c.2014 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — Mike Woodson was 109-79 in his two-plus seasons as the New York Knicks’ coach. His regular-season winning percentage of .580 is the third highest in franchise history. Still, it was no surprise Monday when the Knicks announced that he had been dismissed, less than a week after he and the team finished the 2013-14 season with a hugely disappointing 37-45 record that left them out of the playoffs.
In effect, Woodson paid the price for a Knicks season that went wrong from the start and ultimately led the team’s owner, James L. Dolan, to bring in Phil Jackson as the team’s new president, with assurances that he would have full autonomy in charting a new course. By removing Woodson and his coaching staff, including the assistants Jim Todd, Darrell Walker and Herb Williams, Jackson has started to exercise that freedom.
“Blame should not be put on one individual,” Jackson said in a statement released by the team. “But the time has come for change throughout the franchise as we start the journey to assess and build this team for next season and beyond.”
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The Knicks did not offer a timeline for hiring a new coach, although it seems likely that Jackson — who won 11 championships as the coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers — will want a surrogate on the bench who is familiar with his views and schemes, particularly his famed triangle offense.
Steve Kerr, a former point guard who played for Jackson in Chicago, is a leading candidate. Appearing Monday on his weekly Sirius XM radio show, Kerr said he expected to hear from Jackson in the coming days. Kerr, a former general manager of the Phoenix Suns, has expressed an interest in coaching.
“It’s going to be very interesting, and obviously, my name is being thrown around,” he said. “I do anticipate at least being part of the conversation, and we’ll see where it all goes.”
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Woodson, a former coach of the Atlanta Hawks, joined the Knicks in 2011 as an assistant under Mike D’Antoni. Woodson then replaced him on an interim basis when D’Antoni and the Knicks parted ways in March 2012, and he was able to guide the Knicks to an 18-6 record over the final weeks of the season, although a first-round playoff ouster then followed.
Last season, Woodson had even more success supervising a high-octane offense that was predicated on shooting a record number of 3-pointers. The Knicks were 54-28 — their best regular-season mark since 1996-97 — and captured the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs. After reaching the conference semifinals, they fell to the Indiana Pacers in six games.
Woodson was subsequently rewarded with a contract extension through the 2014-15 season, and there were heightened expectations, at least in some quarters, about what the Knicks might be able to accomplish this time around.
In a curious move, however, Dolan removed Glen Grunwald as the general manager days before the start of training camp and replaced him with Steve Mills, a former Garden executive with no experience in that job.
Dolan also made little pretense about what he wanted, even demanded for 2013-14: a championship. But it was obvious within the first few weeks of the season that the team had major problems that had not been anticipated.
The Knicks were hindered by injury — for instance, Tyson Chandler, the team’s defense-minded center, broke a bone in his right leg Nov. 5 and wound up missing 20 games — but they also underperformed, particularly given their payroll, which was the second highest in the NBA behind the Brooklyn Nets.
The offseason departures of veteran leaders like Jason Kidd left a void, and Andrea Bargnani, the team’s prize acquisition last summer, could never quite adapt to Woodson’s system.
Bargnani tore a ligament in his left elbow on an ill-fated dunk attempt against the Philadelphia 76ers on Jan. 22. The Knicks lost that game (a nearly impossible feat, given how bad the 76ers were), and Bargnani was inactive for the remainder of the season.
As the losses accumulated, Woodson began to coach with increasing desperation. For example, when Chandler finally made his return against the Milwaukee Bucks in mid-December, he played 37 minutes, a big number for a first game back. Predictably, he had cramps in his calves late in the game. Again, Woodson said he had few other options.
That might have been the case, but there was also little doubt that Woodson made some dubious decisions. Chandler, in particular, was vocal about questioning Woodson’s defensive rotations. On Thursday, in a post-mortem interview at the team’s training center, Chandler said that the Knicks needed schematic overhauls on offense and defense, as well as a culture change.
In late December, Dolan met with the coaching staff and the players and assured them no one was being traded and no one was being fired. It was a pep talk. The Knicks promptly went out and lost two games to the division-leading Toronto Raptors. Even worse, the Knicks soon fell to 19 games below .500.
As Woodson sometimes sparred with players — he benched J.R. Smith and blamed Beno Udrih for a series of lapses — nobody from management stepped forward to offer any show of support or to even help him publicly address the team’s shortcomings, which he had to do on an almost daily basis.
Instead, Dolan had commenced his covert courtship of Jackson, meeting with him several times. Dolan even offered Jackson the head-coaching position, which he declined. So Woodson kept his job, perhaps by default, and while the Knicks did make a late-season push, they fell short of the playoffs.
On Wednesday, before the Knicks’ regular-season finale against the Raptors, Woodson was asked if he thought he had been given a fair chance.
“What’s fair?” he said. “I was given an opportunity two years ago to take over a team that was struggling, and I made the most of it. Unfortunately, it just didn’t go according to plan. So is it fair to let me go? I don’t think so. But again, I don’t make that decision. That’s got to come from the top.”
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That top is Dolan and Jackson and Mills, who has remained as the general manager even after Jackson’s arrival in March. It was Jackson and Mills who conducted the team’s exit interviews last week; Woodson did not participate. He returned to the training facility on Monday to pack up his office.
Carmelo Anthony, who was the focal point of Woodson’s offense and who intends to explore free agency this summer, gave Woodson a vote of confidence in his post-mortem remarks last week, but they were not enough to save Woodson’s job.
“I would back him,” Anthony said of Woodson. “I mean, if he needs my recommendation, whether it’s here or anywhere else, I’ll back him. I have nothing bad to say about Mike Woodson. I support him, and for me, as a player, I had some of my best years under Mike Woodson.”
The Knicks are making changes, though, and Woodson is among the first to feel the effect. When he spoke last week, Woodson seemed to have a sense of what was ahead, saying it was natural to blame the coach when things went wrong.
“It’s part of the game,” he said. “I’m a realist when it comes to coaching. I’ve been around this a long time, man.”