Disclaimer: To reiterate, I’m a New Yorker and thus, inherently biased. However, I remain steadfast in my beliefs that my opinions are consistently the correct ones.
I’m just going to say what everyone else has been thinking: Mike Woodson is a magical stern-faced Buddha sent down by the coaching gods to save the drowning New York Knicks. Woodson came at a critical time when NYK fans were just about ready to jump the sinking Manhattan ship and head towards the seemingly safer waters with the omnipotent Jay-Z in Brooklyn. Mike Woodson, a former Knick himself, was unexpectedly thrust into the head coaching position last season when the Mike D’Antoni system [inevitably] fell apart (… sorry Laker fans). For a long time Woodson was given the “interim” tag, implying that he was just sticking around until the organization could find someone to take his place. However, it didn’t take long for Woodson’s powers to take hold and drastically improve a struggling New York squad. Under D’Antoni, the Knicks were 18-24. After his departure, in contrast, the team went 18-6 and even snuck into the playoffs. Woodson deserves the most credit for transforming the Knicks from a single-win playoff team into a championship contender. He has had the best start to a season in Knicks history. Regardless to how this season unfolds, Mike Woodson needs to be named Coach of the Year.
After Woodson’s impressive showing in half a season, fans were anxious to see what would happen during the offseason. Well, Linsanity ended, and in Jeremy Lin‘s place the Knicks added a seemingly broken Raymond Felton and a “veteran” (A.K.A. past-his-time), recently DUI-convicted, 39-year-old Jason Kidd. Needless to say, there was work to be done.
However, the “trade” has worked out. Kidd, despite his age, has been of statistical value this season. He is averaging 7.4 points, 1.8 3-point shots, 3.6 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. However, Kidd’s impact goes far beyond the scoreboard. As the saying goes, “the older, the wiser” and Jason Kidd is damning evidence of that. In critical moments of games Kidd is there making intelligent plays for his teammates. He has been a calming influence on the floor in times of panic. He is one of the primary reasons why the Knicks are one of best fourth quarter teams in the league. Kidd leads the Knicks in steals per game and provides a late-game spark when it’s needed most. It also isn’t uncommon to find Kidd coaching from the sidelines, or in a huddle, and Woodson does not mind Kidd taking charge. “He’s been the glue,” Woodson has said of Kidd. From a fantasy perspective, Kidd isn’t one of the elite. However, Woodson has allowed him to play the role an assistant coach who also happens to be a playmaker late in games. Kidd has been steady, but Felton has also had an incredible season under Woodson. Felton is one of the few players on the roster who is able to consistently penetrate and get to the basket. He’s also one of the only Knicks who can reliably set up Chandler and Stoudemire for alley-oops and other easy baskets. Felton currently leads the Knicks in assists, averaging 6.3 per game. While giving up Lin might have been an unpleasant pill for some to swallow, it was the right medication.
One of the primary reasons Woodson has been so successful this season has been his ability to get his players to trust his opinions regardless of whether or not they want to hear it. The first example of this can be seen with Amar’e Stoudemire. While STAT was on the bench, it was uncertain as to how he would fit into the rhythm that the Knicks had developed. Stoudemire is set to make approximately 100 million dollars over five years. Needless to say, the Knicks organization has shelled out a pretty penny in order to ensure he stays in New York. For the majority of coaches, it wouldn’t even be a question as to whether Stoudemire would get his starting spot back. He has an indisputable resume, and is set to make more than nearly all his teammates. Typically, this is more than enough to earn a starting role. However, Woodson had other ideas. Woodson instead decided to bring Stoudemire off the bench, and his decision ultimately has silenced critics who stated that Stoudemire’s return would be more of a hindrance than a help to a dominating Knicks team. Off the bench, Stoudedmire has shot 55.9 percent from the field while averaging 13.6 points, 4.8 rebounds and only 1.5 turnovers (the second lowest in his career!). Stoudemire has still been able to score consistently despite recovering from his knee injury AND playing approximately 10 minutes less than he has in the past. In addition, the former All-Star and Olympic gold medalist claims that Woodson is the first coach to ever teach him how to play defense (hint hint, Mr. D’Antoni). It looks like that decision is working out just fine.
The next example of Woodson’s superior coaching is seen with J.R. Smith. Coming into this season, Smith was sure he had done everything possible to earn himself a starting role. In the beginning, Smith made it clear that he was upset with his coach’s decision to play him off the bench. However, Woodson would have none of that, “I told everybody they had to leave their egos at the door. If we’re talking about trying to win our division and win a title, you have to leave your ego. I’m not going to deal with guys who have bad egos.” Smith soon realized (or was obligated to realize) that his team needed him off the bench and that he had to do whatever he could to help his team. Smith has been forced to learn to love his role as the sixth man. He has been making more plays through steals, continues to have a strong offensive presence by taking less wild shots, and has greatly improved on defense. In addition, Woodson has helped Smith clean up his act off the court. Since the beginning of the year, Smith has stopped Tweeting wildly, has shown up to press conferences dressing sharp, and has kept his partying to a minimum. It should come as little surprise that Smith has posted career bests in points (16.2 per game) and rebounds (5.0 per game) this season.
Not only has he gotten J.R. Smith to play the smartest basketball of his career, but Woodson also has the rest of the team playing intelligently with their newfound ability to minimize turnovers. The Knicks have led the NBA since the beginning of the season with the fewest turnovers per game. Woodson has a bag full of coaching tricks and not all of them are exactly traditional. So what is his mysterious key to success when it comes to minimizing turnovers? Anytime the Knicks have less than 10 turnovers in a game, the players get a day off from sprints while Woodson and the rest of the coaching staff pick up the load instead. The teammates enjoy watching the staff (especially Woodson, who is not quite in the same shape as he was when he was a Knick himself?) struggle as they try to run the amount that they force their young athletes to. This technique, although undeniably uncharacteristic for a coach to employ, has proven successful. In 2011, the Knicks averaged a league-worst 16.2 turnovers per game. Under Woodson, the Knicks average a league-best 11.6 turnovers per game. Coincidence? I think not.
Mike Woodson deserves to be Coach of the Year. You’ll be hard pressed to find another team that battled through the myriad of injuries and nightly lineup changes the Knicks have had to endure. Despite those obstacles, Woodson has put a successful product on the court more nights than not. Woodson has earned the respect of his players, which has made him capable of keeping all of their egos in check. Woodson has been able to keep an All-Star content while coming off the bench, has a party boy directly following orders, and an entire team doing a 360-degree turnaround in terms of ball security. Needless to say, when it comes to coaching, Mike Woodson knows what he is doing. Despite being on my couch miles away from Madison Square Garden when watching Knicks games, even I’m terrified of the wrath of Woodson when the Knicks aren’t playing up to par. Woodson has been a consistent calm in a city of chaos, and the team’s results show the impact he has had.