In August 2011, the Knicks, responding to the perception that D’Antoni did not emphasize defense, brought in Woodson to be the team’s defensive coordinator. Taking a lesson from the Drew experience, Woodson worked closely with D’Antoni at all times. He did not want to be perceived as Brutus to D’Antoni’s Caesar. He wasn’t, and the two men are still friends. But now that Woodson is the Knicks’ head coach, his ascendance to the throne, in retrospect, seems to have been inevitable.
The Knicks’ 2011–12 season, despite the excitement generated by signing Tyson Chandler and having Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire together for the first time for a full season, got off to a rough start. Their point-guard play was erratic, and they lacked a defensive identity until Chandler began to create one. On February 3 of the lockout-shortened season, their record stood at 8-15. Until … Linsanity!
You may remember Linsanity—the stretch of two weeks in which the team rattled off eight wins in nine games and in the process minted a new international sports-and-entertainment phenomenon. But Carmelo Anthony was hurt during much of Linsanity, and when he returned (along with Amar’e Stoudemire, who had missed some time after the death of his brother), the Knicks’ offense cratered as the three superstars struggled to mesh. Facing a wave of fan and media displeasure, and frustrated by his failed attempts to get his players to jell, D’Antoni resigned on March 14, and Woodson was named interim head coach. The Knicks were six games under .500 and effectively out of the playoff chase in the Eastern Conference. Woodson confesses he had no idea what would happen next. “I didn’t know what I was going to get when I took over,” he says. “I don’t think any coach in that situation would know what he’s going to get.”
What Woodson got was the team’s biggest blowout win of the season, a 121-79 thrashing of Portland in his first game as coach. Instantly, all the problems of the D’Antoni era evaporated. Anthony started upping his effort on defense, even admitting that he tried harder under Woodson (a statement that’s both a compliment to Woodson and an indictment of Anthony). Lin began adjusting his game to a less freewheeling system—handling and distributing the ball more like a traditional point guard—and the Knicks started winning. They won their next five games and then eight of their next thirteen, even overcoming a season-ending injury to Lin. D’Antoni’s record as coach last year was 18-24; Woodson’s was 18-6.
Woodson’s touch seemed to be magic, but he says the team’s strong run was more a matter of circumstance than design. “We came out in that Portland game, and it was a hell of a game,” he says. “We grew from that game as a team because we didn’t have time to practice with the short season. A lot of things were done on the fly. It was desperate times for all of us in terms of making the push to even secure the eighth playoff spot. I applaud the guys.”
The Knicks were promptly bounced from the playoffs by the Miami Heat, the eventual NBA champions, but the team’s solid late-season finish earned Woodson the permanent head-coaching position (despite signs that the long-flirted-with Phil Jackson possibly had some interest in returning to the team with whom he won his lone championship as a player). The hiring process wasn’t exactly smooth, of course; it never is with MSG. Perhaps as a condition of the job—and in the early stages of negotiations—MSG officials reportedly either pressured Woodson to drop his representation and sign with Creative Artists Agency, the same outfit that represents Carmelo Anthony, or Woodson switched agents on his own to preempt what he thought could be a problem. (Woodson denies that anyone pressured him to drop his agents.) Woodson ended up signing a three-year contract worth up to $12 million.
That three-year deal has been the centerpiece of every move the Knicks have made since. Three years is when the contracts of Stoudemire, Anthony, and Chandler run out. When MSG executive chairman Jim Dolan, shockingly enough, chose not to match the Houston Rockets’ offer sheet to Jeremy Lin, ending his Linsane Knicks career after just 26 starts and two Sports Illustrated covers, the Knicks filled the void at point guard by signing 39-year-old Jason Kidd, trading for Raymond Felton, and inking both men to three-year deals. The plan was clear. There would be no time for growing pains with young players like Lin or Landry Fields. The Knicks would load up on veterans and make their run right now.
Woodson has a reputation as a company man in an industry that rewards them. (Rogues like Larry Brown and the Van Gundy brothers don’t thrive in the NBA anymore.) Witness his reluctance to speak about his exit from Atlanta and the CAA flap. Woodson’s team-first attitude was especially evident after the Jeremy Lin fiasco. At the end of June, Woodson told the Post, “Absolutely he’s going to be back,” and that he would be the Knicks’ starting point guard. He reiterated that a month later … until everything went sideways, and the Knicks, purportedly for financial reasons—although Dolan had never seemed to mind wasting money before—didn’t match Lin’s offer sheet. After that, Woodson didn’t say a word. When I asked him about it, he said, “I’m not going to get into a lot about Lin. It was a business move. We wish Lin nothing but the best.” When I told him I had friends who’d renounced their Knicks fandom because the Knicks let Lin go, he laughed. “That’s crazy,” he said. “They must not have been that big of Knicks fans in the first place.”