It came as no surprise when the Knicks officially removed the interim tag from head coach Mike Woodson’s title. The players responded to Woodson, finishing the season with an 18-6 record after he replaced the departed Mike D’Antoni, and his stars, most notably Carmelo Anthony, publicly backed him after the Knicks first-round playoff exit.
Curiously, the Knicks, who are always looking to make a splash, decided to wait until after 5:00 PM on a Friday evening before a holiday weekend to announce Woodson’s new contract. It was as if they were trying to slip something past the media and fan base, which of course, they were.
Phil Jackson, the most successful coach in N.B.A. history, is healthy, unemployed and interested in returning to coaching and Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald didn’t even so much as make a phone call to gauge his interest in coaching his former team.
“I think Woody earned the right to be the first person we talked to and turned out to be the only person we talked to,” Grunwald said.
“Obviously, there are some great coaches out there that, had we opened up the search, would have been called. Namely Phil Jackson, who was the most successful coach in the NBA history. We felt Woody was our guy and he showed it during the season and in our discussions after the season.”
I don’t mean to take anything away from Woodson. His Hawks team improved during each of his six seasons coaching in Atlanta and he salvaged what was quickly descending into a lost season for the Knicks. He holds players accountable, especially on the defensive end and he convinced the disjointed Knicks to buy into an offensive system geared towards the strengths of their best scorers.
There’s something to be said for continuity within a franchise, especially after a disastrous decade and a particularly tumultuous season. Grunwald was also wise not to open a full scale search for a head coach, which based on the recent history of the franchise and owner James Dolan’s reputation would have been more embarrassing than fruitful and would have undermined the team’s confidence in Woodson, who would likely have landed the job eventually anyway.
Neither of the Van Gundy boys, both of whom are considered better coaches than Woodson would have taken the job. Jeff coached for Dolan once before and I doubt there’s a number high enough to convince him to leave the ESPN booth and do it again. Stan wasn’t about to walk into Dolan’s den after his year of turmoil in Orlando.
Woody was a safer choice than sentimental favorite Patrick Ewing and flashy Kentucky coach John Calipari, neither of whom have had any success as a head coach in the NBA. And as great a coach as Jerry Sloan is, his inability to coral Deron Williams in Utah, had to raise questions for the Knicks brass as to whether he and his ball-movement offense could co-exist with Anthony in New York.
With 13 championship rings (11 as a coach and two as a player for the Knicks), Phil Jackson is in a class of his own. Grunwald could have reached out to him and still hired Woodson in the event that Jackson wasn’t interested or the two sides failed to work out a deal, without Woodson losing face. Jackson also has experience coaching superstars and the cachet to bring Anthony on board.
Grunwald didn’t explain his unwillingness to contact Jackson, other than to state that Woodson had the first shot at the job and he blew Grunwald and Dolan away during his interview. So, are we to believe that based on 24 games and an interview that Woodson is more qualified to lead this Knicks team to a championship than Jackson?
Grunwald’s history with Woodson had to factor into his decision. The two were teammates at Indian University under Bobby Knight. From a more sinister perspective, it’s natural to wonder if another former Indiana Hoosier and Dolan adviser, Isiah Thomas, was involved with the decision. Is it merely a coincidence that the two men who replaced him as the Knicks coach and general manager were ultimately forced out in favor of two IU grads?
It’s also conceivable that Dolan was turned off by Jackson’s personality and/or price tag. The Knicks owner is fanatical about controlling the flow of information out of the franchise and the Zen Master is known to speak his mind about various league, team and player issues. Jackson also would have likely demanded at least $10 million a year, $6 million per year more than the Knicks are paying Woodson. Though, money has never been an issue for Dolan before and he couldn’t have known Jackson’s price tag without reaching out to him.
It’s not clear whether Jackson would have been interested in the job if the Knicks did call. Sources close to him, including his girlfriend Jeanie Buss, have stated that he’s interested in coaching. Even if he does want to return to the sidelines, it’s questionable whether he’d be intrigued by the Knicks job. Earlier in his coaching career he hinted that he was interested in following in the footsteps of his mentor Red Holzman, but the Knicks personnel doesn’t fit his modus operandi, a young squad built around two superstars who have yet to hit their prime.
Bill Simmons of Grantland.com stated during a podcast last week that he “knows for a fact” that Jackson was interested in the Knicks job. Yet, Phil’s former Knicks teammates, Bill Bradley, Earl Monroe and Walt Frazier, gave MSG Network’s Alan Hahn the impression that the Jackson wasn’t interested in the job.
Of course, the Knicks will never know. The 11-time championship coach may have been chomping at the bit for a shot to return his former team to glory, but without even inquiring as to his services the Knicks opted for Mike Woodson instead. Not even a ring.