In a move that surprised no one, Phil Jackson fired New York Knicks head coach Mike Woodson today, along with his entire coaching staff.
The team's newly appointed president of basketball operations stated the need for a fresh start from the staff that oversaw a dismal 37-45 record, stressing that "blame should not be put on one individual." But after a disappointing season in which the Knicks were expected to be a playoff contender, and with owner James Dolan, who always needs a scapegoat for his team's futility, Woodson's fate was a long time coming, sealed by Jackson's splashy hire.
Let's remember that Woodson was put in a nearly impossible situation when he became interim head coach after Mike D'Antoni's departure during the 2011-12 season. Woodson took over an 18-24 team and led it to an 18-6 run down the stretch. The next year, he coached the Knicks to a 54-28 record and first playoff series win in 13 seasons. After a slew of head-coach disasters such as D'Antoni, Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas, Woodson ends his tenure as the most successful Knicks coach since Jeff Van Gundy -- his 109-79 record after two and half seasons the third-highest winning percentage in team history, behind Pat Riley and Van Gundy.
But after signing a contract extension through 2014-15, Woodson lost his biggest front-office ally when the Knicks fired general manager Glen Grunwald just before training camp. With offseason surgeries and injuries to Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, the team was slow out of the gate, hobbling toward a 3-13 start. The "Fire Woodson" calls came down from fans as early as November, as the coach received little to no support from management.
To wit, Woodson also deserves plenty of blame, from his predictable offense predicated on isolating Carmelo Anthony to his frustrating lack of end-of-game clock management to his inability to galvanize his own locker room. The injuries only exposed the one-dimensionality of his offense; when Smith sat it was basically Anthony or bust in perimeter shooting. Woodson also shifted from the small-ball tactics that brought the team success the previous year and clung to a defensive scheme unsuited to his squad. Center Tyson Chandler, a talented defender when used properly to defend the rim, bemoaned his coach's unwillingness to adjust the switch-heavy defense to the skill-set of players. Indeed, his firing has been met with a general lack of sympathy:
Don't expect Jackson's spring cleaning to stop with the coaches -- ESPN's Ian Begley reports that Jackson was concerned with many players' conditioning this season, which could mean additional shakeups among medical and training staff.
Who will replace Woodson? Before Jackson's hiring, Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau was a leading candidate for the job, but that seems like a pipe dream with the Zen Master in charge. (The New York Daily News' Frank Isola reminds us that Thibodeau was an assistant coach on the Van Gundy-helmed Knicks in 2000 before Dolan fired him -- yet another reason it's time for New York fans to storm the castle.)
By all accounts, Jackson plans to bring in his guys, with Steve Kerr the likely candidate for head coach. Kerr is well familiar with the triangle offense, having played for five seasons under Jackson in Chicago, where he won three titles. He also won two championships while playing under Gregg Popovich on the San Antonio Spurs, so Kerr has had the benefit of learning from the two greatest coaching minds of this generation. After his playing days, Kerr served as the Phoenix Suns' general manager and now calls games for TNT. He has no NBA coaching experience, but that hasn't stopped former players such as Jason Kidd in Brooklyn and Mark Jackson at Golden State from successfully making the leap. And he does have the greatest coach in history sitting upstairs should he have any questions. There's also always the possibility that Jackson could end up coaching by proxy through Kerr until he's finally ready to retake the reins himself, despite his protests that he's too old to return to the bench.
For now, Jackson has begun the long process of rebuilding the Knicks, looking to usher in an era of stability absent from the franchise for decades. The next step will be securing Anthony's future, which is anything but a given despite the bundles of money the team can throw at its star player. "I'm not at a point in my career where I want to rebuild," Anthony said last week. Starting with Woodson's replacement, Jackson must convince Melo that he's laying the foundation for a championship team if he hopes to keep him in orange and blue.
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