NBA coach Mike Woodson: refreshingly honest or tone-deaf?

We live in an age when professional sports coaches go to great lengths to protect their players from the media and avoid airing dirty laundry. Inculcating an us versus them mentality can build team unity and make players more loyal to his team.

NBA coach Stan Van Gundy of the Orlando Magic threw such concerns to the wind with his infamous Dwight Howard-wants-me-fired press conference. But he was likely at wit’s end. Another NBA coach, albeit interim, Mike Woodson of the New York Knicks, has yet to reach Van Gundy’s incendiary heights. But he seems to feel no need protect his players from the media, even though New York is the media capital of the world. NFL coach of the New York Jets is a frequent source of colorful quotes, but when it comes to commenting on his players, he’s fairly anodyne.

Indeed, Woodson seems to use the media to reinforce messages that, knowing him, he’s already conveyed to his players. He speaks often of “accountability.” Translation: if you make a mistake, especially a defensive whiff, you’re gonna hear it from me when you leave the court for the bench. In addition, he’s not averse to general venting. Some samples follow.

On March 31, it was announced that emerging star guard Jeremy Lin would have knee surgery and likely be out for the season. From Newsday:

“He’s elected to have the surgery and we got to respect that,” Woodson said. “Only he knows the pain he’s feeling. There’s a problem and it’s got to be fixed.

“Only he knows his body. I know athletes that have torn theirs and played with it. I don’t know how severe it is. The doctors looked at it. Obviously, it’s severe enough that they’re suggesting or he’s suggesting they go in and have it fixed so he’s ready to go in six weeks.”

It’s almost as if he’s suggesting Lin is a wimp for not playing through a serious injury. Wait, it gets worse. From ESPN:

“He was starting to come as a player and it’s not a career-ending injury. Plenty of people play with meniscus problems. He’ll bounce back. We will anxiously await for him to get better.”

Lin was replaced in the starting line-up by veteran guard Baron Davis. From the New York Daily News:

The Knicks are playing a much different style without Stoudemire and Lin, but they have been successful.

It is a slower pace without Lin running the point. Baron Davis, who is nursing a sore hamstring and a balky back, doesn’t have Lin’s speed or flash in the lane.

“Jeremy is a lot livelier than Baron in terms of movement,” Woodson said. “Baron has been around. He’s a crafty veteran, but he’s playing banged up right now. He’s not the Baron of old. Jeremy brings a lot to the table. We’re going to miss what he brings.”

On Davis again, from Newsday:

Baron Davis suffered a stiff neck when he fell in Tuesday’s loss in Chicago. He already has back, hamstring, knee and calf issues. But he started last night, and had five points, three assists and five turnovers in 19 minutes.

“Somehow in whatever minutes he gets, he’s got to be a little bit more productive,” Woodson said. “I told him that in terms of getting into things quick, not walking the ball up the floor.”

One can’t help but feel that Davis might think Woodson is an ingrate since Davis is courageously playing with injuries. Now some sour grapes about Woodson’s previous head coaching job. From the Daily News:

“Listen, just to be back coaching means a great deal to me,” Woodson said. “I sat out a year, didn’t know why, but it happened. After a 53-29 season (with Atlanta), going back to the second round, I just wasn’t fit for that team anymore.”

On April 21 he expressed apprehension about forward Amare Stoudemire, who was returning from a back injury. From the Daily News:

Before the Knicks lost to the Cavs, Woodson said of Stoudemire, “How he’s alert defensively — that’s my big concern. I’m looking on the defensive end to make sure he’s doing the right rotations and blocking out and guarding his man in a one-on-one position. That’s more important to me.”

In the first round of the playoffs, the Knicks, depleted by injuries, stumbled against the elite Miami Heat. After the third game Woodson spoke of his star Carmelo Anthony. From the Daily News:

Mike Woodson’s message to Carmelo Anthony this offseason will have a familiar ring to it: Improve your fitness.

