When James Dolan sat down with the coaching staff earlier this month, his message to the group was plain and simple, and yes, somewhat unrealistic.
“He said he believes the team is good enough to win a championship,” says a person with knowledge of the meeting. “That’s what he thinks.”
Now, I have no idea what Mike Woodson’s reaction was to Dolan’s declaration about the 2013-14 Knicks, but an obvious response from the head coach would have been to ask, “If you honestly feel that way, why on earth did you fire my friend who assembled the roster?”
Ah, but this is Madison Square Garden, the place where the seats, scoreboard and suites may have been transformed but not the boss. The company policy is still “you don’t ask questions. You just cash your big fat check and keep quiet.”
The Knicks have never given us a clear answer as to why Glen Grunwald was canned months after the Knicks won 54 regular-season games and won a playoff series for the first time in 13 years. There really is no correct answer except to say that the media-shy Dolan is still as unpredictable, eccentric and impulsive as ever.
And again, with the money Dolan has invested in this roster, he should be setting his sights high even though Miami is still Miami and Indiana, Chicago and Brooklyn all improved. But if Dolan is talking title, that means the clock is ticking on Woodson, a seasoned basketball man who in his heart of hearts knows that last season was the Knicks’ best chance to snap the franchise’s championship drought.
“I think we’re solid enough to compete for one, absolutely,” Woodson said on the eve of Wednesday’s season opener against Milwaukee. “I think we’re one of the teams that are going to be in the hunt.”
Carmelo Anthony is ready to soar heading into Wednesday’s opener, but he does not appear to have enough help around him to win a title, which seems obvious to everyone but James Dolan.
In the hunt? The Knicks won six playoff games last season, which happens to be 10 shy of the number needed to hoist the Lawrence O’Brien Trophy. Does anyone, other than Dolan, believe this Knicks team, which lacks leadership and a legitimate second superstar, can win 16 playoff games?
Woodson, who has been in the NBA 30 years as a player and coach, understands the Knicks’ shortcomings. The Knicks went an entire preseason with Andrea Bargnani at power forward and Anthony at small forward and yet it looks like Anthony will go back to the 4 with Metta World Peace replacing the big Italian against the Bucks.
“I do know there was a lineup that was pretty successful last year,” Woodson said.
Yes, playing small with Anthony at power forward was the Knicks’ best lineup. But that team also included Jason Kidd, who was a huge presence in the locker room. It also included Rasheed Wallace, Woodson’s pal from their Detroit days who conveyed the head coach’s message to the players.
Dolan, though, prefers a younger roster and was annoyed that the season ended with Kidd a shell of himself and Marcus Camby being used while Wallace and Kurt Thomas were forced to retire with foot injuries. The one concession Dolan was willing to make was re-signing Kenyon Martin with the idea of limiting his minutes in order to keep him healthy for the postseason.
This is already shaping up to be Woodson’s toughest challenge since replacing Mike D’Antoni two seasons ago. Amar’e Stoudemire’s health is again a question mark, and Anthony is being thrust into a leadership role while keeping one eye on free agency. J.R. Smith is no longer playing for a contract, and when Woodson looks at the end of his bench he no longer sees Wallace, Camby and Thomas but instead Cole Aldrich and Chris Smith.
We know Woodson is a survivor because he’s proven that he can navigate the shark-infested corporate waters at MSG. Think about it, Woodson has strong ties to both Larry Brown and Isiah Thomas; one is Dolan’s least favorite NBA guy, the other his No. 1 confidant. Two years ago, when the Knicks were ready to make him the full-time coach, Woodson accepted their ground rules by firing his and Brown’s agent, Keith Glass.
But now Dolan wants a championship, and Woodson doesn’t have the resources to make that happen. We know it, Woodson knows it and when Dolan finds out, someone will disappear and take on the dreaded title of “adviser.”
I hate Dolan with the fire of a white hot sun. As owner, he has the right to expect a lot from his team, but there is usually a natural progression to winning a championship. Knicks went out second round last year; winning it all this year, though welcomed, would be remarkable and extraordinary.
Meddling Dolan should return to his crawl space with his bottle of Jim Bean, assume the fetal position.