- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
- 0 Shares
It's the question that gets thrown at me nearly as often these days as the one about the MVP race.
Always first: KD or LeBron?
Almost always next: Why haven't the Knicks fired Mike Woodson yet?
One win over the tired Minnesota Timberwolves wasn't going to make it go away. Not after the Knicks had lost their previous seven games. Not after each loss since the All-Star break left the distinct impression that it was a bigger surrender than the loss that preceded it. Not with the Knicks' steady fade in the weakest Leastern Conference in memory, all the way to 5 1/2 games out of a playoff spot as of Friday morning, prompting so many follow-up questions along the lines of: "How long ago do you think Woodson lost the team?"
Yet Woody survives, day after day, month after month, seemingly impervious to the zillions of darts winging toward his head since, oh, roughly Thanksgiving.
What is the secret force that has kept Woody safe no matter how increasingly noncompetitive and checked-out his Knicks look?
The latest rumble in coaching circles holds that Madison Square Garden chairman Jim Dolan is keeping Woodson around purely because he knows that making major changes to the roster before next season -- given New York's lack of draft picks and cap space and limited trade assets -- will be extremely difficult.
Which leaves Dolan, in terms of pitching Carmelo Anthony to stay this summer, with little else to say besides: Woody was the problem!
In other words: Keep the alleged problem around to the very last drop of this nightmare season ... and then hustle him out the door by painting a coaching change as a cure-all.
Rest assured that Woody's presence for Game No. 63 on Friday night against Utah no longer has much, if anything, to do with the oft-recited line about how the Knicks don't feel comfortable entrusting Woodson's duties to any of the interim options at their disposal. The Knicks' season, even when factoring in all the injuries, has deteriorated to the point that the mere prospect of putting Herb Williams or Darrell Walker or Jim Todd in charge -- or moving Allan Houston downstairs despite his total lack of coaching experience -- has to hold some appeal just for its wake-up-call potential.
But making an in-season change, from Dolan's perspective, creates the possibility that everyone sees even more clearly than they already do that Woody is most certainly not the Knicks' biggest problem.
Which would theoretically give Melo even more reason to look around if he goes through with his long-planned intent to become a free agent July 1.
More than one plugged-in observer has insisted to me that, however transparent, this is indeed Dolan's strategy. He's going to remind the 29-year-old that he can't get $130 million anywhere else, pledge to import a worthy co-superstar no later than the summer of 2015 ... and tell him that an A-list coach will be hired right away to replace the guy who's been holding the Knicks back and elevate this team immediately.
Luckily for the Knicks, that approach might even work ... albeit mostly because Melo is said to be looking for every reason to stay in New York as opposed to the quality of the see-through sales pitch.
Cynics will say it's the $130 million he really can't bear to leave, but those who know Melo best insist that slinking away from the ballyhooed MSG stage -- and thus admitting to the world that he had to go elsewhere and attach himself to better help to win -- would wound him.
Sources say that, for all the Knicks' well-chronicled ties to Creative Artists Agency, there has been some sentiment within the organization to dump the CAA-repped Woodson as far back as Christmas.
But Woody is still here, hanging on grimly, squirming in the NBA's hottest seat partly to spare Melo from uncomfortable questions about whether he wanted the coach to stay or go ... but mostly because Dolan needs an 82-game, start-to-finish scapegoat.
And then the search for the coach who can help convince Melo to stay can begin in earnest.
I presume you've heard the names of all the chief suspects by now. We wrote about the Knicks' not-so-secret lust for Chicago's Tom Thibodeau back in December. My ESPNNewYork.com colleague Ian O'Connor had an excellent breakdown earlier this week that runs through all the other heavy hitters Dolan will be chasing as soon as the season ends, leading off with Jeff Van Gundy and John Calipari. And ESPN's Stephen A. Smith reported Friday morning that the Knicks aren't even waiting until season's end to start feeling out Phil Jackson, even though Phil remains resistant to any Knicks overture.
What's clear amid all that, even with the wildly unpredictable Dolan at the controls, is that a full-scale search figures to fully launch at the end of April.
Now this is where any veteran Knicks-watcher is obliged to throw in the disclaimer that no one would dare declare Woody to be 100 percent safe for the rest of the season. Because Dolan is still Dolan.
Yet it can be said without hesitation that Woody's ongoing residence on the Knicks' bench, with Melo and Co. still stuck at No. 11 in the Least after losing the season series to Detroit to start the week, is no accident.
It's by design.
8dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo