Let’s get this out of the way first: Mike Woodson is a good NBA coach.
As with any coach, Woody has his strengths and weaknesses, though thus far he’s mostly impressed in his tenure as the Knicks’ head coach. However, following Woodson’s short interim stint in the latter part of the 2012 season, there was the presumption that — unlike the ousted Mike D’Antoni — Woody’s persona was that of an unchallenged enforcer. Phrases like “he holds players accountable,” and “he is respected in the locker room” were, and are, thrown around quite a bit.
The former is questionable, while the the truth of the latter, I would argue, is routinely suspended.
Allow me to explain.
Let’s start with “holding players accountable.” Former Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni was often criticized for letting payers slide, while Woodson received praise upon praise for holding players to account for their actions while making them aware of their futilities. As far as punishment or enforcing goes, however, the case was exactly the opposite: In the 2009-2010 NBA season, Nate Robinson feuded with D’Antoni, who was skeptical of his diminutive sparkplug’s careless behavior and self-centered basketball.
What did D’Antoni do? He benched Robinson for a full month. Oddly enough, from the time he was bench until his eventual trading, Robinson’s efficiency actually rose relative to his pre-benching play. His TS% upped from 54.1 on a USG% of 23.6 to 55.7 on a USG% of 26.7, at which point he was shipped off to Boston in a trade that gave the Knicks a few extra bucks to spend in the vaunted summer of 2010, but also ridded D’Antoni of his chief nemesis. One could argue that sending a problem off to another state or resigning it to the bench isn’t the right way of handling it, but to that I would respond that it’s worked pretty well for Gregg Popovich, who’s done it a good amount over the years.
Now consider Mike Woodson, who is universally known as a much stronger voice with a much fiercer hand when dealing with ruffian charges. Remember this year’s Playoffs? Remember when J.R. Smith elbowed an opposing player, spent most of his nights partying and shot under 29% from the field on a bum knee — an injury the team was aware of all the while — in the conference semi-finals? With Smith flailing with his shooting and averaging half the assists he did per game during the regular season — despite being on the floor for more minutes in the postseason — why didn’t Mike Woodson “hold him accountable”?
The Knicks fell behind to the Pacers 3-1, and in those four games Smith averaged 30 minutes a night and couldn’t find the bottom of the net on a Fisher Price hoop. Injury, streakiness, partying — his play was atrocious no matter the excuse you use. So with the Knicks on the ropes and needing parental intervention to come and yank them out of a hole, what does coach Woody do? Hold Smith accountable and play him 15 minutes? Does he tell him to not take step-back contested 20 footers? Of course not! He plays Earl 36 minutes, then 35 the game following, during which Smith put up 13 attempts per on 30% shooting.
This is just one example. After all, it’s not like Woodson ever really got on Melo for slacking with his defensive play as the season progressed, or pressed Ray Felton to attack the rim on pick-and-rolls and eschew firing up long twos because that’s inefficient. If Woodson did deliver such messages, then they fell on deaf ears. If he didn’t, well, my point is made.
I’ll admit, I wouldn’t have it in me to tell my superstar to put the same effort on defense as he did for the first dozen games of the season. Maybe the best way to get production from these multimillionaires it to treat them like children and spoon feed them how awesome they are, and tell them they can do whatever they want. But to then call Mike Woodson a model of team accountability and responsibility? It’s just not accurate.
As for the “player respect” part: These players love Woody. They do. I’m pretty certain of this. However, it does not mean they respect him always. Not as a person, mind you — they absolutely respect him as a person and a man — but as a basketball mind. Which is kind of important.
Drawn-up plays sometimes don’t work as planned. This happens to all teams. Athletes are humans, and they’re often wont to improvise. Sometimes they break deliberately, however, and in the Knicks’ case, this happens often, and it’s often Carmelo Anthony at the root of these deviations. Where are they most common? When the game is on the line. Perfect timing, huh?
Now this isn’t anything exclusive to Anthony and the Knicks. Many stars who are terrific in the clutch turn away their coach’s play call to make their own move. Carmelo is only one of the culprits. But this glosses over an important point: Melo was a disaster in the closing minutes of games this season. When trailing by five points or less down the stretch, Anthony shot under 40% for the year. With under a minute left? A jaw-dropping 22%. With the game within three points and with 30 seconds or less to play? Brace yourselves: 14%. Fourteen!
Maybe, just maybe, Melo would’ve been wise to run Woody’s plays more often, instead of making up his own on the fly.
Watch this play here against the Brooklyn Nets. Keep a close eye on Tyson Chandler’s pick placement, and how he reacts when Melo “uses” it:
See how Anthony popped out over the three-point arc as Chandler tried to adjust to that movement? Watch it closely and it’s obvious that Carmelo doesn’t run the intended play — Like Tyson was — and instead races outward for a quick catch and isolation. This next clip features basically the same play, the same decision by Melo and, predictably, the same result. The best part here is that Woodson calls for the Knicks to run his play right away — as noted by the announcers — yet this plea is ignored, just like the play itself.
Once again you’ll notice Chandler preparing himself for the play at hand, only to have to extend further out because Melo’s looking to ditch the draw-up and take his own crack at it.
I kid you not, this same play with this same process and result occurs TWICE MORE during the season. Anthony’s maintained a streak of putting tight games on his isolation-ready shoulders, including a few times in the first round series against Boston where he called off a pick-and-roll with Chandler in the final minutes of a tight contest. Again, this happens to all coaches, yet for some reason Woodson is still heralded by some as a master puppeteer of shot-crazy egos.
This shouldn’t shift your opinion of Mike Woodson as an NBA head coach, unless you were somehow of the belief that he is an almighty disciplinarian who is rarely disregarded and perpetually defied. Neither of those two things should be thought of as his greatest coaching quality. His ability to successfully change his whole dynamic on the fly and winning 54 games with an injury-riddled roster? That’s Mike Woodson’s best quality.
As much as I commend Woodson’s (usually) very sound coaching, I simply can’t agree with those who make him out to be something he’s not.