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Mike Woodson revolutionized the Knicks, but they forgot

But, hey, maybe he's coming back?

Photo credit: Keith Allison / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Mike Woodson’s back! The former head coach of two postseason New York Knicks teams with a perfectly circular goatee has been tapped as a candidate for the vacant head coach position.

Woodson spoke with SNY about his potential return to the franchise, positioning the decision to rehire him as a return to the glory of days long past.

“I did my job when I was here. We won games. The fan base was engaged. I walked out of the Garden many nights thinking that the fans were proud and excited about what we were doing. Am I capable of coming back to New York and helping them build a winning team again? I feel confident in that, I absolutely do,” said Woodson, who was fired by then team president Phil Jackson at the end of the 2013-14 season.

To his credit, Woodson trails only Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy in all-time Knicks winning percentage, per Basketball Reference.

No other coach since 2000 has matched his output in the 2012-13 season, where the Knicks won 54 games. His tenure stands out when visualized against all seasons since 2000, including an interim stint in 2011-12 where Woodson replaced Mike D’Antoni midseason.

James Dolan and then Knicks president Phil Jackson fired Woodson after a disappointing 2013-14 season. Ian Begley covered this dismissal and the potential hiring of Steve Kerr in an article that should make any present day Knicks fan gasp.

Begley explained the rationale as such, including a quote from J.R. Smith.

Following the team's success in 2012-13, owner James Dolan told staffers on the eve of the 2013-14 season that he felt the Knicks could compete for the title. They fell well short of those expectations.

New York started the season 3-13, suffered through losing streaks of nine and seven games and fell as many as 19 games below .500. They won 12 of 15 games in March and early April to climb back into the playoff race but were eliminated from contention late last week, missing out on the postseason for the first time in four seasons.

"I don't know what is fair or not," Smith said of the firing. "I'm not the person dealing with fair or not. It would've been nice to see him get another year at least. But Phil Jackson has won a lot of championships and knows basketball, so we have to trust in that."

J.R.’s trust proved misplaced, as the Knicks would fail to bounce back or even come close to playoff contention for the next six seasons. The franchise hired and fired four head coaches in that span—we solemnly pour one out for Derek Fisher, Kurt Rambis, Jeff Hornacek, and David Fizdale—with current interim coach Mike Miller unlikely to return and soon to join this list.

Woodson’s return would add a fascinating wrinkle to what has already been an extensive and prolonged coaching search. Stefan Bondy of the NY Daily News also interviewed Woodson on his discussions with the Knicks, and this quote stuck out to me.

“When I look back at it, I think our style of play fits how we’re playing today so I don’t know if I would change a whole lot there,” Woodson said. “We led that year when we won the division, we led the league in 3s taken and 3s made. We were third or fourth in percentage in shooting the 3 ball and we were No. 1 in not turning it over. So offensively we were right in position with how teams play.”

Was Woodson actually that far ahead of his time?

The Knicks become revolutionaries

Think back to 2012, a year so dissimilar to the hellacious 2020 that I feel terrible for even mentioning it.

The Miami Heat won the championship in a legendary seven game series against the San Antonio Spurs. The Knicks won 54 games, beat the Boston Celtics in five games in the first round, and were one Roy Hibbert verticality away from potentially meeting the Heat in the conference finals.

Woodson’s Knicks thrived with a veteran-heavy roster, a league-leading scoring effort from Carmelo Anthony, and a now-common shot profile that seemed revolutionary in 2012.

In his excellent book on NBA geography and the changing game, Kirk Goldsberry covered this exact shift in mentality. An excerpt from his work captures the scope and scale of this evolution.

Consider this crazy stat: During the 2018- 2019 regular season, NBA shooters made 27,955 3-point shots. That's more than they made during the entire 1980s (23,871).

He goes on to track the share of field goals between two and three points, which gives us a baseline understanding of a team’s shot profile. I used Basketball Reference to snag this data.

