Anyone who has ever met or spent time with Coach Mike Woodson will tell you what an affable man he is. He is honest, sincere, direct, and loves basketball. So what happened this season? How can a team with 54 wins last season now be playing for their playoff lives? The fact is with his season on the brink, Woodson had to make change or he would have surely been out a job. With players complaining, veterans leaving (Beno Udrih, Metta World Peace), he made the change that few reporters called for. He went big.
Early in the season, team after team exploited the Knicks as they drove down the middle. With Raymond Felton having his worst season both offensively and defensively, the Knicks were a shadow of last years team. Last year Woodson had Jason Kidd to overcome Felton’s shortcomings and control the game at games end. Without Kidd on the floor, Woodson’s weaknesses as a coach were exploited. If it wasn’t for the many miscues late in close games, games the Knicks gave away, the Knicks would be securely in the playoff picture.
If there is one thing you must like and respect about James Dolan, it’s that he does not like to lose. With Woodson losing and Steve Mills basically impotent, Dolan looked to the West and starting courting Phil Jackson. Once the security blanket of the CAA agency was lifted, all players started playing for the lives, and coach Woodson has benefited.
It started by going big, and no player (besides Carmelo Anthony) has been bigger than Amar’e Stoudemire. The naysayers said for years that the front court of Anthony, Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler was dysfunctional were wrong. All three have thrived in this lineup. For Anthony it clears space as often Amar’e has to be double teamed. He helps Chandler in the middle and his defense is as improved as his knees.
It took much time and complaining from Stoudemire for Woodson to finally make the change, the change that can not only save the season, but Woodson’s legacy. No matter how good a coach you are, losing — better yet collapsing — never helps any coach in today’s NBA. Just ask Lenny Wilkins, Isiah Thomas, Larry Brown. Imagine the legendary Larry Brown after only one season with the Knicks went from the Knicks to the college ranks coaching Southern Methodist University, and now has them in the championship game.
Woodson acted like it was on his mind all along when he said, “When Amar’e came to me and said, ‘Hey coach, it’s time to bump the minutes,’ that’s when I decided to make the change,” Woodson said Thursday during his weekly spot on ESPN Radio. “We’ve been trying to get to this lineup since I’ve been here.”
Last year, coach Woodson enjoyed success with the small lineup; however, this lineup was anchored by Kidd, who always played big. He had a court presence that exceeded his scoring ability. He simply made players better and helped teams win. Early in the season when Chandler went down, Woodson refused to play Cole Aldrich, who has fit comfortably into Chandlers backup and takes space in the middle. In college, Aldrich was Defensive Player of the Year at Kansas; now he has excelled as a spot reserve. He can block shots and clog the middle and comes to the floor with great energy.
Face the facts: what team ever won with two point guards in the same backcourt, a small forward playing power forward, and a shooting guard playing small forward? If it reads quirky that exactly how they played. By games end Anthony was beat up. Now, with other big,s on the floor, he can play the 3, his natural position where again he dominates. Now he rotates between the three and four which puts opponents’ defenses scrambling to make corrections.
Coach has seen the light and is staying big. Woodson said his preference is to keep the Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler front line. Coach is learning bigger is better as his new lineup with Amare in the front line literally changed their first quarter dilemma of giving up 30 points and having trouble finding shots. With a low post scoring presence, the game opens up for everyone. Even Iman Shumpert has excelled now working and covering guards not forwards, and Tim Hardaway Jr. exploits all opposing two guards that try to help out on Anthony.
The Knicks need to win tonight and every night with some big games ahead. Although they are percentage points ahead of the Hawks for the eighth spot, the Knicks will need to keep winning to secure their position. The Hawks have what is viewed as a more favorable schedule with games against the Bobcats, Bucks, Pistons and Cavaliers. But those teams have nothing to lose, while the teams the Knicks play have less incentive to win. However they are playing terrible basketball and seem to be playing mentally small as the Knicks are playing physically and mentally big.
It might have taken the pressure of losing his job to make him change, but these changes have literally changed the season. Wednesday night the Celebrities were back in the Garden, the Garden was noisy and more importantly optimistic.
Dr Eric Kaplan is a bestselling author WWW.5minutemotivator.com
Follow him on twitter @drekaplan