Mike Woodson’s big year

Please take this test:

Watch a bit of the video below, which catalogues Mike Woodson’s reactions to everything from blown calls to children who want him to sign a hat.

(video via Oakley & Allen)

What did you think? Did you enjoy it? Did you even laugh a bit?

To a normal person, there is almost literally nothing interesting about this video. Sure, there is the occasional slack-jawed, blank expression that suggests Woodson is just zoning out, or trying to remember whether he turned over the laundry, rather than managing an exceptionally complex process in front of 20,000 fans.

But by and large this is pretty unremarkable stuff. To a normal person.

However, if you happen to be a Knicks fan, or just a basketball nerd, this reel suddenly becomes endlessly entertaining.  If you find yourself chuckling, good for you — you somehow get it about Mike Woodson, the most unlikely lovable character in the NBA.

From both a tactical and personal sense, Woodson was something of a cipher when he took his place on the Knicks sideline. Sure, we knew of Iso-Joe and the switch-heavy defensive system that Atlanta employed in order to take advantage of a starting lineup that included four quick players between 6-8 and 6-9.

But it was all so blah. Woodson wasn’t a maverick, riding into town to shake up a corrupt and struggling frontier outpost. He was the weathered deputy suddenly promoted to sheriff after the office’s previous occupant had skipped town.

Even the preseason profile from Will Lietch suggests Woodson’s best quality is that he is an utterly vanilla person “They want the predictable, they want the projectable … they want, frankly, the old.“

Everyone expected Woodson would deliver on this uninspiring mandate.

The players are old, and Woodson’s ideas on coaching aren’t exactly revolutionary. Often when he speaks at pregame pressers, it’s as though he is an old computer that can spit out 12 different clichés. No matter what you ask, it’s getting piped down one of those tracks. Usually, the answers revert to: 1) veterans are awesome 2) we have to rebound and defend.

But the play of the Knicks leads many, including myself, to suspect that Woodson’s public demeanor is a clever disguise for one of the most interesting coaching jobs in recent memory.

The triple high screen that caught everyone’s eye early in the season is just one example of how this supposedly hyper-conventional coach helps the Knicks keep it weird. The best is when Jason Kidd “runs” it, and swings out wide as his three screeners break into their routes like football receivers from a “bunch” formation. Kidd becomes the cunning old quarterback who’s duped the defense with a play fake and now rumbles out of the pocket, looking to pick out receivers on a crossing rout.

The Knicks defense has been up and down — more often down since the opening month of the season — but still Woodson has relied on a system that demands smart, wily players to work. Witness Jason Kidd just running around doubling whomever he wants instead of guarding Tony Allen in the half court, or J.R. Smith making a hard switch late in the shot clock to stymie the opponents set action. Yes, J.R. Smith has made solid decisions on defense.

It’s hard to know exactly what caused Smith to become a more serious and practical player over the course of this season. The same goes for Carmelo’s improved mental game. Naturally, most observers suspect Woodson has had something to do with these developments, in his own cagey way.

He has managed to both ask more of Melo and Smith than before, while also tailoring the Knicks style to suit their instincts. He has encouraged a free-flowing, 3-happy small-ball system that also keeps turnovers way down and disciplines the pace of the game.

Perhaps it’s the fun style of play, the experimental coaching that has changed the way we think of Woodson as a dude. Perhaps it is just oncourt success that has given life to a strange cult of personality around what appears to be only hints of any personality at all.

After all, no team surpassed expectations like the Knicks. Woodson’s crew won nine more games than predicted in ESPN’s summer forecast, tied with Golden State for the largest positive margin. So there’s plenty to be happy about, and maybe that’s why people are lovingly creating video compilations of Woodson’s blank stare — the same look that, when he was coaching in Atlanta, lead some to wonder if he was that bright of a coach.

But his success in New York, Woodson is now 72-36 in the regular season since taking over last season, even invites a reframing of his Atlanta years. The offense may not have been nearly as nuanced and interesting, but the same funky defensive switch that Zach Lowe lauded on Grantland was something Woodson came up with in 2011 in Atlanta. The end of a story always alters our perception of the preceding events.

It might just be that, under the intense media scrutiny that comes with being the Knicks (or Lakers) coach, we are getting to know Woodson in a way we never could in Atlanta. It’s hard to give tons of attention from a far to a coach of a team that few even in the team’s home city cares about.

We now have the stunning revelation Woodson’s players find him hilarious, and everyone wants in on the joke.

However it’s foolish to expect that Woodson’s shine won’t disappear if the Knicks, with their old and expensive players, falter in the future. Like every coach except a precious few, Woodson has his faults and will one leave not on someone else’s terms, justly or not. When that day comes, I hope Knicks fans remember who Woodson was in 2012-13, the season in which it became endearing for a coach to stare at the court, mouth agape.


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  1. [...] it was grumbly ol’ Mike Woodson governing one of the weirdest, funnest systems in the NBA was not lost on people. It was fairly nuts, and the zany shirts and whatnot only heightened the [...]

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