Mike Woodson's regular appearance on ESPN Radio turned a bit confessional this week, as the Knicks head coach discussed the challenges of leading a team that has so thoroughly underperformed expectations.
"This year has been, for me, it's been kind of a disaster from a coaching standpoint in trying to get players to compete and play at a high level. That's the frustrating part about it, because I know we're better than what we've shown and we've still got a chance. That's how I look at it. We're two and a half games out of the eighth spot and I've been in this situation before in Atlanta where I had to push a team to get that eighth spot. Once you get in [the playoffs], anything is possible. We've gotta get there."
You can listen to Woodson's full 20-minute interview with hosts Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco at ESPN New York.
We'll leave the Cinderella setup be, as its Woodson's job to believe he can get the most out of this team. Even still, this was an oddly accurate bit of self-assessment for a coach who has been so stubborn throughout the season. This is a coach who actively went away from his team's most effective lineups to serve his personal strategic preferences (or organizational directives -- who can really say?); who continues to employ a defensive system that makes it easy for players to skirt by without accountability; and who gave J.R. Smith so much leeway only to bristle when the shooting guard misbehaved in characteristic fashion. The fault for New York's 19-30 record shouldn't be placed in Woodson's lap, but most of his faulty moves this season have been rather predictable in their failure.
Part and parcel with that is what Woodson addresses more specifically: "get[ting] players to compete and play at a high level." In the past this was Woodson's forte; he was praised as a defensive coach who established productive working relationships with his players, from which came the fruit of their effort and commitment. At some point this season that bond seems to have rotted -- if not to its core, than certainly to whatever degree results in such consistently foul basketball. Whenever the Knicks seem as though they might be turning a corner, they roll out a horrific and lazy defensive showing. Whenever it seems as though they might finally be trusting in the tenets that defined New York basketball as recently as last season, they waffle into alternating stretches of forced offense and creative paralysis. This is a team that either doesn't know what Woodson wants or can't find reason to care for his wants on a consistent basis. Given that so many of the Knicks' rotation players are holdovers from last season, the latter seems more likely. That, more than anything else, might be the biggest shortcoming in Woodson's coaching work this season. One can get away with strategic missteps and rotational gaffes when the team in question is playing hard, particularly in an Eastern Conference this soft at its center. The Knicks' brand of basketball, though, has been neither smart nor committed -- a rather clear indictment of the man hired to instruct and motivate them.