In 2012-13, the Knicks took roughly 35% of their field goals beyond the three point line, leading the entire NBA and far ahead of the 24% mark for the league average.

New York had a gigantic head start on the three point revolution under Woodson, fired him the next season, and then lost it all. The Knicks ranked 2nd, 1st, and 3rd in Woodson’s three years, and dropped to 21st or worse in every subsequent season.

How did they build and then forfeit this advantage?

The Knicks utilized a two point guard lineup in 2012-13 and produced incredible offensive results; all data here is thanks to Ben Falk at Cleaning the Glass.

Their main lineup of Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, and Tyson Chandler played 494 possessions and produced a +28.9 point differential, good for the 97th percentile of that year in the NBA.

They ran teams off the court with offensive production and a defense that held teams to a subpar 94.2 points per 100 possessions (ranked in the 88th percentile) and a mere 43.8% effective field goal percentage (91st!). Woodson’s top lineup took 32.7% of their shots beyond the arc and effectively eliminated inefficient shots from their arsenal, at a bottom quartile rate of 19% for long midrange attempts.

While this then-unorthodox approach produced results, Woodson couldn’t resist an urge to get bigger in the following season. Friend of the program Matt pointed out that Woodson himself lit the fuse that blew up the Knicks’ three point profile, steadfastly refusing to commit to a small ball lineup and sharing this justification.

In 2013-14, the most frequently used lineup swapped a departed Jason Kidd for JR Smith, played Carmelo at small forward, and installed Amar’e Stoudemire at power forward. Oversized and under-gunned on the perimeter, this group dropped to a mediocre +3.1 point differential and a bottom-third 110.9 points per possession allowed, nearly 16 points worse than the previous year’s lineup. Compared to last year, the most common group also dropped from 32.7% of shots from three to 26.4%.

When Woodson did go small that year and pair Pablo Prigioni with Felton, the Knicks jumped to a +6.6 differential overall and a staggering +16 for the most frequent combination of Prigioni, Felton, J.R. Smith, Carmelo, and Tyson Chandler.

Alas, these five only saw 248 possessions together, good for fifth among lineups that season. Woodson’s commitment to size over anything else hamstrung the efficiency gains from playing two point guards and thriving beyond the arc. Combined with the dreadful Andrea Bargnani trade and assorted injuries to Stoudemire, Bargnani, Chandler, and other rotation players, the Knicks fell to 37-45 and missed the playoffs.

Are the current Knicks capable of playing this style?

Woodson would get fired for the poor 2013-14 season, and the Knicks soon lost their spot at the vanguard of the three-point revolution, slipping toward the bottom of the league in perimeter shot selection.

If now hired, he would return to a league fully enthralled by long distance, with the league average three-point share today far above his 2012-13 Knicks’ league-leading efforts. In fact, the 2019-20 Knicks somehow have a lower share of three pointers than those 2012 Knicks, and shoot worse on them.

Perhaps more urgently, he’d be joining a Knicks team bereft of the point guard talent that thrived under Woodson’s first tenure. Prigioni, Felton, and Kidd led the Knicks to hyper-efficient, excellent offensive production and empowered their teammates. I’m not sure the current Knicks roster has anyone who fits that bill.

Cleaning the Glass helps to calculate that playmaking capacity by looking at the assist to usage ratio, a measure of how often a player assists a teammate compared to his overall usage of possessions.

In 2012-13, five Knicks produced top-quartile results in this metric, with Prigioni and Kidd reaching the 86th and 85th percentile for AST:Usg. Among present-day Knicks, only Elfrid Payton reached that threshold, ending the year at the 89th percentile. If Woodson’s going to thrive, he’ll likely need an infusion of playmaking talent to support RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson.

There’s no guarantee that Woodson will get the job, or that he’s being seriously considered. All reporting seems to hint that the job is Tom Thibodeau’s to lose. Yet, if Woodson does come back, he’ll be given a rare chance to prove his revolutionary vision, even if accidental, can again thrive in the Garden.

Cue the Diddy!

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