There’s a tightening of shoulders in the Knicks organization whenever Lin’s name comes up. Letting go of a global celebrity—and apparently a pretty darned good player—carries obvious risks, no matter how financially prudent. But Lin’s departure wasn’t just about the money. He represented unpredictability, chaos, and that is not what the Knicks want right now. They want the predictable, they want the projectable … they want, frankly, the old. Which brings us to this year’s Knicks.
The 2012–13 Knicks are, by a number of measures, the oldest team in NBA history. Five players on their roster were born in the seventies and four are among the half-dozen oldest players in the league. For the record, the five are Jason Kidd, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, Pablo Prigioni, and Kurt Thomas, who last played for the Knicks in 2005 and split time his rookie year with Danny Schayes, who is now 53 years old. When Kidd’s contract expires, he’s going to be 42, the oldest point guard ever to play in the NBA.
Much of this is Woodson’s doing. Having coached Atlanta when it was one of the youngest teams in the league—“We were always looking toward the future,” he says—Woodson believes that for a team to win now, they need old guys. He has such an age fetish that he brought in Wallace in the offseason even though he’s 38 years old—and has been retired for more than two years. Woodson is so into his veterans that he insists on calling Iman Shumpert “Rook” despite the fact this is his second season, and says that one of his “young” players is J. R. Smith, who is only nine months younger than the 27-year-old LeBron James. (He says the same thing about Felton, who is six months older than LeBron.)
Aren’t these guys too old to play in the NBA? “Veterans know how to play,” Woodson says. “There’s a difference in bringing in veteran guys on the tail end that can’t give you anything. Camby and Kurt Thomas, guys like that, they have been very productive in their careers. It’s going to be my job to make sure I put them in the right positions to be successful, to help us win games. I don’t have to scream and yell as much with this team.”
When you watch Woodson run practice, it’s not only much more together and focused than it was when D’Antoni was coaching; somehow everyone also seems to be having more fun. D’Antoni couldn’t help but keep himself somewhat at a remove from the action; he had his schemes, he let his players know how to run them, and he generally left them alone to figure it out. If they didn’t buy in, that was their problem, not his. His viewpoint was decidedly less rah-rah than Woodson’s. Woodson jumps—well, “jump” is probably the wrong word; he sort of saunters—into scrimmages and performs hands-on instruction to the most minute details. It must be strange to be Jason Kidd, a future Hall of Famer who is entering his nineteenth season, to have a man garrulously explain an entry pass to him, but Kidd plays along, because he, like the rest of the Knicks, clearly likes Woodson. For whatever it’s worth, that wasn’t always the case with D’Antoni.
Woodson’s system certainly seems to fit better with Anthony’s game. D’Antoni’s free-flowing offense never suited Carmelo, who tends to be a ball-stopper rather than a distributor. He likes to hold the ball on the wing and create. Ultimately, Carmelo’s offensive struggles bled over into his defense. But when Woodson took over, the offense immediately went back to being Carmelo-centric, and suddenly Anthony was hustling back on defense and the Knicks were winning again. That is to say: At this point, it’s clear that a happy Carmelo means a happy Knicks. Which means a large part of Woodson’s job is keeping Carmelo happy.
Woodson says his relationship with Anthony is “strong,” but resists the notion that he’s somehow a toady of management or of his star. This is where the Bobby Knight comes in. “There are a lot of things that come into play in coaching,” Woodson says. “It’s not just X’s and O’s. My responsibility is making sure these guys do what’s asked of them. Any guy in that locker room, Carmelo included, I’m going to show them the same love that I’m going to show anybody. In doing that, they got to understand that I’m the coach. They have to be open-minded to me pushing them. Because that’s what I do.”
One reason the Knicks players seem to like Woodson: He used to be one of them. To a man, almost every Knick brings up the fact that Woodson played for more than a decade in the league, that he understands what they’re going through. Shumpert, who may be closer to Woodson than anyone on the team, even bought a Woodson Houston Rockets jersey off eBay and tweeted a picture of himself wearing a Woodson Kansas City Kings jersey. Shumpert speaks of Woodson like he’s been waiting for him to be his coach for a long time. “Even before he was our head coach, we were real close,” Shumpert says. “He took to me right off, because he treated me like a man. I don’t like it when people treat me young. Ever since I was in the eighth grade, I’ve had an African-American head coach, but I’ve never had one who played in the league before. Coach Woodson knows what it takes to compete on this level. You just trust a man like that.”