Knicks' Competent Leadership a Major Asset
Michael Watts, WFUV Sports
After Pat Riley’s bolted town for Miami following the 1994-1995 season the likes of Don Nelson, Jeff Van Gundy, Don Chaney, Lenny Wilkins, Larry Brown, Isiah Thomas and Mike D’Antoni have come to lead the Knicks back to the promised land. But, all failed. In fact the group failed to land even a single division crown.
At long last behind the leadership of Mike Woodson, the Knicks first round draft choice in 1980, the franchise has secured their first division title in 19 seasons and first 50 win season in over a decade. Both achievements were goals he set for his team at the start of the season, despite New York being overlooked by many (in fact, not one of the 35 ESPN.com NBA writers picked them to win the Atlantic).
Since having the interim tag removed over the summer by general manager Glen Grunwald, Woodson has done everything Knick fans could have asked for and then some – even having his name thrown around for Coach of the Year. There are plenty of talented and deserving coaches in the NBA this season for the award, but it is difficult to argue (when factoring in injuries) that many others have done more with less.
His shrewd moves such as embracing small ball, unleashing Anthony at power forward and freeing the team to launch 3s at a record-breaking rate have paid off greatly and the team ranks third in offensive efficiency, behind only Miami and Oklahoma City.
Last March Woodson inherited a lousy 18-24 team from D’Antoni, but he turned the Knicks into winners, winning 71 of his first 105 games behind the bench. Since day one he has instilled and preached defense, but he also brought in a new level of accountability. A great deal of that responsibility was rightfully put on the shoulders of Anthony and he’s delivered with a magical season.
After shedding roughly 15 pounds in the summer and winning a Gold Medal in the Olympics, the 28-year old is not only scoring at a remarkable rate, but he’s also giving more of an effort on the defensive end and been a willing passer when the situation calls for it.
Woodson has seemingly cracked the code in reaching him and his Denver-buddy J.R. Smith, getting both of them to play the best basketball of their lives. Unlike his predecessors, Woodson is fortunate to have Anthony’s Hall of Fame bound talent and a deep supporting cast.
When talking about him as a possible Coach of the Year candidate, you must also keep in mind Grunwald, a fellow University of Indiana alumnus as possible Executive of the Year. Since replacing Donnie Walsh in July of 2011, he has made some bold and interesting calls that have mostly worked out.
He has been muzzled by the organization, rarely conducting interviews and going about his business quietly, yet efficiently. The roster he inherited had a gaping hole in the middle, inconsistent perimeter shooting and a pitiful lack of depth. But, amazingly in just 20 months Grunwald overhauled the entire roster around Anthony and Amare Stoudemire.
Ironically, his first move was bringing aboard Woodson as a “defensive” assistant, which was one of his many good doings. He signed Tyson Chandler away from Dallas and J.R. Smith out from China. He plucked Jeremy Lin, Steve Novak, Chris Copeland and Pablo Prigioni out of thin air. Re-acquired Raymond Felton, signed Kenyon Martin off the scrap heap and brought in the championship pedigrees of Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace.
Over the summer he constructed the oldest roster in NBA history, but also one of the deepest in the league. With age came expected injuries and the Knicks medical staff has had their hands full. However, Grunwald provided Woodson with a plethora of depth and coach has kept the team together all season long, mixing-and-matching his way through 25 different starting lineups and 53 victories.
With a win on Sunday over Walsh and his Pacers, the Knicks clinched the No.2 seed, assuring themselves home court advantage for the first time since 2001 and through the first two rounds of the playoffs. They host the Hawks in the season finale on Wednesday, but the meaningless game does have some meaning for Woodson.
Not only would it be nice to beat his former team, but a win would mean he has increased his win total in all seven full seasons behind an NBA bench -- — check out his win totals in Atlanta (13, 26, 30, 37, 47, 53).
Despite winning 53 games and advancing to the second round, the Hawks canned Woodson after the 2009-2010 campaign. He took a year off and ended up in New York two summers ago. So far he’s embraced the dubious task of bringing this storied franchise back to relevancy and remarkably in just a short few months his goatee has become seemingly a fixture at Madison Square Garden. This season has been a special one, but he has bigger aspirations.
"The big picture is winning a title," he said last week. "The division is great because that's what we set out to do as a team but the big picture is trying to win a championship. We're headed in the right direction but we still have a ways to go.”
Steve Simineri covers the New York Knicks for WFUV Sports.