The Anti-D’Antoni

Mike Woodson and the Knicks at a recent practice.Photo: Peter Funch

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.

Woodson, like his college coach, Bobby Knight, emphasizes hard work and defense. Unlike Knight, Woodson eschews drama.Photo: Peter Funch

“I had dinner with him just this last week in New York,” Woodson told me in his office after a recent practice. “We sat and chatted for about three hours. We talked basketball. What better advice to take? He’s done everything you could possibly do in basketball, and done it as good as anybody who has ever coached the game. How do you not respect Bob Knight?”

Woodson has more than just respect for Knight. He says he owes his whole life to him. (He showed me a picture of himself with Knight, though the most prominent photo in his office is golf-related.) Woodson was born in Indianapolis; his father died when he was 13, and his mother was a nurse. In Indiana, basketball is essentially a religion practiced from birth. Woodson has joked that he was raised by the motion offense. He was heavily recruited at Broad Ripple high school, the same school that David Letterman had attended a few years earlier. (“I’d love to meet him now that we’re in the same town again,” Woodson says.)

In 1976, Woodson agreed to play basketball for Knight at Indiana University. Knight promised Woodson three things: a quality education, a first-rate basketball team, and a summer job. “All three came true,” Woodson says. “I worked every summer, I got better as a basketball player, and I got a degree. You follow people like that.”

Woodson’s college playing career was distinguished by a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 1980, when he played in the nation’s best backcourt with a charming and accomplished point guard named Isiah Thomas. (That’s right: The 1980 Indiana University guards basically own the past decade of Knicks culture, for better or worse.) Woodson was thrust into the spotlight in the 1980 NBA draft, where he was taken twelfth overall by the Knicks. He was on the cover of the team’s media guide that year, looking thinner than he does now but already sporting his trademark goatee. Something of a disappointment for a first-round pick, particularly with his college backcourt mate taking the country by storm in Detroit, Woodson lasted only one year in New York before ultimately ending up with the Kansas City Kings. He bounced around the league for eleven seasons, retiring during the 1991 season. (He missed playing with current Knick Kurt Thomas by four years.)

After a few years of “being a dad,” Woodson returned to the NBA as an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks. But it wasn’t until 2004 that he made his coaching mark. Working as an assistant coach for the Detroit Pistons, Woodson received considerable credit for that team’s heralded blue-collar work ethic—no small feat considering the Pistons’ abundance of superstars, from Chauncey Billups to Rip Hamilton to Rasheed Wallace. Detroit won the NBA title that year, and Woodson, seemingly overnight, became the hottest coaching commodity in the league. That off-season, the Atlanta Hawks hired him to be their head coach. His skills were seen as an ideal fit for a team with an abundance of young talent (Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Josh Childress) but no leader and no clue on defense.

Woodson immediately set about changing the team’s culture. In a semi-­famous speech documented by Slam magazine’s Lang Whitaker, Woodson spelled out his philosophy to the team clearly: “I have zero ego as a coach, none. If you think you see something that’s going to work better than what we’re trying to do, speak up! Say something to me! But what I’m telling you guys is that if you guys will just consistently do what we’re asking you to do on defense, we’ll win games. I don’t give a shit about the offense; you guys can score more than enough points to win games. The offense isn’t the problem. But you have to get stops on defense, and if you’ll listen to what we’re telling you, I promise you’ll get stops. The shit works, okay?”

The shit definitely worked: Woodson coached the Hawks for six seasons, and their win total improved every year, from 13 to 26 to 30 to 37 to 47 to 53. The problem was that the Hawks could never make it out of the second round of the playoffs, and after they were swept by the Orlando Magic in 2010, the team essentially fired him. Woodson won’t get into the details of his dismissal. “They did what they had to do,” he says. “All I know is that the six-year run was fantastic.” But it is still a sore spot—the team he helped build dropped him, as he sees it, right when they were poised to break through. (They never did advance further, by the way, and now they’re rebuilding.) Woodson was reportedly especially upset with assistant coach Larry Drew, a former teammate of Woodson’s in Kansas City. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Drew went behind Woodson’s back to convince ownership he would implement game plans that Woodson would not. Woodson still refuses to talk to Drew, an ongoing subplot whenever the two coaches face off, which they did twice last year without incident.

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.”

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.”

Shumpert says another reason the Knicks enjoy playing for Woodson is that he keeps it simple. He sets basic, achievable team goals that are easy to understand. The main one is, notably, a defensive one: Hold the other team to 25 points or fewer a quarter, 100 or fewer a game. “He says if we do that, we’ll win,” Shumpert says. “At the end of every quarter, we can just look at the scoreboard and see if Coach is gonna be happy or not.”

Simplicity was certainly not a D’Antoni hallmark. His system was so complex that either everybody bought in or there was madness. When D’Antoni was here, he was known as a natty dresser and wine-rather-than-beer kind of guy, a coach who loved coaching but maybe loved life more. Woodson is comparatively dull. He lives in White Plains and says he rarely makes it into the city except for games. (He could name only three restaurants in town: Quality Meats, Cipriani’s, and Red Rooster.) His only real distinguishing attribute is that rather epic goatee, which is so solid and rectangular that it almost looks as if it’s attached to his head by Lego. “It ain’t hard to maintain,” he says. “I’ve got a good barber.” Woodson is just an old-school guy, a gym rat, someone who coaches his ass off, and, well, that’s it.

So will that work? The Knicks have had so much drama the past few years—the past few months—that it would seem impossible for Woodson, or anyone, not to get caught up in it. Already the team has faced another Amar’e Stoudemire knee injury, and with Rasheed Wallace around, you know something is going to happen.

But then again, that is why Woodson is here and why he might be the perfect coach for this team. Whatever happens, he keeps everything focused on the comparatively boring world of actual basketball. No fire extinguishers, no Linsanity, no backroom backbiting. Just thirteen guys trying to win games. Nothing else matters.

Of course, even if everything goes perfectly for the Knicks—if Woodson clamps down on outside issues, if the oldest team in NBA history stays healthy all year, if everybody buys into the 100-points-or-less maxim, if the Knicks have the season of Jim Dolan’s dreams—it’s unclear if that will be enough. The Miami Heat are still the best team in the NBA by a wide margin, and the Knicks don’t look, even at their best, to be in a position to seriously challenge them. That’s not to mention the Thunder or the Lakers out West, the Celtics or Pacers in the East, or, for that matter, the upstart immigrants across the bridge, in their new Jay-Z-endorsed home.

Sitting behind his desk, Woodson makes no Rex Ryan–like championship guarantees or even vague predictions. Instead, he says: “I feel real good about our chances and the makeup of our ball club. I’m anxious to see how far we can go.” It’s boilerplate, drama-free coachspeak. Finally.

The Anti-D’Antoni