As a strangely important game versus the Brooklyn Nets approaches, the drama surrounding the New York Knicks has steadily increased, making the borough showdown quite the marquee event for two teams with eight combined wins. Talk of trades have heightened, the in-house squabbles have leaked, criticisms of Carmelo Anthony have stirred, and perhaps most importantly, the water under Mike Woodson is approaching a boil.
This week, rumors have heated up about the importance of Woodson and the Knicks’ performance against the cross-town rival Nets. James Dolan values his franchise’s image in comparison to the Nets’, and sources say that extending the losing streak to ten, while suffering the embarrassment of losing to an equally poor, injury-riddled team could put Woodson officially on the hot seat. Because of these rumors, other coaching options have popped up if Woodson were to be shown the door — Jeff Van Gundy, Lionel Hollins, Allan Houston….
However, Van Gundy went on ESPN radio yesterday and seemed to take the air out of the idea that he would coach the Knicks. Furthermore, he said coaching isn’t their problem:
“Listen, Mike Woodson, I believe I have my numbers right, was 18-6 when he took over for Mike D’Antoni,” the former Knicks coach said on “The Mike Lupica Show” on ESPN New York 98.7 FM. “Then he won a division title last year. Then they made some roster moves, had some injuries….
“Listen this isn’t a coaching issue right now. This is a roster issue. … The last problem the Knicks have — the very last problem — is a coaching issue. Mike Woodson is an outstanding basketball coach who has done an outstanding job. So how can a guy that went from brilliant, be on the proverbial hot seat 16 games into the next season?”
Well… yes and no, Jeff. Woodson isn’t solely to blame for the Knicks’ woes. Though his defensive strategy is questionable, he can’t make players communicate on defense or close-out strong or navigate screens successfully. It isn’t Woodson’s fault Tyson Chandler broke his leg in the fourth game of the season (damn you, Kemba Walker!). It isn’t Woodson’s fault that players like Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton, and J.R. Smith are shooting career-lows from the field, while guys like Iman Shumpert, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Metta World Peace can’t find a consistent rhythm.
It is Woodson’s fault, however, that he’s not getting the most out of his team. Woodson has long favored players that he believes can create shots for themselves, or guys he believes have more experience. Down the stretch of games, he allows Anthony to exert his own will on the offense and go one-on-one — rarely a successful formula. J.R. Smith, despite shooting 33% over his last 22 games, dating back to the playoffs, is rarely benched. Raymond Felton, despite not being fully healthy, gets extended burn because he’s the most able point guard at penetrating and creating shots.
However, time and time again, the Knicks have proven they can be a dynamic offensive team with the right spacing and ball movement. Guys like Pablo Prigioni and Shumpert make smart extra passes, and while they’re not great one-on-one players, they space the floor. Even when Steve Novak wasn’t hitting shots last year, his presence spaced the floor and helped the Knicks offense as other players had more room to operate, knowing Novak wouldn’t be left alone beyond the arc.
The Knicks have shown glimmers of these traits this season. Pairing two point guards in the back-court has led to a positive net-rating, and furthermore, better elite defense (Prigioni and Felton have a 89 defensive rating in 74 minutes together this season). In the Knicks’ most recent loss, Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Knicks went on an offensive flurry when Prigioni was on the floor, as he, Smith, Anthony, and Hardaway Jr. consistently whipped the ball around the perimeter for open shots. However, Woodson subbed Prigioni out, Smith went cold but stayed in the game, and the Knicks lost their continuity.
It’s quite simple, really, and Woodson misses these things. Last year’s Knicks’ roster was flawed, too, but they managed 54 regular-season wins because Woodson played to his talent. He’s not doing that this year. Would a coaching change this season help that? Is firing Woodson the answer to that? Maybe, maybe not, but he’s certainly shouldering a larger load for this losing streak than Van Gundy gives him credit for.
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