The Knicks Fix: Building a Foundation from the Top Down
Thursday, February 23, 2017
By Alan Hahn
Glen Grunwald had a tough act to follow after Donnie Walsh. The latter was a widely-respected, vastly-experienced and media-savvy executive who rejuvenated a troubled franchise just by his mere presence. Grunwald had experience, but he was not Donnie Walsh.
But that didn't make him underqualified.
All he was -- and continues to be -- is understated. But Grunwald proved enough this season that he may have also been underrated. He did a credible job building a solid roster around the team's stars, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, beginning with the stunning maneuver to land Defensive Player of the Year candidate Tyson Chandler.
This wasn't a move that appeared out of thin air when the NBA lockout lifted in December. Chandler's agent, Jeff Schwartz, had talked to the Knicks about other, lower-end free agents when he and Grunwald got into a discussion about Chandler's future. Schwartz said he let Grunwald know that Chandler would love to play in New York, if they could find a way to clear salary cap space.
Grunwald kept that in the back of his mind and went to his experienced staff, with Mark Warkentien, John Gabriel and Allan Houston, and discussed a top secret idea that carried a major risk: waive veteran point guard Chauncey Billups via the NBA's post-lockout amnesty clause to create the salary cap space to sign Chandler.
Essentially, this was creating a hole at one critical starting position to fill another. It was a bold move by an interim GM (the last time that happened, Frederic Weis was drafted) and no one -- no one -- saw it coming.
Chandler has not just proven to be a terrific acquisition on the court, where he has brought back a long-lost defensive character to the team, but he has also emerged as a strong locker room voice and one of the most likable, respected athletes in New York.
And so with a need for stability at the top of a Knicks team that now has a star-studded frontcourt core in its prime and two potential-laden young guards in Jeremy Lin and Iman Shumpert, Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan on Tuesday removed the interim label from Grunwald's title as general manager.
"Glen has done a terrific job this season," Dolan said in a statement. "He is an intelligent, seasoned executive and we look forward to him continuing in the role of General Manager for many years to come."
The move ensures the group that built this roster will remain intact as it sees its way through a new era that comes with championship aspirations. Grunwald isn't an alpha in this equation, he is part of an Ocean's Eleven-type group dynamic that appears to be working well for the Knicks.
So if Grunwald, with impeccable administration and organization skills, is the brains of the outfit, then Warkentien, the former NBA Executive of the Year who prefers scouring the college game and roaming the D-League circuit to hanging in New York City, as the hustle. Gabriel, another former NBA Executive of the Year with connections all over the league, is the intelligence.
And then there's Houston, who has great potential as a smooth, level-headed front man. His credibility is growing by the day as Houston, who doesn't want to be just a smile in an empty suit, is spending time learning as many positions as possible, from D-League GM to an unofficial role as an assistant coach behind the bench.
It is a group that has worked together for a year now and believes they compliment each other well. There are always disagreements and debates over players, strategy and, of course, the draft, and that's where Grunwald has to be the strongest personality.
There's still a great deal of work to be done here, so removing the interim tag from Grunwald's title should not be viewed as a reward of any accomplishment, but a confidence in his ability.
WOODSON ON DECK?
The front office was one of several critical areas that Dolan and Garden management had to address this offseason. After Grunwald, there still remains another interim title at a high-ranking position: head coach.
Could Woodson be next?
"I would love to come back," Woodson said after Tuesday's practice at MSG Training Center. "I think when you've been given an opportunity to start something, you'd love to finish it."
With 16 wins in his first 22 games since he was promoted in the wake of Mike D'Antoni's departure, Woodson has already built a case for himself.
"Again, that's not my call but I think when that time comes I'll probably have an opportunity to sit down and talk with Mr. Dolan and management about it; hopefully it'll work in my favor," Woodson added. "But right now that's not my concern. My concern is finishing these two games and getting this team into the playoffs and seeing how we can continue to play-on. That's what it's all about."
Playoff success -- which some may translate to mean at least a competitive showing against the Heat or Bulls in the first round, but may require a second round appearance -- may be all that's left to seal the deal for Woodson. And he certainly has a personal connection to the boss, as he and Grunwald are former college teammates who have maintained a long mutual respect.
But unlike Grunwald's position, where there weren't any no-brainer candidates available (names such as Ed Stefanski, Jeff Bower and Kevin Pritchard were bandied about last summer), Woodson is competing with a few marquee names, none bigger than Hall of Famer Phil Jackson. There is also the ubiquitous (and relentless) John Calipari.
