Commentary

Time for Woody to show some fight

It's up to Mike Woodson -- and only Mike Woodson -- to turn Knicks' mess around

Updated: December 4, 2013, 2:13 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

GREENBURGH -- Mike Woodson readily admits his New York Knicks have no identity, which is a coach's way of saying he has no clue how to reach his team. And Woodson definitely has not reached his, not yet, anyway, some 16 games into a season that was supposed to land him a few country miles closer to a parade than he is right now.

So we're about to learn a little bit about Mike Woodson's chin, and whether there's glass or granite beneath that distinctive goatee. We're about to learn if this 3-13 coach can take a punch, and fight back, while his second job with the Knicks is slowly but surely being pulled away from him, just like his first.

Once upon a time, after a marginal rookie season as a Knicks first-round pick, Woodson was dealt to New Jersey without Red Holzman even calling to say goodbye. Seven games into Woodson's career with the Nets, Larry Brown traded the shooting guard to Kansas City, leaving Bob Knight's All-American at Indiana to ask himself, "Damn, does anybody want me in this league?"

[+] EnlargeMike Woodson
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesMike Woodson must lead the Knicks out of their 3-13 hole, and prove he's as tough as New York demands.

If the Knicks don't stop losing games soon, and preferably in Brooklyn on Thursday, Woodson might end up asking himself the same question. Yes, James Dolan would prefer to keep him. No, James Dolan doesn't have any idea what he's doing as a basketball owner. Yes, Woodson understands that being under contract through next season only guarantees him a nice payday on termination.

He knows this nine-game losing streak can't last forever. He knows the Knicks are running dangerously low on time to find that identity, any identity, and he knows it's his responsibility -- and nobody else's -- to impose his will on this fragile team.

"And that's why you never hear me stop saying, 'I've got to get us over this hump. I've got to get us out of this hole that we're in,'" Woodson said after Tuesday's practice. "Sure the players play, but I've got to keep pushing them to believe that they can win. That's the only way it can be. Nobody wants to lose. It comes from the coach, and I think we're getting close, but the bottom line is we still have to win."

Even counting this dreadful start, Woodson is 75-47 as head coach of the Knicks, and in sole possession of the franchise's only playoff series victory since Jeff Van Gundy's last in 2000. The overall numbers suggest Woodson shouldn't be in trouble, but then again, some of those same numbers didn't protect his college teammate at Indiana, Glen Grunwald, the most recent victim of Dolan's bizarre logic.

For the work he did in Atlanta, and for the 54-win season last year, Woodson does have the general respect of his peers; there's little question about that. He was a major upgrade over his former boss, Mike D'Antoni, and one longtime NBA coach who has competed against him said Woodson stood among the most prepared coaches in the league.

"Woody knows everybody's plays, and people always talk about what he runs after timeouts," the coach said. "He walks his players through the scouting stuff, and some head coaches have their assistants do that. And nobody gets a free ride with Woody. He wasn't afraid to get on Josh Smith or Joe Johnson in practice in Atlanta, and you hear that he's not afraid to get on Melo in practice when he has to."

Melo. Carmelo Anthony. The franchise player who feuded with George Karl in Denver, and who made the overmatched D'Antoni cry uncle in New York.

"I watch the Knicks play," Karl told Denver radio host Dave Krieger, "and I wouldn't want to be in that hell for a million dollars. It's just New York City and the Garden and the immensity of the pressure. I think Mike Woodson is standing up to it with tremendous integrity."

Everybody loves Woody, but nobody loves his team. Tyson Chandler's absence can't be blamed for the complete breakdown of the Knicks, not when so many rotation players are making end-of-the-bench mistakes.

J.R. Smith has been a liability on both sides of the ball, Raymond Felton looks slow and heavy, and some inside the Knicks organization believe Iman Shumpert -- the one player above all who needed to blossom this year -- has allowed his ego to get bigger than his game. Metta World Peace, a shell of his former self, sometimes freelances away from defensive assignments, and too often Knicks guards switch on pick-and-rolls and leave seven-footer Andrea Bargnani to defend against playmakers who move at video-game speed.

Shumpert yelling at Anthony during a timeout? World Peace and Kenyon Martin getting into a heated verbal exchange in practice that had the potential for something uglier?

"We're feisty at times," Woodson said. "But that's OK."

Woodson needs to be the one to get feisty now, and grab his team by the throat before it's too late. Anthony said Tuesday that there's "no synchronization out there on the court," and it's clear whose high-paying job it is to be the CEO of all on-court synchronization.

It's Woodson's job to get Felton playing at a higher level, to extricate Smith from his funk (or else), and to push the right human buttons with Shumpert so the Knicks can take full advantage of his athleticism or, if nothing else, enhance his trade value. With or without Chandler, it's Woodson's job to field a representative product in a division, the Atlantic, that makes the NFC East look like Murderers' Row.

"Can we still win our division?" Woodson said. "Absolutely."

Then he should go ahead and win it out of this 3-13 hole, and prove he's as tough as the marketplace. The whole region wanted Tom Coughlin gone after the 2006 season, and Coughlin fought back to win the Super Bowl after the 2007 season. Joe Girardi was written up as an unmitigated disaster as Joe Torre's successor in 2008, and he returned with a new and improved approach (not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of new recruits) to win it all in 2009.

Woodson doesn't have any high-priced substitutes coming his way, outside of Chandler, anyway. So maybe that's why Anthony admitted this about his coach's status: "We're worried about that."

Woodson should be more worried about it than Melo.

"Welcome to New York," Anthony said. "It happens. ... Right now it's him. Yesterday it might have been me. Tomorrow might be me."

But today it's Mike Woodson. The Knicks gave him the full-time job without even bothering to call Phil Jackson, and Woodson responded by saying he wasn't afraid of the win-or-else stakes.

Now he gets to show how tough and fearless he is. Now Woodson, former first-round pick, gets to show how much he wants to stay with the franchise that gave up on him after one year in a different life.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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