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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Not What They Signed Up For

“Playing out there is not fun.”

I’d imagine Carmelo Anthony is completely right; getting completely outplayed, booed by your home crowd, and benched for the closing minutes against a division rival must not be all that enjoyable.

Now that the season’s at a crossroads, following a five-game skid after reaching the .500 mark last month vs. Cleveland, Melo and co-culprit Amar’e Stoudemire (who has looked nothing short of washed up for most of the season) have some serious issues to address if they look to lead the Knicks to the postseason for a second consecutive season, something they haven’t achieved since the Jeff Van Gundy era.

For starters, Anthony must either sit and rest his injuries that seem to be hampering his play, or simply put his shooting woes behind him. To his credit, he’s been playing with injuries basically all season long. What seems to be the case, however, is that the week he took off earlier in the season was not enough. His jumper has been flat, and looks lost on offense the majority of the time. His .39 shooting percentage since returning, which isn’t that far off from his full-season total, is hurting the Knicks playoff chances, not helping them.

The same can be said for Amar’e Stoudemire, who, following an MVP-type debut season in Gotham, has looked greatly disabled in all facets of the game. Potential excuses include the back injury he suffered in last season’s playoff series against Boston, the 15 pounds of muscle he added over the past offseason, or mere indifference. Amar’e has recently shed ten of those additional pounds, and looks to lose the remaining five in the coming days– so we will soon find out if this was a real issue.

Following Sunday’s loss to the division-leading 76ers, Amar’e said candidly, that the team was just “going through the motions.” And he’s right. Opposing teams run up and down the Garden floor at will, as if they’re playing a JV. A very expensive JV.

The duo, who take up over $36 million of the Knicks’ payroll this season, has simply brought inadequate energy and effort to Madison Square Garden. So much so, that coach Mike D’Antoni left the reserves in to close out Sunday’s matinee versus Philadephia, and rightfully so. It was evident that that squad provided the most energy and flat-out played better. Carmelo spoke on this after the 106-94 loss.

“I don’t really know what was Coach’s mindset. Maybe he was trying to save us for tomorrow. I’m not sure. You’re going to have to ask him.”

Clearly frustrated over the situation, it’s almost as if he doesn’t comprehend how much of a liability he has become on the floor.

“We’ve just got to figure it out,” he says.

Well, the time for “figuring out” has came and gone. Especially in this condensed 66-game season, there is little time for adjustments and rest. Anthony and Stoudemire must lead by example, if they do indeed wish to call it “their” team, and at the very least bring a positive energy to the court. The Knicks aren’t a team opponents fear playing. This is unacceptable for a team of the Knicks’ caliber, and must be changed.

Then there’s the coaching issue. Mike D’Antoni has quickly fallen out of favor with the Garden faithful. Players’ lack of energy or motivation can sometimes be attested to their coaching. Players quitting on their coach in crucial games at this important time in the season is simply inexplicable. That’s one issue. Another, however, is player misuse. Save Sunday at MSG, D’Antoni has repeatedly benched his second team in the final minutes of close games, only to watch the starters squander whatever chances the team had of winning.

D’Antoni also has a knack for benching players at the wrong moments. See Sunday for example, When Camelo Anthony opened the first quarter shooting 5 of 7, and 12 points– clearly the closest Melo has looked to being Melo. To open the second, D’Antoni, ignoring what he just saw on the court, stuck to his usual plan of resting Anthony. He then went on to miss every shot he took for the remainder of the game, flushing any resurgence down the drain.

D’Antoni’s stubbornness and failure to adjust is what will eventually do him in, whether it be sooner or later. Mike Woodson’s seat on the bench will then become all that more important, as he will presumably slide in to fill the vacancy that D’Antoni leaves, whenever that may be.

After all, Woodson was brought in as the “defensive coordinator” following last season when the Knicks allowed over 105 points per game. That number has shrunk to 96 this season, to the credit of Woodson, and enforcer Tyson Chandler who has been the team’s best all-around player this season.

Defense has actually been something of a strong suit at time this season for New York. The emergence of Jared Jeffries as a useful defensive piece off the bench, and rookie Iman Shumpert providing invaluable perimeter defense (currently 4th in the NBA with 1.94 steals per game), has surprisingly brought about a change of culture, with the whole team buying in at times. Imagine that.

More bright spots (yes, there are bright spots) this season include that second team that has provided so many key minutes this season. Led by Shumpert, sniper Steve Novak who’s shooting a lethal 48% from beyond the arc, and vet Baron Davis who has shown glimpses of Boom Dizzle circa 2004, this squad is responsible for Mike D’Antoni’s duties still being considered active.

But how much longer can this last? Not long if you ask me. Championship Winning teams are not marred by the issues the Knicks currently have. And they start from the top. It’s only a matter of time before the problems need to be cut at the sourceand the sooner the better. 

Look, it is possible to write a 1000-word Knicks piece without mentioning Jeremy Lin.