Woodson must shake Phil's shadow
Coach leads Knicks to 4-0 start on same night Jackson's name surfaces in L.A.
NEW YORK -- The New York Knicks could have beaten Los Angeles to Phil Jackson, could have locked up the megacoach long before the Lakers considered proposing to him a third time, and instead they hired the perfectly fine candidate who will always be measured against that call.
Mike Woodson is 22-6 as head coach of the Knicks, and 4-0 this season after Friday night's victory over the Dallas Mavericks. Woodson is responsible for the NBA's only undefeated team, and he has the Knicks playing something that the Pat Riley-Jeff Van Gundy Knicks played in the '90s.
Defense. Woodson's overmatched predecessor and Jackson's reported competition in L.A., Mike D'Antoni, should try it sometime.
But if Woodson is a lot of things -- a good coach, a former first-round pick of the Knicks, a Hoosier-born disciple of fundamental basketball and a tough graduate of Bob Knight's school of hard knocks -- there is one thing he most certainly is not:
"I'm not in Phil's category," Woodson told ESPNNewYork.com as he walked toward his Garden locker room following the 104-94 victory over Dallas. "But I feel good about what I do as a coach, that's all I can tell you. For them to give me this opportunity, I've got to make the most of it. We've got to win.
"It means a great deal to me. It's not something that I'm afraid of, or scared of, or going to run away from. I'm going to cherish this moment, and I'm going to try to make the best of it."
The best of it for Woodson would mean one championship ring before he ultimately gets what Mike Brown got Friday, before he meets the fate of just about every peer in his hired-to-be-fired profession. Woodson won't be making a run at Jackson's record of 11 majors with the Lakers and Chicago Bulls, but he does believe he can become the first Knicks coach to win a title since Jackson's mentor, Red Holzman, won his second in 1973.
This is what he told ESPNNewYork.com last April: "There's been a drought here in terms of really winning big, of winning it all. But somebody's going to do it one day, and I hope like hell it's me ... because it's going to happen eventually. This team is going to turn the corner and win it all, and what better city to do it in than New York. I think about it all the time."
And yes, Woodson has earned the right to think about it all the time. He built a winning program in Atlanta, going 53-29 and making a third consecutive trip to the playoffs in his final season, 2010, when he was fired for the felony of getting swept in the conference semis a second time. A strong majority of right-minded thinkers around the league saw it as a very raw deal.
The Knicks made up for it last season, when D'Antoni mercifully exited stage left and cleared the way for the interim replacement, Woodson, to win 18 of 24 regular season games, claim the franchise's first playoff victory (single game, that is) since 2001, and nail down a spot right behind Jackson on the team's coaching wish list.
This was the assumption, anyway, that as long as Phil wanted to end his NBA odyssey right where it began -- in the Garden, as a championship reserve under Holzman -- the Knicks would have no choice but to employ him. And sources would later say Jackson did indeed have serious interest in the job.
But Jim Dolan never called him. Maybe he feared a Larry Brown disaster times 10. Maybe Dolan couldn't stomach the notion of an iconic coach playing by his own rules in the Garden, ignoring every news media ordinance the owner put in place.
Or maybe -- against all odds -- Dolan saw something special in the younger Woodson, who has coached 15 regular season games at the Garden and won 14 of them.
Chances are, Dolan ignored Jackson and made the Woodson hire because the interim was cheaper and far more willing to go along with the program. Dolan didn't appreciate Woodson's choice of agents, the same Glass family that represented the excommunicated Brown, and voila, just like that, those agents were out the door faster than Jeremy Lin.
For now, it doesn't matter how or why Woodson landed the gig for three years and as much as $12 million. But if the Lakers do rehire Jackson, and if Kobe Bryant does with the sixth ring with Phil that Michael Jordan won with Phil, then it matters.
Then it's clear Jackson wanted back in the game, and clear the Knicks thought they were better off with Woodson anyway.
Friday night, Woodson left the Garden in possession of the franchise's first 4-0 start since 1993-94. His Knicks have beaten a Dallas team without Dirk Nowitzki, and have twice beaten a Philly team without Andrew Bynum. But the Knicks did blow out the defending champs on opening night, and they did open this season with a renewed commitment to defense and to passing and protecting the ball.
No opponent has scored more than 40 second-half points against the Knicks, and they have committed the fewest turnovers in the league. "They are certainly one of a handful of teams in the East that has a chance to come out of the East," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. "I like their talent, extremely well-coached, and they have Jason Kidd."
Kidd was the prototypical coach on the floor for Carlisle's championship team in Dallas, and the Knicks signed him away from an enraged Mark Cuban so Kidd could do for Woodson and Carmelo Anthony what he did for Carlisle and Nowitzki.
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It's going to take a lot more than a Hall of Fame quarterback who turns 40 in March to end the Knicks' drought, and Woodson understands that. He also understands the terms of his own engagement.
"I feel for any coach that gets fired," he said of Mike Brown, the latest nice guy to finish last. "It's part of the business. ... You can be fired at any time."
When Woodson was done expressing empathy for a terminated peer, Cuban was found holding court on the Garden floor, reassuring reporters that he wishes nothing but a dizzying series of firings on the Lakers. "I hope they have to do it again and again and again," the Dallas owner said through a smile.
If the Lakers hire D'Antoni, a real lightweight in New York, Cuban might just get his wish. But if they hire Jackson, owners from coast to coast need to watch out.
Woodson admitted he's "not in Phil's category," and that's fine. Nobody's in Phil's category.
Truth is, Woodson has been a much better coach of the Knicks than D'Antoni ever was, and so far that's been good enough for smart basketball fans in a smart basketball town. But that changes if the Lakers land another big free agent, Phil Jackson, and if Jackson gets to No. 12 before Woodson even sniffs No. 1.