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Did Mike Woodson Deserve The Blame For Knicks’ Season?

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Mike Woodson, after last season delivering the Knicks their first Atlantic Division title since 1993-94, was let go as head coach earlier today. The move was largely expected, and the firing brings the underwhelming Knicks’ season full-circle with Woodson taking the brunt of the blame for the team’s lack of success on-court.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mike Woodson and his entire staff,” President Phil Jackson said in a press release. “The coaches and players on this team had an extremely difficult 2013-14 season, and blame should not be put on one individual. But the time has come for change throughout the franchise as we start the journey to assess and build this team for next season and beyond.”

But, the blame is being placed on one individual – the coach. Did Woodson deserve the treatment he received from media, fans, and even his own players this season once things went bad? Probably not. Unjust or not, that’s just the way it is in sports, unfortunately.

Throughout all the speculation and innuendo about his job all season Woodson held his head high and responded with class, although on the final night of the season, the coach was defiant when questions about his job security were raised.

“Is it fair to let me go? I don’t think so,” Woodson said before the Knicks closed out the 2013-14 season with a win over the Toronto Raptors. I think it’s been enough said about my job all year with you guys [media].

“I said this two or three weeks ago: Am I the guy for the job? I’m the only guy for this job. I’ve always said that. And I don’t mean that in a braggadocios way. I feel good about what I do as a coach. I know the system works. Unfortunately this season we’ve had some bad luck, some bad breaks along the way. But hey, I can’t go back and get this season. If I could I would.”

Woodson certainly wasn’t being braggadocios. Was he totally without blame this season? No, but in his defense, he wasn’t exactly put in a position to succeed either. His record at The Garden speaks for itself.

In two-plus seasons in charge Woodson’s win/loss stands at 109-79 (.580), making him the most successful Knicks’ coach since the Jeff Van Gundy era. All other coaches since Van Gundy left have a combined record 185-games under .500. Woodson also led the team to the No. 2 seed last season and it’s first playoff series win in over a decade.

In the end, though, the axe fell after a team, that owner James Dolan felt could win a championship, failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

The system – and the coach’s tendency to rely too much on one-on-one basketball – is where many Woodson detractors pointed to as evidence for their argument. ‘Woodson’s system just did not work’, they said, and instantly point to the team’s 37-45 record (17-games below where they were last season) to show proof. It must be the system.
Even Tyson Chandler was critical of the team’s constant switching on defense after a crushing loss to rivals, the Brooklyn Nets, in January.
“I don’t want to switch. I personally don’t like it. You come with a defensive plan and then every guy kind of mans up and takes his responsibility,” said Chandler.  “I think switching should always be your last resort. That’s me, personally.”

What Chandler conveniently forgot to mention at the time was that it was Woodson who was in charge of coaching the Knicks’ defense when he won Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
Woodson was also in-charge when J.R. Smith won the Sixth Man award, and coincidentally, when ‘selfish’ superstar Carmelo Anthony had his best season of his 11-year NBA career, finishing third in the MVP voting in 2012-13.
It wasn’t Woodson’s fault that Smith took until the final third of the season to regain last season’s form following off-season knee surgery, and a five-game suspension for violating the League’s drug policy. Nor was he to blame for Iman Shumpert seemingly regressing as a defensive specialist, or that Raymond Felton forgot how to play the point guard position.
The team was also ravaged by injuries. Chandler missed 20-games after sustaining a fracture in his leg, while Kenyon Martin had ankle troubles all year. Felton also had his problems staying healthy, and let’s not forget Andrea Bargnani, who did not play since January 22 when he hurt his elbow.
With all that said, no-one blamed the system, or a lack of team chemistry, when the Knicks closed the season out 16-5 – barely missing the playoffs by one-game. Prior to the final game against Toronto forward Kenyon Martin said the coach was being unfairly blamed.
“Woody had us prepared for the game – it was just, we didn’t go out and get it done. There wasn’t one day where we didn’t have shoot-around, or didn’t watch film. It was the same game plan, same schemes, we had last year. We just didn’t get it done.”
In the end, Jackson, in his first major move as team president, elected to let-go of Woodson.
According to reports, he will bring in a coach of his choosing (Steve Kerr is still considered the front-runner) to implement the Triangle Offense. The move to sack Woodson was inevitable given the direction the team had gone, but let us not pretend that he was solely responsible for the Knicks wasting a year in 2013-14.
Top image via: Howard Simmons/New York Daily News
Middle image via: Chris Celletti
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