Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Time for Coach MIke Woodson to step up.

NFL hall of fame coach Bill Parcells once famously said, " you are what your record is." That may apply to the NFL where the best teams do not always win in the one-and-done ,win-or-go-home playoff landscape. In the NBA there are two seasons. There is the mentally exacting, emotionally draining, physically exhausting 82-game grind. Then there is the white-hot spot light of the post-season where pressure is ratcheted up to inferno levels. It is here where legends are born. So conceivably a team  may enjoy tremendous regular season  only to flame out when the fire is hottest. In 1994-95 you had the 47-win Houston Rockets knocking off the 60-win Stockton and Malone led Jazz. In 2011, the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies knocked off a Spurs team who had the best regular season record in the NBA. Who can forget the biggest stunner of all time when Nellie's all offense , no defense  Warriors whipped the No. 1 seeded Dallas Mavericks who sported a 67-15 record. Alluring visions of the New York Knicks playing the Miami  Heat in the Eastern conference finals may be a very seductive narrative for championship-famished NY fans. Reality however  suggests a harsher version of the truth. Despite sitting a top the Atlantic division of the Eastern conference at 32-18, the Knicks may in reality be only the fourth best team in the East. Their own elephant in the room may be coach Mike Woodson.

Knick general manager Glen Grunwald  summed it up when he said :"I think teams have adjusted to our offense a bit." He added, " we need to evolve." No truer words have been spoken. In the NBA, it is not just adjusting, it is how you adjust to the adjustment. Like an superb counter puncher, you have to be active and reactive with multiple game plans. Coach Woodson, may have imbued these Knicks with  toughness, an accountability metric,and no- favorite pecking order, but his dearth of imagination on the offensive end  is hurting the team. It goes back to his head coaching days with the Atlanta Hawks. In his six year run with the Hawks, Woodson complied a 206-286 record ( .419)  while leading the Hawks to the playoffs three straight years. The highlight was his 2009-2010 team that finished with a 53-29 record before getting smoked by the Magic 4-0 in the Eastern conference semifinals.  Woodson's hybrid Larry Brown/ Bobby Knight  tough old school defense- first philosophy stresses a heavy does of personal accountability. He is not afraid to get in the grill of his teams top players. In addition, he relates well to his players and they respect him. In his Hawk days, Woodson's offensive schemes were derisively coined "Iso-Joe" for the inert ways of their star player Joe Johnson. The Hawks often featured variations of the same predictable ball-stopping, iso-heavy offensive scheme's featuring Johnson. Either Johnson was hoisting up off-balance contested long 2's, shooting early in the clock three-pointers, or passing the ball for other long 2's or late in the clock three-point shots. Needless to say, this led offensive stagnation and  resentment from the other four players on the floor who were often reduced to spectator status.

After taking the reins from the Mike D'Antoni horror show, Woodson led the Knicks to a first-round playoff thumping from the Boston Celtics. With the season ending injuries to Baron Davis, Iman Shumpert, and Amare Stoudemire's "thrilla in the locker room" with a fire extinguisher, Woodson received a free pass. Spurred by this seasons surprising 18-5 start with two confidence-building wins in Miami, and the dismantling of the San Antonio Spurs,Woodson could do no wrong. But in NBA , teams figure you out. You must have a counter. It is here Woodson has rolled snake eyes.The Knicks are at their best when they are playing unselfishly and moving the ball from side to side making defensive's rotate multiple times. As former Knick coach Jeff Van Gundy would say, " give up the good shot to get the better shot."  When the Knicks play like that they can play with any team . Unfortunately for the Knicks that is happening too infrequently. The early season success has given the Knicks a media-infused unearned sense of entitlement. They are clearly not as good as they think the are. It is exacerbated by a overall low team basketball IQ. Outside of Jason Kidd, Tyson Chandler, and perhaps 35-year old rookie for Spain Pablo Prigioni, the Knick are not a very smart team in the court. They are thin-skinned, do not like physical and aggressive defensive play, and will often resort to their ball stopping, iso-play while whining to the referees about  non-calls. On the defensive ends, the sole defensive stalwart is rim protector and pick-and roll  defensive extraordinaire Chandler. Without him, the Knicks would be an eigth seed at best . It is Chandler, not Carmelo Anthony who the straw that stirs the drink.  The manifestation  of Woodson's failures are reflected in some  key offensive statistics The New York Knicks are dead last on the NBA in assist percentage( percent of field goals that are assisted . They are also dead last in points in the paint ( 38.3).They rank 22nd in the NBA on free throw rate( free throws attempted /field goal attempted) and 28th out of 30 teams in  in assist ratio. Simply put, there is way too much iso-play, and not enough ball and player movement.

