Surrounded by cameras and microphones, Mike Woodson is rarely afraid to accept responsibility for the failures of his team. He practices what he preaches when it comes to accountability, a truth very much appreciated in his locker room.
But when Woodson finished last season at 18-6, and started this one at 18-5, his willingness to take the blame for this shortcoming or that one was easier to accept as a virtue. Now that his New York Knicks are underperforming at an alarming rate, playing .500 ball over 28 games, his concession that their lack of composure in Indianapolis is "on me as the head coach" represents little more than a grasp of the obvious.
The Knicks have enough reasons and excuses for their fall from Eastern Conference grace, and signing Kenyon Martin to a 10-day contract and trading Ronnie Brewer to Oklahoma City for a 2014 second-round pick and cash won't eliminate any of them.
Jason Kidd, grand old man, retired without announcing it. Fellow dinosaurs Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby went down with injuries, and so did Raymond Felton. J.R. Smith and Steve Novak stopped making the 3s they were knocking down like uncontested layups, and suddenly the stranded Carmelo Anthony was out there going one on five.
It wasn't all about the players, though, not when the head coach's job is to connect with them, to inspire them to play hard on both ends of the floor. Over these 28 games, a span covering more than a third of the season, the Knicks haven't looked like a team run by Mike Woodson.
They've looked like a team run by Mike D'Antoni.
Once upon a time Woodson had the Knicks playing defense, something his predecessor treated as an occasional suggestion at best, an unnecessary evil at worst. The Knicks were talking to each other, helping each other, and D-ing up in a way that moved Amar'e Stoudemire -- a D'Antoni player in Phoenix and New York -- to gush over the man he identified as the first coach to introduce him to the more violent side of the ball.
This was back when the Knicks were protecting their home court and padding their lead in a division they haven't won since 1994. This was back when Kidd, a member of the champion Dallas team of 2011, the team that beat LeBron James in the Finals, said these Knicks might be deeper than those Mavs.
This was back when these Knicks could hold high their 4-0 record against Miami and San Antonio as if it were the Larry O'Brien Trophy itself.
Only home losses to Toronto and Portland, and road losses to the likes of Washington, Sacramento, and Philly, left Woodson's Knicks to stagger into the All-Star break while boldly talking up their chances of winning it all -- if only to cloak their crisis of faith.
The first game back Wednesday night blew their cover. With their old legs finally rested, and with a chance to do some message-sending to a tough, defensive-minded rival they might see in the playoffs, the Knicks surrendered 74 points in the first half, dragged a 30-point deficit into the locker room, and lost their heads in Indy like they haven't since John Starks answered Reggie Miller with a head butt.
J.R. Smith's running battle with the Coney Island hot dog, Lincoln's Lance Stephenson, was a low-drama version of Melo's hunt for Kevin Garnett near the Boston bus, and another example of how Woodson has lost his touch -- at least temporarily -- with his team. In better times, the coach had gone public with his desire to make a pro's pro out of Smith, and the volatile two-guard had credited Woodson for molding his new and improved approach to the game.
Smith was only the most conspicuous Knick to check his maturity at the Conseco Fieldhouse door, and when the night was mercifully over, Woodson said his guys "didn't show up." As a coach's chief responsibility is to have his team prepared to play, it was a damning admission.
"Our players have got to hold our composure," Woodson would add, "and that's on me as the head coach."
Yes it is. And so is the process of weathering injuries, and reintegrating important players into the rotation (Amar'e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert) without disrupting, or ruining, the team's season.
On a Thursday night conference call with reporters, Knicks GM Glen Grunwald made an interesting comment about the age and fragility of the roster he assembled, a roster that needed the 35-year-old K-Mart as insurance for the downed Wallace and Camby.
"I don't think we've suffered that many more injuries than your average NBA team," Grunwald said.
Though it wasn't his apparent intention, Grunwald was removing an excuse from his coach's disposal. Asked why Woodson's Knicks no longer play defense with the same purpose and passion they played it in November, Grunwald called it "a great question" before saying, "I think the players and coaches are working toward figuring out why that is. ... There is room for improvement on our defense, and I think everyone's focused to get to that point where we are one of the top defenses in the league again."
Losers of three straight, the Knicks have fallen 5 1/2 games behind Miami for the No. 1 seed in the East. Woodson told reporters Thursday that he is considering a change in the starting lineup, and it's about time. The coach wouldn't identify his prime candidate for demotion, but he should've had Kidd out of there before it came to this.
Though he's been too slow to adjust his lineup, and too inconsistent in persuading the Knicks to guard people and keep their cool while doing it, Woodson remains an upgrade over D'Antoni. Unlike his predecessor, who took his Melo frustrations out on poor Landry Fields, Woodson isn't loath to confront the bigger names and salaries on the payroll. It's one reason he went 18-6 last year with D'Antoni's 18-24 team.
Nothing much rattles Woodson, not even the goal of ending the franchise's biblical title drought. "It's not something I'm afraid of, or scared of, or going to run away from," he said in December.
"This team is going to turn the corner and win it all [eventually]," he'd said the previous spring, "and what better city to do it in than New York. I think about it all the time."
As do millions of Knicks fans now wondering how this re-creation of a Denver Nuggets cast (Anthony, Smith, Camby, K-Mart) that never survived the wild West is going to win it all in the big city.
In the end, the 32-19 Knicks might not be good enough to reach the conference final, never mind the championship round. But they're better than what they've delivered over the last two months, and that one is most certainly on the head coach.