BRIAN MAHONEY, AP Basketball Writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Mike Woodson had the Knicks on top of their division and in the second round of the playoffs, destinations that had become unreachable and practically unimaginable in New York.
A year later, he was out of job.
Phil Jackson fired Woodson and the entire coaching staff on Monday, making his first big move since becoming team president in March and saying in a statement that “the time has come for change throughout the franchise.”
The dismissal comes shortly after the Knicks completed a 37-45 season that began with their belief they were a serious contender.
Instead, they started poorly, making Woodson’s job security practically a season-long distraction. A late surge wasn’t good enough for a postseason spot or another year for Woodson.
It was a stunningly swift fall for Woodson, whose .580 winning percentage with the Knicks ranks behind only Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy, and who finished third in the NBA’s Coach of the Year voting after going 54-28 last season.
He and the staff were informed of the decision Monday morning by Jackson, the man the Knicks originally wanted to replace Woodson as coach but preferred to run the team’s front office.
Jackson has won an NBA-record 11 championships as a coach. He has repeatedly said he’s not interested in returning to the bench, so he will have to hire someone before he turns his attention to the roster. The team said the coaching search begins immediately.
Jackson said he has a “tremendous amount of respect” for Woodson and his staff, which included longtime Knicks assistant Herb Williams. Jackson called this an “extremely difficult” season and said “blame should not be put on one individual.”
“But the time has come for change throughout the franchise as we start the journey to assess and build this team for next season and beyond,” he added.
Jackson has said he won’t insist the Knicks run the triangle, the offensive system he used in Chicago and with the Lakers, but has made clear his belief in it. TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who played for Jackson with the Bulls but has never been a coach, has repeatedly been mentioned as a top candidate.
Kerr said Monday during his SiriusXM NBA Radio show that he and Jackson have remained close and that he expected to speak with him at some point about the job.
“It’s going to be very interesting and obviously my name is being thrown around. I do anticipate at least being part of the conversation and we’ll see where it all goes,” Kerr said.
Jackson is scheduled to speak with reporters on Wednesday.
Woodson, a former Knicks first-round draft pick, was hired as an assistant coach before the 2011-12 season, then engineered an 18-6 finish after replacing Mike D’Antoni on an interim basis the following March to capture a playoff spot. Given a multiyear deal two months later, Woodson then led the Knicks to their first Atlantic Division championship since 1994.
New York then beat Boston in the playoffs, its first series victory since 2000, and general manager Steve Mills picked up next season’s option year on Woodson’s contract before this season began.
But the Knicks were saddled with some early injuries, including center Tyson Chandler’s broken leg, and lacked the veteran leadership they enjoyed last season. Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan was already considering replacing Woodson by December, when he met with Jackson at a holiday party and talked to him about coaching the team.
Carmelo Anthony praised his coach Thursday and even offered to back him publicly if necessary. But it was probably a clear sign Woodson wouldn’t be back a few minutes later when Amare Stoudemire said the coach hadn’t taken part in the exit meetings with players that Jackson and Mills held.
Woodson previously coached six seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, leading them to the playoffs in his final three seasons. He has a career record of 315-365.
Woodson went 109-79 with the Knicks, who hadn’t even made the playoffs since 2004 before he led them there in 2012. But he lost one of his biggest supporters within the organization when general manager Glen Grunwald, Woodson’s college teammate at Indiana, was surprisingly fired last September.
Players and fans sometimes grumbled during the season about Woodson’s strategies as the defense regressed and the offense was inconsistent beyond Anthony, who plans to become a free agent in July. Chandler said there probably was some “disconnect” and “misunderstanding” at times.
“Coach Woodson put together a game plan for us on the basketball court and there were times we didn’t totally buy into it,” Stoudemire said last week.
Still, the Knicks nearly rallied to make the playoffs by winning 16 of their final 21 games. But Woodson, who said he and Jackson had only brief chats in Jackson’s first month in charge, said before the season finale he knew the coach often takes the blame.
“Everyone in this franchise owes a great deal of gratitude to what Mike and his staff have done,” Jackson said. “We wish him the best.”
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