After winning 54 games last year – the most wins for the Knicks since 1997, the Knicks announced Monday morning that head coach Mike Woodson, who finished third last year in the NBA Coach of the Year voting, has been let go and will not return next season.
Woodson was likely doomed from the moment the Knicks hired Phil Jackson as team president in March, although taking a tremendous step backwards and missing the playoffs this season in a depleted Eastern Conference – an absolute failure considering the high expectations surrounding the Knicks – sealed his fate.
For a team that returned all five of their leading scorers from a year ago, things sure went downhill in a hurry. And since you can’t fire the entire team, Woodson’s ouster was inevitable. Far too many second-half leads slipped away under Woodson's watch and questionable strategies down the stretch certainly didn’t help his cause. Additionally, losses to four out of the five worst teams in the league, and the Knicks’ 19-22 record at Madison Square Garden – after owning a 31-10 home record last season – were simply unacceptable.
Despite having zero coaching experience, former player and general manager Steve Kerr – who played for Jackson in Chicago – is considered the odds-on favorite to replace Woodson.
But before the bad losses could even begin to pile up, trading for Andrea Bargnani this past summer set the wheels in motion for the disappointment in the months to come. While it might seem unfair to place so much blame on one transaction, the ramifications of the trade were widespread.
Glen Grunwald, the general manager who made the move, was fired just weeks before the first game. Although the trade wasn’t cited as the direct reason for his removal, the timing was odd considering he had already been allowed to oversee the Knicks’ entire offseason.
Putting aside just how ineffective Bargnani was in the 42 games he appeared in -- and the Italian import was pretty bad on both ends of the floor -- the Knicks gave up a 2016 first-round pick and second-round picks in 2014 and 2017 to acquire him. Without a first-round pick in this year’s draft, coupled with the package sent to the Toronto Raptors to obtain Bargnani, owner James Dolan refused to okay a possible deal in December to pick up another Raptor, point guard Kyle Lowry, because the Knicks didn’t want to part with yet another future first-round selection.
Lowry went on to have a breakout year and helped lead the Raptors to the most wins in their 19-season history. Meanwhile, the Knicks got minimal production from their point guard, Raymond Felton – one of the catalysts in this season’s downfall.
The trio of Felton, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith all saw their play drop off from a year ago – further creating the need for an offensive weapon like Lowry to pair with Carmelo Anthony. Countless times throughout the season Anthony appeared to have no intentions of passing the ball, causing the offense to look repetitive and predictable. But given the subpar play of his teammates, Anthony was often in a no-win situation.
Amar’e Stoudemire contributed when his body allowed him to, and rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. provided some scoring help, though neither can be considered anywhere close to a legitimate secondary option.
Defensively, center Tyson Chandler missed a few weeks early in the season due to a broken leg, and either never fully recovered or has simply lost a step after 13 injury-plagued years in the NBA. Already a weak team on defense, the Knicks went into a freefall once Chandler got hurt in the opening weeks of the season – losing 13 of their first 16 games to start the year.
Every team must deal with injuries though, and both the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets overcame the loss of their All-Star centers for a much longer period of time to make the playoffs.
Veterans Kenyon Martin and Metta World Peace were brought in to bolster the frontcourt alongside Chandler, but Martin never could stay healthy and the team released World Peace after he quickly fell out of favor with Woodson.
Jackson was hired to put his imprint on the roster and change the culture of the franchise, although, aside from the dismissal of Woodson and his staff, there’s a chance next year’s team will have a very similar look. With virtually everyone under contract for next season, rather than making wholesale changes immediately, Jackson can elect to just let everyone’s salary clear off the books in the summer of 2015, when the free agent class is expected to be loaded.
And even if Jackson is itching to make a trade right away, he probably won’t find much interest in what the Knicks have to offer.
Further complicating Jackson's job, Anthony can decide to opt out of his current deal this summer and sign elsewhere. Anthony had voiced his support for Woodson and has stated that winning is most important to him at this stage of his career, meaning the one significant advantage the Knicks did have in retaining Anthony's services – the ability to offer more money than any other team – might not be as appealing as it was once thought to be.
Chandler, while he holds far less power than Anthony and doesn’t have the same opportunity to opt out, has also expressed his desire to play for a winner rather than spend next season in limbo.
Just 12 months ago, it appeared the Knicks were finally back on the right track. Whether last year’s success or this season’s failures are more representative of what the Knicks are capable of next season is a fair question – though the answer is likely somewhere in between. But it doesn’t take someone with a basketball legacy the caliber of Jackson to recognize that a lack of scoring options and poor defense are a recipe for disaster.