Commentary

Woodson faces test with Melo, STAT

If Knicks' interim coach can make two stars mesh, job should be his for good

Updated: April 18, 2012, 2:42 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

Of all the things Knicks interim coach Mike Woodson has already done to suggest he should keep the job permanently, there's one huge challenge left for him that, if he can hurdle it, gives him the best possible chance to nullify whatever lust Knicks owner James Dolan still has for Phil Jackson.

And it's this: Woodson can show, starting with Amare Stoudemire's expected return Friday, that he can figure out how to make Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire play together effectively, at long last.

That's the Rubik's Cube challenge for this Knicks team that no one yet has been able to solve. Not Anthony nor Stoudemire themselves, and certainly not departed coach Mike D'Antoni, who came to New York touted as an offensive guru and left looking too unwilling to change and too unable impose his will on this team after Anthony arrived last year at midseason.

Now Anthony is playing his best ball since he joined the Knicks -- Woodson called his triple-double in Tuesday's rousing 118-110 win against the Celtics "beautiful" to watch, and he was right -- waiting for Amare is the latest subplot to consume the Knicks.

The Knicks improved their chances of holding onto one of the East's last two playoff spots by impressively knocking off Atlantic Division leader Boston. But the anxiety that Stoudemire's return will somehow disturb Anthony's revival is something that even other Knicks like Tyson Chandler and Steve Novak didn't totally dismiss afterward.

"It could -- it's always a little bit of an adjustment when anyone comes back after being out a while," Chandler allowed. By now, Woodson has to have heard how everyone from Jim Boeheim (Anthony's former coach at Syracuse) to Steve Kerr (Stoudemire's former boss in Phoenix) also doesn't think the two stars are a good fit.

Woodson just isn't buying it. His response is it isn't up to just Stoudemire and Anthony to figure out how to mesh.

"That's my job, to make it work," Woodson said Tuesday. Which you have to love. It's the same take-charge answer he gives about nearly everything.

Woodson forcefully shot down the talk that Stoudemire will come off the bench rather than start when he returns.

He could've hid behind some talk about needing to work Stoudemire back slowly or play him lesser minutes off the bench because of the bulging disk in Stoudemire's back that has kept him out since March. But Woodson didn't grab for that crutch either. And inadvertently or not, Celtics coach Doc Rivers, another coach who knows a little about blending veteran stars, endorsed Woodson's take before the game when someone in the crowd of reporters he was talking to in the hallway asked if he believed Stoudemire might make the Knicks worse rather than better when he and Anthony are reunited.

"So you're suggesting sit the other guy [Stoudemire]? I'm all for that," Rivers joked, breaking into a grin.

But why?

[+] EnlargeStoudemire
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesWill Mike Woodson be able to successfully mesh Amare Stoudemire into the Knicks' offense?

"When they're both on the floor it's a bigger challenge, because they both can score," Rivers explained. "They hurt us a lot of ways. You load up on Carmelo, they swing [the ball], and you don't have time to shift your defense on the other side of the floor. I think Woody will do a great job as far as figuring out who gets the ball, and all of that stuff.

"The ball usually finds the open guy anyway, at the end of the day -- if you're playing right. And they're playing the right way."

That's the best compliment one coach can give to another coach.

Woodson is never going to win a beauty contest with Jackson if Jackson does want to make his NBA career circle complete and come out of retirement to coach the Knicks. And as unsentimental as this is going to sound, Woodson shouldn't be given the permanent job until the Knicks at least make a call to Jackson, if they aren't working the back channels already, and get a definitive no from him.

There's been a lot of support for Woodson to be told right here, right now the permanent job is his after the way he's lead the Knicks to a 14-5 record heading into Wednesday's game at New Jersey. And that would be legit if Jackson weren't out there with those 11 championship rings (as a coach) he's already got jangling in his pocket.

Woodson is going to get another NBA head coaching job somewhere, if not here, because of the job he's done with the Knicks.

The Knicks aren't winning just because Anthony got hot in Stoudemire's absence. They're winning because Woodson helped show the way too. He's made the Knicks hew to how he expects them to play. He's brought the accountability he promised. He's kept the Knicks rolling by relying on a point-guard-by-committee approach since Jeremy Lin has been out. He's coaxed his bench along like he has nerves of steel, gritting his teeth on the nights he gets the bad J.R. Smith instead of the good J.R. Smith.

He's even gotten Anthony buying into playing team defense.

Making the shotgun marriage between Anthony and Stoudemire work is the last bridge the Knicks have to cross to get from being merely good to very good, even great. And if Woodson can do that in the three regular-season games Stoudemire hopes to return for and their playoff run after that, there will be only three coaches in the NBA the Knicks could possibly prefer over him: Jackson, Gregg Popovich, and Rivers himself. And last time we checked, at least two of those three ain't available.

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