Mike Woodson's Reluctant Revolution

Jeff Zelevansky

The Knicks took a weird, unexpected path to success this season, perhaps by accident. Will they attempt to replicate it next season?

I understand why people want Mike Woodson fired. I can see how a constellation of illogical moves in the playoffs could have been the last straw for some Knicks fans. I don't want him to be fired. I value continuity above all else with this team and I reckon any replacement would bring flaws, blind spots, and other questionable idiosyncrasies of his own. None of this matters, anyway, since Woodson isn't going to get fired. Right? His hiring was uncontested, he's in with the right agency, and he, ya know, coached the team to their best season in over a decade. He's not going anywhere*. Nobody but fans has even mentioned his firing as a possibility.

*Note: Sometimes Knick employees who aren't going anywhere end up going anywhere.

Working under the assumption that Woodson will be back, I am ill at ease. It's not because I think he's a bad coach. It's that-- a year and a half into his tenure-- I don't quite understand what he wants. Allow me to flesh out something I first mentioned after that horrid Game 4 in Indiana. Mike Woodson came to New York with the reputation of being stodgy, defense-oriented, offensively unimaginative, and fuzzy. The man with that reputation went on to build a system that, among other things, featured Carmelo Anthony almost exclusively at the four for the first time in his career, regularly employed point guards in tandem, neared historic lows for turnover rate, and attempted more threes than any team ever. Ever! Mike Woodson! That same stodgy fuzzball imbued the Knicks with an identity and reputation opposite his own and achieved a ton of success in doing so.

However, there were signs along the way that Woodson wasn't totally committed to the approach, and they became fully realized during the Indiana series, especially in that Game 4. Menaced by a big, defensively brilliant opponent, Woodson got desperate and opposed that identity in nearly every way possible. Something about the way Woodson, when challenged, recoiled from his team's most basic tenets alarmed me. And then I looked back at how the team had built its identity and began to wonder in earnest if it was an accident.

Think back to the beginning of the season. With Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert injured, Woodson surprised us by starting Carmelo Anthony at the four and Jason Kidd at the two in a preseason game against the Sixers. He went away from that sort of starting lineup (though he did use it at points) in the next and final exhibition game against the Nets, who were also supposed to be New York's first regular season opponent. Then Hurricane Sandy ruined opening night in Brooklyn, making a visit from the Heat the first game of the year. Now facing Miami's small lineup instead of Brooklyn's more conventional five, Woodson opted to match with the two-point-guard/Melo-at-the-four starting unit. The Knicks dominated, attempting and hitting an absurd number of threes. Then he stuck with that lineup in two games against the similarly small Sixers and the Knicks continued to dominate. So he kept at it, and that became New York's look. The defense struggled (albeit while forcing a ton of turnovers and rebounding well-- also strange) and the offense isolated at times, but there was also a heavy dose of innovation and absurdity-- wonky sets, wacky lineups (here's your reminder that Woodson once spun the shortest possible five-man unit on his roster), and so very many three-pointers. That it was grumbly ol' Mike Woodson governing one of the weirdest, funnest systems in the NBA was not lost on people. It was fairly nuts, and the zany shirts and whatnot only heightened the nuttiness.

There were breaks from that identity along the way-- hints, perhaps, at Woodson's reluctance. In response to some combination of injuries and desperation, Woodson moved Melo down to the three (with Marcus Camby or Kurt Thomas at the four) at several points and aborted the starting point guard tandem during the first two weeks of March (after which Woodson went to Pablo Prigioni, not the struggling Kidd, as his starting two). There were also, to be fair, signs of devotion to the approach, like Woodson's insistence on keeping J.R. Smith as a third bench guard instead of starting him at two and his decision to bring Amar'e Stoudemire off the bench even once he'd hit his stride. As the playoffs drew near, though, Woodson hinted that he might change things up and go big against Indiana or Chicago. When the time came, he did so gradually at first, then went full steam backward in that Game 4. Such a reversion could be foreboding.

I wondered before if Woodson would have fashioned the Knicks into a small, spread-out, three-point ripping offensive curiosity (and, for considerable stretches, juggernaut) if circumstances hadn't forced his hand to start the year. Now I wonder what he and the organization envision for next year. The Knicks could have a very similar roster, so will they try to achieve and enhance the same identity? Will they try to recreate those point guard tandems whether or not Prigioni and Kidd stick around? Will they plan around starting Melo at the four? Will they seek shooters? If Amar'e Stoudemire is healthy, I suspect they won't and I don't know if I should be upset about that. Playing small lineups with extra distribution and extra shooting alongside Melo at the four worked brilliantly this past season. There could be other configurations that work brilliantly, but we haven't seen large samples of them yet. A more traditional approach would essentially be starting from scratch.

In summary: Mike Woodson, perhaps due to circumstance and not will, created something weird and excellent this season, but abandoned it in crucial moments. Therefore, I don't think-- in our assessment of possible changes to the roster via draft, trade, and free agency-- we can assume the 2013-2014 Knicks will be a project of rebuilding and improving upon the 2012-2013 Knicks. They might very well be building something totally new, and perhaps more conventional, out of most of the same parts.

If Woodson does intend to revert to orthodoxy, I just hope he and management are on the same page in that regard. And if the team changes its identity, I realllly hope it works, because the 2012-2013 way, however weird it was, worked pretty nicely. If anything, the Knicks may have underachieved because Woodson got intermittently shy about the weirdness, and it'd be a shame to abandon that just for comfort's sake. Even still, and no matter what happens next year, we'll always remember the time Mike Woodson-- Mike Woodson!-- led one of the strangest, most revolutionary Knick campaigns we've ever seen, maybe by accident.

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