That said, part of the job of being an NBA coach is massaging the egos of 25-year-old multimillionaires: If Woodson can make his star play defense, hey, isn’t that a reason to keep him? Isn’t that someone the Knicks should want around? Someone Carmelo Anthony likes and wants to play hard for?
The obvious rejoinder to that, of course, is, Well, he does for now. Carmelo Anthony has become the most powerful person in the Knicks organization, which means Woodson will have job security as long as he does everything Anthony requests of him. Of course, the reason Anthony likes Woodson so much—other than the fact that, by all accounts, Woodson is a likable, friendly chap—is because Woodson’s offensive scheme calls almost exclusively for isolation plays, which (lo!) happen to be Anthony’s specialty. Anthony put together some impressive performances in the postseason, as he should; he’s a freakishly talented offensive player.
But that’s not how you win championships; you win championships by working within an offensive system, trusting your teammates, and playing as a collective unit (the reasons the Spurs won twenty consecutive games, not to mention four championships). Watching the Knicks play offense in the playoffs was often excruciating. It was mostly Anthony dribbling around the perimeter as his teammates stood around waiting for him to shoot his way out of increasingly impossible situations. Anthony can score as well as anyone in the NBA, but not when the entire defense is focused on him. Anthony is of the Kobe generation, the Heroball era, when a player’s superstar value is determined by how well he hits the big, impossible shot. As enjoyable as this is to watch, this isn’t the way basketball is going. Several advanced statistical experts, led by ESPN’s Henry Abbott, have proved time and again that the way you win games in the fourth quarter isn’t by letting your star chuck up any old shot; it’s by finding the open man and passing it to him. (This is why LeBron James has often struggled, until recently anyway, in the fourth quarter. He gets away from his game—including teammates and finding the best shot—and starts playing like … Carmelo Anthony.) The more analysis there is, the more it makes clear the obvious: It’s more difficult to stop five guys than it is to stop one.
This message has not been received by Anthony (who never could handle D’Antoni’s more democratic system), and Woodson, who for as much respect as players have for him will never be confused with an offensive mastermind, is hardly in a position to shake up the system. How powerful has Anthony become at the Garden? As part of the condition to be considered for the full-time job, Woodson was required by MSG president Jim Dolan to fire his agent and sign with Creative Artists Agency, which, surprise, surprise, happens to be Anthony’s agency. (The conspiracy-minded might note it is also Isiah Thomas’s. [Thunderclap.]) Anthony, in four months, has run off the coach he doesn’t approve of, forced the Knicks to play a system that suits him, and now made certain that his new coach’s financial future is tied up entirely with his own. He has made his power move, and he has won. Sure, he likes Woodson now … as long as Woodson continues to play the way Anthony desires. And by firing his agent just to be considered for the job, Woodson has ultimately rendered himself powerless. Anthony is going to do what he wants.
This would be great if there were much indication that winning a championship is, in fact, what’s most important to Anthony, if he could find his inner Paul Pierce, sign himself up for some of that infamous Celtics inner Ubuntu. But Anthony has confessed that he only plays hard when he has a coach who gives him what he wants. This is not how a championship is built. Time and again in the NBA, championships have been won by coaches and players who challenge each other, who bring the best out of each other, who respect each other enough to step forward and recede at the right times. Anthony didn’t need a coach he could push around; he needed a coach who, unlike D’Antoni, had the authority of multiple rings to push Anthony out of the comfort of the isolation system and into a championship. He needed Phil Jackson. This once, it could have worked. This story appeared in the June, 11, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.