If Jackson convinces the Garden brass that he's fully committed to winning a championship with the franchise where his playing career began and his mentor, Red Holzman, left a legacy, it's impossible to believe he'd be quickly dismissed. But the concern is that Jackson, at 70, may not have the necessary energy to handle the demands of a job.
What Woodson also has going for him is the endorsement of the team's current stars, beginning with Carmelo Anthony, who has been rejuvenated since the coaching change. Melo said at practice on Tuesday that he'd be happy to see Woodson back next season.
Of course you wouldn't expect him to say anything less two games before the playoffs are set to begin, would you? The contrast in Melo's performance before and after the coaching change is stark:
• In 32 games under D'Antoni, he averaged 21.3 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game, and was shooting a career-low 40 percent from the field and 23 percent from three-point range.
• In 22 games under Woodson, he is averaging 24.9 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game and shooting 47.1 percent from the field and a sizzling 48.8 percent from three-point range. Ironically, his three-point attempts per game is also a higher rate under Woodson than D'Antoni.
What stands out most is how locked-in Melo has become under Woodson, especially on the defensive end. The two developed a quick trust based on the fact that they needed each other.
"He's caught some heat this year from the media and somehow we've got to help Melo and Melo's got to help us get the heat off," Woodson said, "and you do that by winning and playing at a high level every time you step out on the basketball floor."
With D'Antoni gone, Melo faced the brunt of the criticism for the team's failure and Woodson quickly stepped in front of the bullets. He also put the ball in Melo's hands, but with the caveat that he earned his preferred isolation sets with an honest effort at the defensive end.
Melo quickly bought in and it wasn't long before the rhythm -- and that dynamically quick release -- finally arrived from Denver.
"Just to see what he's [brought] to our team, the confidence that he's instilled in everybody and the belief he has in everybody; just his coaching style, the way he's coached, kind of a hard-nosed coach, holds everybody accountable," Anthony said of Woodson. "I've been saying that -- everybody is responsible for their own actions. I would love to see him around here."
Stoudemire had far more of a loyalty to D'Antoni and he, along with Chandler and several other players, were initially displeased with D'Antoni's surrender to the power struggle with Anthony. But neither Chandler nor Stoudemire can aruge with the results or find fault with the structure and discipline -- two of D'Antoni's greatest weaknesses -- that Woodson has brought to the locker room.
The defensive-minded Woodson couldn't wish for a more reliable center and leader than Chandler. To get the intense, tireless Stoudemire defensively focused could, even more than Melo, be Woodson's greatest achievement.
Stoudemire has flaws there, but he's shown a sincere willingness to learn.
"Coach Woodson has done a great job for us," Stoudemire said. "He's done a phenomenal, phenomenal job. I love his attitude, I love his coaching style."
Stoudemire continued on to say "it would be nice" to see Woodson get the job full-time.
An endorsement from the team's $40 million-a-year duo may be all Woodson needs to secure his future in New York. Melo was asked if he'd go to management with the same statements he was making to the media.
"I'm pretty sure they're hearing it right now," he said with a grin. "Like I said, I would love to see him around here. That's all I can say."
Woodson's fate will be determined more by actions, not words. How the stars respond in the playoffs, how he handles the chess match of a playoff series will also be under the microscope.
• The Clippers loss in Atlanta on Tuesday means they no longer are playing for the Pacific Division title. However, they still have the incentive of clinching the No. 4 seed in the West to own home court advantage in their first round meeting with the Memphis Grizzlies, so it's hard to believe Vinny Del Negro will rest his main players, such as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Especially not at The Garden. Wednesday night will be the season finale for the Clippers.
• Woodson said he is in "rotation mode" in these final two regular season games, so it doesn't sound like he plans on giving his starters any games off. He did say he will give newly-signed center Dan Gadzuric some burn against the Clippers to get a look at the journeyman big man. Gadzuric needs to appear in one regular season game to be eligible for the playoff roster.
• Ballots for NBA awards are due Friday from the national media. Chandler admitted he is hoping to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. In fact, he said he focused on that during the offseason. "When I was training this summer, that was one of the biggest things I was thinking of," he said. His strongest competition will come from Thunder center Serge Ibaka, who leads the league with 3.7 blocks per game.
• Be sure to tune into Knicks Game Night on MSG Networks for the Knicks Fix regular season finale, which will include what Stoudemire told me about Blake Griffin's frustration with physical play, what Allan Houston has done to help Landry Fields' jump shot and my own NBA awards for the season.