Less than a year after being fired by the perpetually rebuilding New York Knicks, Woodson was back in The Big Apple, riding shotgun alongside Doc Rivers on the staff of the title-contending Los Angeles Clippers.
He met the voracious New York media before the game, then made a surprise encore after the Clippers’ 111-80 drubbing of the Knicks when Rivers claimed to be too ill to speak.
The message was clear: Rivers wanted his longtime friend to enjoy the moment of embarrassing the team that had fired him. And if anyone called him on it, Rivers could always say watching the Knicks made him sick to his stomach.
It has been nearly 15 years since Jeff Van Gundy quit as Knicks coach, taking virtually all semblance of stability, pride and commitment with him. Big names have followed him, from Don Chaney to Lenny Wilkens to Larry Brown to Isiah Thomas to Mike D’Antoni, always brought in with the intent of making a splash across the tabloids.
But in retrospect, Woodson was the best coach the Knicks have had since JVG went MIA and was vastly underappreciated.
After taking over for D’Antoni halfway through the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Woodson guided the Knicks to the organization’s first playoff victory in 11 years. The following season, he piloted the team to 54 wins – the most since Van Gundy rang up 57 during the 1996-97 season – and led the Knicks to their first playoff series win in 13 years.
“I’m not going to downplay what we did,” Woodson said. “I’m pretty happy about our play and the kind of style of play we had here. It’s not easy winning 54 games in this league and the fact that we were able, along with (GM) Glen Grunwald and (owner) Mr. Dolan, to put a solid group together that year.
“We had some nice veterans, even though they were old guys. We kind of paid for it a little bit at the end, but you can’t take anything away from that team. That team was very competitive and won a lot of games for us.”
In addition to the team success, a handful of players flourished individually under Woodson. In 2012, Tyson Chandler was Defensive Player of the Year and Iman Shumpert made the All-Rookie Team. The following season, J.R. Smith won the Sixth Man Award and Carmelo Anthony was a career-high third in MVP voting.
Those 54 wins were just two seasons ago but seem like a distant memory. Chandler, Smith, Shumpert and other core members were dealt by new team president Phil Jackson for underwhelming returns. Woodson, who had a voice but not final say in personnel moves, said he would have moved forward with that group.
“Had I stayed on board, I probably would have pushed to keep Tyson and keep the core group together because that’s what won the 54 games two years ago,” he said. “But, people change and you’ve got to live with it. It’s what it is. They’ve had a tough season so far and hopefully they can rebound this summer and put some pieces together and get back to winning basketball games.”
With high hopes for the 2013-14 season, the Knicks regressed under Woodson, going 37-45 and missing the playoffs. In Dolan’s world of impatience, that meant it was time to start over again, and Woodson was gone.
“The bottom line is we had a tough season,” Woodson said. “We had a lot of injuries as well my last year here. I couldn’t get around it. I lost key guys at pivotal times throughout the season and it was tough to rebound from. Once we started to get bodies back toward the latter part of last season we made that big push to try to get the eighth spot, but we fell short.”
Along with significant injuries to Andrea Bargnani (40 missed games), Chandler (27), Amar’e Stoudemire (17), Raymond Felton (17) and Pablo Prigioni (16), locker room chemistry also took a major hit without the veteran leadership of Jason Kidd, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace.
Shooters Steve Novak and Chris Copeland also were not brought back, which left a team dependent on 3-pointers without two of its best marksmen. Meanwhile, there were whispers around the league that Chris Smith – clearly in over his head at the NBA level – was kept on the roster to placate his brother, J.R..
Jackson, who won 11 championships as a coach using the triangle offense, took over as president with assurances that Dolan would not meddle and the opportunity to rebuild the Knicks with his vision, which did not include Woodson.
“I think when Phil came in he had his mind made up based on what he wanted to do and I can respect that,” Woodson said. “There’s nothing I can say bad about Phil. Phil’s had a heck of a career as a coach and he had other ideals in terms of the direction he wanted to go and I respect that.”
After a failed run at Steve Kerr, Jackson gave Derek Fisher – who had still been playing just weeks earlier – his first coaching job. The triangle has fit about as well as a square peg into a round hole.
Anthony, given a five-year, $124 million contract over the summer, shut it down after the All-Star break to have knee surgery and is starting to show the burden of carrying a team. The same franchise that won 54 games two seasons ago is in full tank mode and about a week away from clinching the NBA’s worst record.
As for Woodson, the sun is shining brightly – literally and figuratively – in Los Angeles, where he is a part of a star-studded coaching staff that also includes Lawrence Frank, Armond Hill, Sam Cassell, Brendan O’Connor and Bob Thate.
According to superstar Blake Griffin, Woodson has been a key addition to the staff.
“Offensively, he’s got some crazy plays,” Griffin said. “Some out of bounds plays, some end-of-game plays. He’s just a guy that you can always count on to be there for advice, be there to talk to you.”
While Woodson will help Rivers try to guide Griffin and the Clippers through the minefield of the Western Conference playoffs, the Knicks will be counting ping-pong balls with the hope of landing the top overall pick as salvation in light of the worst season in franchise history.
Woodson wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m happy as heck to be in Los Angeles with Doc, a friend of mine who I’ve know for many years,” he said. “He’s given me an opportunity to help him try to get the Clippers to the Finals and perhaps win a title. That’s what it’s all about.”