As a rule, New York Knicks practices in the past few years have been chaotic. In their double-wide gym in a nondescript building in suburban Greenburgh, one rarely sees all the Knicks together on the same floor at once. One day last year, I watched Andy Rautins shooting three-pointers by himself in one corner, Josh Harrellson and Amar’e Stoudemire posting each other up at the opposite end of the gym, Carmelo Anthony goofing off catty-corner from that group, and Toney Douglas lying down along one baseline, stretching and looking half-asleep. It was like watching a gymnastics meet: You could never focus on one thing or tell what was going on.
It is not like this anymore. At a practice last week, the Knicks clicked with military precision. Other than the recently signed Rasheed Wallace—who was still working his way into shape and therefore mostly running “sprints” on his own—the Knicks were as one, on the same court, participating in the same drills and the same scrimmages at the same time. Carmelo was running a pick-and-roll play, spinning off Chris Copeland as Raymond Felton tried to hit him with the pass; Tyson Chandler ran over to try to block his path to the basket; Steve Novak ran under the basket and then back out to sneak open for the corner three. The rest of the team stood around them, watching, commiserating, laughing … but definitely not missing anything. No one seemed anywhere close to asleep.
In the middle of it all stood the slightly rotund Mike Woodson, currently beginning his first official full year as the Knicks’ head coach, barking orders at everyone, but pleasantly. He’d yell at Pablo Prigioni to fight through the screen, then try to show him how to do it himself. In case anyone thought Woodson was singling out a player or making a fool of him—always a fear in the cauldron of childlike egos that is professional sports—he’d break into a massive smile that would threaten to overtake his already ample face. Then he’d grab the ball and shoot it, just to punctuate the whole thing. Then: Time to do it again.
Last year’s Knicks had so many personalities that their season seemed to contain several eras within the same campaign. When referring to last year’s team, one has to specify which version one means. There was the early “Let’s try Toney Douglas or Iman Shumpert at point” period, followed by Carmelo isolation ball, followed by Linsanity, followed by more Carmelo isolation ball, followed by the end of Mike D’Antoni, followed by Woodson’s dramatic ascension, followed by the quick playoff exit. It was perhaps little wonder that the team had such discord and was so tabloid-friendly—Amar’e smashed a fire-extinguisher case and lacerated his hand! Carmelo’s a coach killer! Why isn’t Lin healthy yet? A team can’t circle the wagons and bond against outside influences if it doesn’t even know which team it is.
Mike Woodson is many things, but before anything else he is simply a basketball coach. Unlike D’Antoni, he is not especially dynamic or charismatic—no one talks about his innovative high-octane offense or the years he spent inspiring Kobe Bryant while playing in Italy—nor is he particularly ego-driven. He’s an unassuming Midwesterner who has more in common with his former college coach Bobby Knight (minus the world-historic temper) than with Pat Riley. He isn’t here to preen or eclipse the players. He is just here to coach. For the first time in years, peace and tranquillity—theoretically—will likely reign at Madison Square Garden. The man in charge will be a model of no-nonsense hard work and calm. Terrific. But will it matter? Can the Knicks—not just the players but the organization itself—really be tamed?
Here’s a thought experiment: Imagine Bobby Knight coaching the 2012–13 New York Knicks. Beat reporters would be regularly punched. Madison Square Garden employees would have to bolt down all furniture in the general vicinity of the bench. There’s absolutely no way that J. R. Smith isn’t choked at some point. And, as a sideshow to that circus, I can pretty much guarantee you that the Knicks would win a helluva lot more games than they did last year.
For all his madness and kaleidoscopically inventive profanity, Knight is one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time. The hallmarks of his style—the motion offense, man-to-man defense, focus on the fundamentals, devotion to discipline—have spread throughout basketball for the past five decades at every level. It’s impossible to imagine the sport without him. And there may be no more devoted acolyte to Knight, his style of basketball, his view of the world—all the good things, without the chair-throwing—than Mike Woodson.