By Charlie Widdoes (Twitter)
The qualifications for winning the NBA's Coach of the Year Award are unclear at best. Even if we could objectively evaluate the performance of coaches, what are we rewarding?
Is it the coach who guides his team to the best record? You could certainly make that argument. Then again, what's the fun in that? Who needs to vote on something that could be determined by a machine?
Is it the coach that does the most with the least? Maybe, but that kind of approach is how Gregg Popovich and Phil Jackson combine for 15 NBA Championships and only three Coach of the Year Awards between them. Indeed, most agree that there is a baseline of success a team must have for its coach to qualify -- generally, making the playoffs stands as a prerequisite.
We need context to make such difficult decisions. We must take an honest look around the league and consider wide-ranging talent levels and circumstances coaches deal with to decide who did the best. And after review of the candidates, I submit that Mike Woodson is that man.
He stands out among a handful of contenders, all of whom have a crowning achievement; Whether their teams finished atop their respective conferences (Scott Brooks, Erik Spoelstra), had some degree of success with what we perceive to be an overachieving roster (Kevin McHale, Mark Jackson, perhaps) or they do so without a top-15, star-level player (George Karl, Tom Thibodeau). But when you think about it, Woodson’s case is more diverse than any of them.
In my opinion, the Coach of the Year does the best with what he is given. And I ask Knicks fans to remember that the group that will take the floor against Boston on Saturday was most certainly not what he was given. Not when he took over last year, and -- since this is a single-year award -- not what he went to training camp with in the fall.
Back then, most objective analysis had this as a solid playoff team. Coming off a lockout-shortened season in which they finished as the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks’ only real hope for improvement would have to come from within. With their core in place, it would be up to the coach to get his players to take the next step.
54 wins later, that’s exactly what happened. From the top down, as players made individual improvements, the team just kept getting better and better.
Woodson embraced a challenge of building a contender around one of the game's most gifted scorers, Carmelo Anthony. He knew that Melo would have to grow as a player and leader, and the team would have to grow with him. So both embraced an entirely new idea of an offense built around Melo as the power forward.
Already a high-volume scorer, Melo shouldered a career-high usage rate this past year. In the process, he transformed into a deadly three-point shooter, knocking down 38 percent of his long balls (compared to 33 last year) and in doing so came away with his first-ever NBA scoring title.
The offense followed, breaking the NBA's record for three-pointers made and finishing the season as the third most efficient in the league. Woodson had solidified the crucial Coach-Star relationship.
He emphasized making the most of each possession, and the team responded by leading the league in turnover rate. While never wavering from his big picture approach, such attention to detail carried over to his work with each individual player. Nowhere was this more evident than with J.R. Smith and Chris Copeland.
Smith, previously the symbol of untapped potential, realized it in spades over the course of this campaign. We rarely see players undergo meaningful transformations in their ninth seasons, but that's exactly what happened with J.R.. His approach evolved from gunslinger to dead-eye assassin, and much of that credit is due to his coach.
His field goal and three-point percentages increased this season and, most famously, he morphed into a foul-drawing monster. His season-long average of four free throw attempts per game more than doubled his output of last year, but he continued to improve as the year wore on, getting to the line seven times a game over the last 18 he played. The result? His team won 15 games and lost only three during that stretch.
Copeland, the 29-year old rookie and longshot to even make the team out of camp, went from unplayable because of defensive issues to supreme playoff X-factor over the course of the year. His coaches will tell you he could always score the ball, but it took tireless work from all parties to make him a real asset to the team. After scoring 65 points during the last two games, he's in position to impact -- and potentially even start in Game 1 of -- the first round of the playoffs.
Woodson's greatest achievement -- aside from the gaudy win total, second seed in the Eastern Conference, and rosy outlook as the team heads into the playoffs -- has been his ability to lead through adversity.
The Knicks used 23 different starting lineups this season. The starting lineup that closed the season on such a tear started only 264 of 410 possible games. For perspective, Oklahoma City's starting five started 402. Miami, a team known to tinker with its lineups, had its top five guys play 355.
It would sound crazy to ask a coach to shuffle his starters every four games, but that's essentially what he was forced to do.
He guided the oldest roster in the league to 54 wins, getting better as the year went on and the inuries piled up. All-Star center Tyson Chandler missed 16 games, but they kept trucking along, even as 40-year old Kurt Thomas, 39-year old Marcus Camby and 6-foot-9 Copeland started in his place.
He seamlessly integrated Amar'e Stoudemire into the rotation once he was healthy -- putting him in position to achieve career-high efficiency marks -- and found a way to compensate for his loss when he needed knee surgery 29 games later.
Mike Woodson has all the big-picture boxes checked. This isn't a guy who got a bunch of scrubs to play hard on their way to the lottery. His Knicks enter the playoffs red hot, having won 16 of their last 18 games, after turning in a season that would deserve commendation under any circumstances.
But these weren't normal circumstances. Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton and Iman Shumpert missed a total of 82 games -- the equivalent of a full season.
Woodson has proven to be flexible and unflappable, cool and staunchly committed to his process. Pick a category, and his resume puts him in the conversation with any of his competitors. Then take a closer look, and you'll see a great team that only gets better in the face of adversity. That's the mark of a great coach.