The two biggest culprits are the Knicks two biggest scorers Carmelo Anthony and JR Smith.  The "bad Melo" is an inefficient, ball-stopping, high-volume iso scorer where teammates stand around and watch him do his thing. This year we have seen more of the "good Melo"  making plays for teammates t with better ball movement, quick reads off the double-teams, and dropping  occasional dimes to cutting teammates. As of late we have seen more of the "bad Melo."  While he leads the NBA in scoring he has done so with an inefficiency that has hurt the team.  While he leads the entire NBA in usage at 31.8( the number of plays a player uses per 100 possessions) Melo  has fallen in love with the 3-ball heaving up 6.6 3-pointers a game-nearly double his career average. One could argue he is shooting 38 percent from downtown, but the team  truly needs him to attack the basket more and put pressure on opposing defenses rather than settling for early in the clock 3-pointers.   He assist ratio( the percentage of a player's possessions that end in an assist) is  9.1- the lowest of his 10-year career.That would not be so bad if  most of his 2.8 dimes a game did not lead to either long 2's or 3-pointers( with only 0.9 leading to scores at the rim). His true shooting percentage(which calculates what a player's shooting percentage would be if it accounted for free throws and 3-pointers) is is 92nd in the NBA. Let's not forget Melo is only shooting 44 percent form the field.  So much for the empty declaration of  Melo's becoming a more efficient  scorer. Yes, he has made strides, but he clearly has a ways to go. The MVP talk is ludicrous.

His gunning partner in crime is JR Smith. Smith  is John Starks without the defense. He  puts the streaky in streaky shooter. While he has  made strides under Woodson, averaging career highs in dimes 2.9 and rebounds 5.1, Smith's unrepentant gunning shoots the Knicks out of as many games as he keeps them in. He hoists up at least four momentum killing 3-point bricks a game. Despite a handle and the ability to finish at the rim( 64.4 percent) , Smith has also  fallen in love with the 3-ball. You could live with it if he were not  averaging a measly three free throws a game. But the deal breaker for even the most fervent Smith supporters, is his woeful shooting-career lows across the board. Smith is shooting only 39.9 percent from the field and 34 percent from downtown, with a true shooting percentage of only 50.1( second lowest  of his career).  Like Anthony, most of Smiths assists lead to either long 2's or three-point shots. The Knicks can not ever expect to be true contenders without a more efficient Anthony and  a reliable second  scoring option.

It is here where you would expect Woodson to make adjustments  right? Wrong! When everyone including   the sight-impaired could see he had the wrong starting  five on the court, Woodson persisted as if he had a point to prove. Clearly the injury-diminished Iman Shumpert was ill suited to play the 3, while the age-diminished Jason Kidd should not have been playing the off guard. When two of your prime scoring positions  are averaging a combined seven points over 10 games, while playing porous defense, it is time for a change. To make matters worse, Woodson is still calling the same plays.  Woodson should be calling more half-court motion sets and  weak-side plays that feature flex cuts, flare screens, ball screens, down screens, dive cuts, wing pick- and- rolls, 4-5 five pick-and rolls with Stat and Melo, Smith in high-pick and rolls to get him to attack, and pin downs to free up their best shooter Steve Novak, Woodson stays well..... like Woodson- stagnant and inert. It is the same diet of high-pick-and-rolls with Felton and Chandler and more iso ball with Melo and Smith . This is the epitome of predictability.  One has to wonder if Woodson has the coaching DNA to take a team to the next level . It is easier to make a bad team good, then to take a good team and turn them elite.

The free ride for coach Woodson will end this season. If Woodson does not evolve, he will end up either  running his successful construction business or in the broadcast booth awaiting his next job interview. It won't be long before agitated  Knick fans are calling for Phil  Jackson or perhaps even  Brain Shaw. This time Charles Barkely, may be right when he calls the Knicks " fools gold." They are a good team- a bit schizophrenic-but  remotely  close to being a true contender. Forty years with no championship has a way of making the mind see alternate realities. To be good you have to change, to be great you have to change often. Coach Woodson where is your counter? You are about to see New York fans at their worse.

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