Knicks Adjustments Need to Start at the Head (the very shiny head)

Mike Woodson

Photo via USA Today

I’ll admit I was weary when the Knicks re-signed Mike Woodson to a long-term deal last summer, fresh off another first-round playoff flop. I’ll also admit that I was a member of the gullible crowd just months ago that was convinced Mike Woodson was Coach of the Year material. After watching this Knicks team rise, fall, and level off through the last four months, I’ve realized I was wrong on both occasions.

When the man with the sparkling scalp, and the goatee an illustrator dreams of, took over Mike D’Antoni’s disgraced Knicks team, he arrived with a pretty mediocre reputation. Woody was D’Antoni’s defensive guy, and no one questioned his ability to preach defense. But his offensive schemes were an entirely different story.

As Hawks head man, Woodson made use of very few offensive sets, and often gave his star Joe Johnson free reign to run the show — what you and I know as “Iso-Joe.” This, more or less, held true last season in his 24 regular season games. But it worked. Carmelo Anthony’s USG% rose from 33 percent under D’Antoni to 37 percent under Woodson, and the Knicks rattled off 18 wins in those final 24 to finish seventh in the East. Then the matchup with Miami in the first round. Iman Shumpert and Baron Davis torn ACLs, confetti, streamers, blah blah blah. Carmelo’s USG% clocked in at 40.72 percent for the series, and the Knicks were done in 5.

Knicks management then decided to reward Woodson for his regular season run with a 3-year deal. This worried me. The guy could motivate and preach defense. We all knew that. But something about locking in your future with a coach whose career playoff record was 12-22 didn’t settle the right way. Call me crazy.

But the 2012-13 season began, and sure enough, Mike Woodson coached like nobody had ever seen him coach before.

There were passes. Passes everywhere. And screens. Off-ball screens. On-ball screens. Melo setting screens! It was as if you’d hooked the Knicks up to the computer on the hardest setting in 2K. Ray Felton, not Anthony, initiated the offense. Jason Kidd was at the wing on standby in case the ball needed a kickstart on its trip around the set. The ball flung rapidly about each Knick until one of the five found an open look.

Seriously, the passing was something else. Carmelo was using The Force to pass out of double-teams. He knew where all four other guys were at every second, and if his shot wasn’t there, he’d give it up. And oh yeah, J.R. Smith was passing.

J.R. Smith was passing.

And the defense, as we all expected, was among the league’s best. They destroyed the Miami Heat on opening night by allowing just 84 points. They didn’t allow more than 90 in three of their first four matchups. Through the first nine games, the Knicks were rocking a defense efficiency of 97.4, which would place second in the league right now. There were a few close calls, but Woody’s Knicks were murking teams almost every night out thanks to a dizzying array of passes and smothering defense.

Then those nine games were up. The Knicks were in Dallas in a nail-biter — the first late-game situation with Mike Woodson on the spot. It was 112-111 Dallas with 24 seconds left on the clock. The Knicks had been killing the Mavs in pick-and-rolls all night. Felton had 11 dimes and Tyson Chandler racked up 21 points. Woodson had been drawing up stellar plays out of timeouts all year. We were on the edge of our collective seat to watch the magic about to unfold. Then Woody just couldn’t kick his urge.

2012-13 got it’s first taste of Iso-Melo. He took the ball to the left, got Shawn Marion in the air on a ball fake but decided on the pull-up jumper. It missed, and the Knicks failed their first crunch time test of the season.

From that night on, the Knicks have been getting away from everything I just wrote about (aside from Iso-Melo). The most stark — and unexplainable — dropoff is the defense. Since those first nine games, the team’s defensive efficiency is 106. Overall that number stands at 102.9, or 14th league-wide (via HoopData). The Knicks went from being a top-five defense to a bottom-five defense in an alarmingly short time.

One of the most infuriating aspects of the defense’s demise comes directly from Woodson himself. Per his instruction, Knicks defenders switch on nearly every play involving a pick, instead of fighting through the screen. This leaves the Knicks with terribly unfavorable matchups all across the court — and far too often. The defensive woes were all supposed to vanish when Iman Shumpert rejoined the team in January. Due to a combination of (understandable) slow recovery on Shumpert’s part, and Woodson insisting on playing him out of position at small forward and not guarding the opposing point guard, Shump’s been the subject of league-wide slander for about a month.

Woodson has also neglected to remove Jason Kidd from the starting lineup, when it’s blatantly obvious he’s been overrun to this point. The glorious, reborn Kidd from the season’s first two months is only a faint memory now. These days, Kidd is everything you’d expect a 39-year-old point guard to be: really bad. Since Jan. 1, Kidd has shot 27 percent from the arc and 32 percent from the field. Yet he’s stil the Knicks starting shooting guard (Shumpert’s natural position), and Shump is still at the 3.

Woody has stuck with the same starting five for 12 of the last 13 games. The Knicks are 6-7 in them.

And that cool, team-oriented offense with the picks and the passes and stuff? That’s been on hiatus for almost as long as the defense has. For the last month, the offense is essentially this sequence:

  1. Felton or Anthony bring the ball up.
  2. Tyson receives the ball at the top of the key. Tyson passes it to the other side.
  3. Some unproductive passes occur. The shot clock winds down to 10. 9. 8…
  4. JR Smith takes a stepback jumper or Carmelo tries to draw contact at the rim.

The lack of sets on O has especially doomed Steve Novak, who was on the receiving end of a solid amount of open looks early on thanks to several screens. Nowadays, you can usually find Novak in either corner of the court, defender on his hip, desperately trying to position himself for a feed that never gets fed. In his last 12 games, Novak’s points per game are down to just six, and his three-point attempts are down to 3.8. For comparison, Novak was launching 6.1 attempts from deep upon entering the rotation last season.

Since Dec. 17, the Knicks have been the definition of an average team: 15-15 in their last 30 tries. The Garden has been the Mecca of Mediocrity for some months now, and the Knicks have their hot start to thank for their third place standing in the East.

That start is also what they’ll have to thank if they eventually do get back on track. For this team to win, Woodson can re-implement several aspects of November and December into the right-now. It’s amazing how far some set plays and defensive effort can go.

So no, Mike Woodson won’t be recognized as the league’s top coach. That was a bit naïve of us to expect. But he does have what it takes to get the Knicks back on track, and even make a serious run in the postseason — he proved that much to us back in November. Now it’s just a matter of if Woody can do what his predecessor never could: adjust. With the necessary changes, the Knicks could contend for a ring this spring. But they’ll need that coach from the first two months of the season to do it. That guy can coach.

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