Woody's big gambit a huge gamble

If the Knicks continue slipping down the Eastern Conference standings because they didn't make a major move at Thursday's trade deadline, the reason will be that Mike Woodson's biggest gambit failed.

Woodson has long had a demonstrated preference for the older but proven NBA veterans. And lately, it's costing the Knicks.

The first telltale glimpse of how strong the trait is surfaced last season. Woodson was still the Knicks' interim coach, yet he barely concealed his preference for Baron Davis, if he could walk, over Jeremy Lin after Mike D'Antoni left. Woodson was willing to swim upstream against Linsanity.

Then came this season. The Knicks doubled down on Woodson's vision and stockpiled players such as 39-year-old Jason Kidd, 38-year-old Marcus Camby and 38-year-old Rasheed Wallace by wooing him out of retirement. Hell, Woodson still calls Iman Shumpert "Rook," as if the second-year guard is still going through rookie hazing or something.

So it wasn't surprising that the Knicks let the trade deadline pass despite their 11-10 record the past two months, nor that their urgency toward making a bigger move than shipping little-used Ronnie Brewer to Oklahoma City for a second-round pick didn't increase after Wednesday's humiliating 125-91 loss at Indiana, though again, they barely resembled the team that started this season with an 11-4 boom. Nor is it shocking to hear that the player they signed to a 10-day contact to take Brewer's roster spot is free-agent Kenyon Martin (aka, another old guy).

Martin might at least bring some much-needed ruggedness.

Give Woodson this: He's consistent, all right. He's still determined to ride with those veterans he wanted, although Wallace (foot stress fracture) hasn't played since Dec. 15, Camby has been out since Jan. 11 (strained plantar fascia) and wasn't great before that, and Kidd looks spent right now. Neither Kidd's defense nor his 3-point shot is the same. It hardly matters whether his decline is because of his age or because his legs are gone because he played too many minutes early on. Neither explanation is good. Both could be true. Kidd hasn't played workhorse minutes for weeks, yet little has improved.

Woodson's current idea seems to be that the show of loyalty to his locker room, paired with the sight of him keeping a cool head while everyone around him loses theirs, will pay off in the long run.

But that's another questionable gambit Woodson is taking.

He keeps saying if the Knicks just get healthy, they can play with anybody. But that ignores what they would still lack. Right now, they're not a legitimate title contender. And it's time to quit saying that.

The Knicks have trouble defending players on the perimeter. Tyson Chandler could use rebounding help. The 3-point shooting, so integral to their fast start, has faded over the long haul, just as folks warned it would. The same goes for relying on J.R. Smith as their second-best scoring option. Amar'e Stoudemire hasn't been bad, but Woodson needs to get even more from him.

Just as disconcerting, the Midas touch Woodson had while racking up 50 wins here faster than any other Knicks coach seems to have waned a bit, too.

Woodson's ability to get immediate buy-in from the first to worst guys on the Knicks roster was the most startling thing he brought that D'Antoni didn't. In the beginning, it was a source of wonder. Carmelo Anthony actually tweaked his game for Woodson. "Accountability" was the new buzzword. All of a sudden, the Knicks were playing serious defense. The Knicks! Stoudemire uncomplainingly comes off the bench.

But now look: The Knicks have ignored Woodson's recent pleas and post-All-Star-break practice drills in which he implored them to get back to moving the ball and making it harder for defenses to guard them. They're next-to-last in the NBA in assists, averaging 19.6 per game (only Charlotte is worse).

And that lack of response to Woodson is a shift.

The easiest thing to say after a no-show loss like Wednesday's embarrassment in Indiana is a team didn't play with enough effort. And you can't blame Woodson for acting irritable afterward, or saying things to tourniquet the growing fear that the truth is worse: What if the Knicks just aren't good enough? What if that team they were during their hot start ain't coming back? The marathon season is proving they're a few pieces short. But they were smart not to trade Shumpert. He's their only hope to provide any serious perimeter defense.

You almost get the feeling that the unstated reason the Knicks passed on a bigger move Thursday -- even though the Pacers and Nets are gaining on them -- is this: Maybe they've privately decided to steal from the Celtics' recent teams. Why get caught up in wins and losses or their exact playoff seed? Isn't it better to marshal all their strength and experience when it really counts, come playoff time? Isn't that what Boston's Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett did the past few years together with success?

Don't burn out your aging stars.

Get into the postseason the best you can. Then survive and advance.

It's tantamount to stacking one gamble atop another. It's predicated on believing the Knicks can use all their vaunted experience to pull everything together when it counts most.

But it looks like the best gambit Woodson has left.