Taking A Look At The Knicks’ Defensive Struggles

As Iman Shumpert prepares to make his season debut this Thursday in London, I thought it was worth analyzing the Knicks’ defense comparatively to last year’s.  Some of the findings were jaw dropping and it raises a few questions.  Is the drop off attributed to Tyson Chandler not playing like the reigning Defensive Player of the Year?  Could this be because the Knicks are missing one of the best perimeter defenders in the game in Iman Shumpert?  Are Jeremy Lin, Landry Fields and Jared Jeffries defensively better than Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton and, say, Ronnie Brewer? Could it be because Coach Woodson’s defensive scheme of switching off screens doesn’t work?  Finally, is it because the Knicks lack effort defensively?

My answers to these questions come from utilizing analytics from basketball-reference.com and Synergy Sports.

Statistics prove that Tyson is playing well, but not like he played last year;  Lin, Fields and Jeffries were better defensively in New York than Felton, Kidd and Brewer at this point; and Coach Woodson’s scheme of switching all the time doesn’t fit the personnel, since the Knicks lack athletic defenders (paging Iman and wake up Brew!) and most importantly because they are lacking the effort.  During their six-game winning streak the Knicks’ defense was stellar, and in all of their wins, their defense is usually the key – the Knicks rarely get into a shootout and come out victorious; their defense gives them wins.

The data gathered from Synergy Sports below shows that the Knicks’ overall defense has dipped drastically from 6th in the NBA last year to 18th this year.  The top four ways opponents score on the Knicks with either a field goal or with free throws is via spot up opportunities (19% of the time), as the Pick and Roll ball handler (13.6%), in isolation (11.7%) and in transition (11.2%).  Of those four categories, the Knicks improved defensively in just one area and that was in defending spot up opportunities.  The Knicks ranked 28th in defending spot ups last year, compared to 12th this season.

The Knicks dropped from 18th to 23rd in stopping the pick-and-roll ball handler from scoring.  In isolation defense, they fell from 12th to 28th and in transition defense they fell from 8th to 20th.  The Knicks remained strong defending in the post, which is a testament to Tyson Chandler and Kurt Thomas, as well as Marcus Camby in very limited opportunities.

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The Knicks’ lackluster defending in isolation situations, transition and against the pick and roll ball handler falls on the backs of the guards, as well as Coach Woodson’s scheme of switching.   Simply put, Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd are not very good defensively.  When the Knicks switch too often, it leads to mismatches that teams exploit in isolation, ala Paul Pierce defended by Tyson Chandler, Jason Kidd on Kyrie Irving, etc.  Mismatches also allow the pick and roll ball handler an easier opportunity to score, as, most often, the mismatch will favor the offensive player.  The combination of a faulty scheme and below average perimeter defenders is a major reason for the Knicks’ drop off.  If the Knicks had athletic and focused ball hawks they would be able to afford switching as much as they do, but, instead, they haven’t been fully committed like they were during their 6-0 start, plus Kidd and Felton’s  individual defensive ratings this year are 104 and 109, respectively – not a recipe for success.  For the Knicks it’s become easier to switch with no sense of urgency and, sadly, it’s costing the Knicks badly.

In transition, the Knicks have allowed less transition opportunities, 13% down to 11.2% this year.  This could be attributed to their slow pace and high percentage field goal shooting.  The problem has become that the teams in transition are more effective in scoring this year.  The Knicks’ ranking fell from 8th to 20th and the team as a whole is not stopping the ball and matching up effectively.

In the area of individual defensive rankings, their rankings have been abysmal.  Shumpert will make a difference, as we all know he is a better defender than Kidd, Brewer, Prigioni or Felton. Kidd wouldn’t be so bad if he could stick to shooting guards – before Felton’s injury, Kidd’s defensive rating was 103 and while Felton has been away, Kidd’s defensive rating has been 108.6.  A major part of the Knicks’ defensive improvement must come from the Knicks starting Iman Shumpert with Kidd to guard point guards or start Kidd with Prigioni, which is a very potent offensive duo.   Prigioni’s defensive rating this season is at 105, mostly because he gambles too much and again the Knicks struggle in isolation.  In comparison, Jeremy Lin’s ranking was 101 last year while Landry Fields was 102, so the Knicks guards are struggling mightly.  We mentioned Felton’s struggles earlier.  His defensive rating of 109 is 3rd worse on the team behind Steve Novak and Chris Copeland.   The sad part is it won’t get better as Felton has a career defensive rating of 109.

Comparing the Knicks during their opening season six game winning streak may be unfair, but I would argue that the Knicks were most focused to start the season and that their effort has waned since.  If the Knicks put in the effort with the return of Shumpert and Wallace they can get back to their winning ways.  During their six game winning streak, their individual defensive ratings were off the charts.  Kidd at 93.6, JR Smith at 96.5, Wallace at 88.1, Prigioni at 97.6, Ronnie Brewer at 98 with Carmelo Anthony at 100.2 and Tyson Chandler at 100.3.  Compare that to their current numbers below and you can see that there have been major drop-offs from Carmelo Anthony, JR Smith, Ronnie Brewer, Felton, Kidd and especially important has been the insertion of STAT over the much better defenders Camby and Wallace who were lost to injury.

Below is a chart which shows the defensive ratings for individual Knick players this season compared to last.

Screen Shot 2013-01-16 at 1.27.56 PMFor the Knicks to be truly successful defensively, and to get on a winning streak, these numbers actually do tell a clear story.  When the Knicks put in effort, they can dominate. Their problem is that their level of effort with Woodson’s system is not sustainable with proven dynamic offensive players who don’t have a history of sustaining defensive effort.  Felton, Smith, Carmelo and Amare must play better defense. Period.

In their wins, the Knicks prove that they can defend in spurts, but they must become consistent in order to create winning streaks.

On Thursday in London, Woodson should start with moving Jason Kidd off the ball defensively and start Pablo Prigioni alongside Kidd, or Iman Shumpert, if he’s healthy enough.  James White is not playing defense well enough to start and Copeland can make shots at the three. The Knicks can bring in Shumpert and Smith to share the point guard duties with Amare, Novak and Brewer in the front court.  Yes, Brewer is lacking confidence, but Ronnie, with Shump and Smith could turn into three of our best perimeter defenders on the floor at the same time.  I believe you must give Amare the confidence to dominate offensively and give him the opportunity to become a better defender and low post scorer in the second unit.   This can pay huge dividends down the stretch.  Hopefully, Shumpert’s defensive energy will rub off on STAT and Novak, but it’s especially important it rubs off on Brewer and Smith who have shown flashes defensively.  If the Knicks play this right, they can use this recent lull as a learning experience and Woodson figure out the best lineups moving forward.  If they do, this team has the offensive weapons to play with anyone in the NBA.

  • geoAZ

    Exceptional review !! Well Done !! Woody needs to consider two other small changes, one, play two bigs, Carmelo doesn’t help well enough on switches and is weak as an off-the-ball helper, second, Chandler can’t switch “up” and must be “low man down”. Keep up the good work !!