Despite being one of the NBA’s elite scorers, Anthony has seen his weight and conditioning get criticized in the past, and Woodson wants his best player to address those issues this summer.

“I’ve got to push him to be in better shape when you start the season,” Woodson said Friday. “Everybody’s got to be in better shape. … Melo is going to have to raise his game. He’s got to do some things this summer to better his game as well as Tyson and Amar’e and all the supporting cast that might return.

“If I’m the head coach here I’ve got to make sure that happens because that’s the only way you’re going to get out of the rut in terms of him (Anthony) being a first-round exit. He’s got to change that.”

While the previous quotes might be characterized as refreshing in their frankness, this one fails to do justice to Anthony, who has played his heart out as New York’s one-man offensive team. Obviously in good shape now, he plays lengthy minutes.

Whether one finds Mike Woodson insensitive to his players or refreshingly honest — especially under the New York spotlight, where another coach, Joe Girardi, plays everything close to the vest — the players have thus far responded to him. Let’s hope Woodson doesn’t throw them under the bus and returns next year.

Do readers know of other coaches, in any sport, who have no compunctions about sending messages to their players through the media? Let us know in the comments section.

5 replies »

  1. With the meniscus comments, Woodson illustrates that coaching and doctoring require different skill sets. As a guy who HAD a meniscus tear, I can say with some authority that it depends. You may have a little fraying that you can play with or you may have a rip that won’t let you fully straighten your leg or even trot with.

    As for the rest, Woodson seems to really want this job and to be fully bought into the Frankenstein’s jalopy that is the construction of this Knicks team. Good. I hope he gets it. But he better hope that the front office (and here is where I start giggling) has the insight and the will to trade Amare, if they can find a sucker to take him.

    Either way, us Denver fans are already enjoying the Starmelo era from afar… 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience with and perspective on the meniscus tear. Meanwhile, from the NY Times Friday:

    “Playing Meloball — in which Anthony dominates the offense, usually in ball-pounding isolation sets — got the Knicks through a critical late-season period, without Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, with a 9-4 record. Anthony was brilliant in that stretch, shooting high percentages and collecting 30-point games while the defense did the rest.

    “But we are now seeing the limitations of Meloball. It can win 45 to 50 games (as it did in Denver), but it cannot beat a team as talented and disciplined as the Heat.

    “Stoudemire hardly saw the ball in the first two games of this series. The Knicks’ 3-point shooters are not getting open looks, because the ball is not moving.

    “Anthony is a great scorer. He is not yet a great player, because he does not consistently elevate his teammates. He averaged a modest 3.6 assists per game this season, and has a career average of 3.1.”

    • He’ll NEVER be a great player as long as he has the bright lights and the adulation and the whole organization pandering to his immaturity and his selfishness. Which is a shame. He has always struck me as a decent kid underneath it all, but being worshipped didn’t make better people of the Greek gods and it doesn’t work any better for athletes.

  3. I respect Woodson as a coach, but some of his public comments are overly critical. Like any good manager he needs to consider that players will react differently to the public criticism based on their personalities. He seems to treat everyone with a one size fits all type of approach, and that will eventually backfire on him.

  4. Not finding it easy to trust Woodson, the Knicks’ head coach by default. He says one thing and does another.

    1. Woodson publicly stated his preference for a star-centric style of play, which is different from his predecessor’s team-centric “pick and roll” method. Yet, in many Woodson games, the “pick and roll” is still very much present.

    2. He stated he favored veterans over rookies – that rookies should sit, watch, and learn. Yet, he allowed rookie Jeremy Lin to retain the “starter” position over veteran Baron Davis. FYI – and I’m glad for that.

    3. He preached “accountability”, yet there were no negative consequences for “starters” who weren’t following the game plan to play defense, rebound, and pass. They remained “starters” because of their superstar status, not because of superstar performance.

    Is this see-sawing really Woodson or is someone else directing the show? If it’s someone else calling the shots, perhaps that person doesn’t trust Woodson, too.