bad team and there’s shame in losing to them, but the postseason wasn’t Woodson’s finest hour. Against Indiana, it’s pretty fair to say he was outcoached by Frank Vogel. The players are surely to blame as well, but when the same defensive mistakes are made over and over – like leaving shooters wide open to double non-dangerous post players - it’s worth questioning the coaching. When a key player, Pablo Prigioni, gets just three minutes in the most crucial game of the season (Game 4 at Indiana), that’s on the coach, who at the very least picks what five guys are on the court.
Pointing out Woodson’s faults aren’t intended to drag him down, they’re simply to criticize and ask the question of whether or not this Knicks’ team can win a title with him at the helm. You may believe this roster is too flawed to win regardless of who was patrolling the sidelines, but I think that marginalizes the impact a great coach can have. I suspect we’ll see a very different Los Angeles Clippers team this season, with Doc Rivers taking over for the maligned Vinny Del Negro. Just as I suspect the Knicks, yes, the current Knicks, would be a far better team if Phil Jackson was the coach. Comparing Woodson to Phil is unfair, (and I hope it doesn’t come off as that, as it’s not the intention) but the point is this: coaching does matter. While the Knicks have a good roster, it’s one with many faults that needs to be expertly managed if they have any chance of truly contending for a title.
Ask yourself this: when (hopefully) the Knicks make the playoffs, which potential opponents would they have a coaching advantage over? Certainly not the Pacers with Vogel, as last season proved. Nor the Miami Heat with Erik Spoelstra, or the Chicago Bulls with Tom Thibodeau. If the Knicks are already behind those teams in terms of talent, how are they supposed to beat them if they’re also playing catch up on the sidelines?