Last season, the Knicks had a Defensive Rating of 101.0 or 101 points per 100 possessions, good for fifth in the league. This was despite having notorious pace addict Mike D’Antoni as their head coach for most of the season. This season, the Knicks, now coached by reputed defensive guru Mike Woodson, have a Defensive Rating of 106.1, good for 15th in the league. So how did our beloved Knickerbockers go from one of the league’s elite defensive teams to right smack in the middle?
It’s not the coach. In Mike D’Antoni’s first three seasons coaching the Knicks, they finished 23rd, 27th and 22nd in Defensive Rating. Clearly, D’Antoni was doing a miserable job of getting anything other than horrid defense from the Knicks, even with a quite large sample size. The better question might be, how did they suddenly become an elite defensive team after seven straight years of finishing in the bottom third of the league defensively? Last season, D’Antoni added Mike Woodson to his coaching staff to be his defensive specialist and the Knicks also signed defensive stopper Tyson Chandler to patrol the paint. The Knicks’ defense immediately showed considerable improvement. Despite this, after 42 games they were six games under .500, even with a 7-0 boost from Linsanity. This was too much for D’Antoni and he left the team, being replaced by Woodson for the team’s final 24 games. With Woodson at the helm, the Knicks’ defense soared to even greater heights and they finished on an 18-6 tear. Not surprisingly, Chandler won Defensive Player of the Year and Knicks fans expected this season to be one of Knicks’ total defensive domination.
Since it’s not the coach, we have to examine the personnel. My kneejerk reaction was that it must be the crushing loss of defensive madman Renaldo Balkman, backed up by a quick glance at the stats, revealing that he finished the season with an impressive defensive rating of 99 (points allowed per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor). Since he only played 115 minutes and appeared in a mere 14 games last season (imagine how good their defense could have been with more Balkman!), I was forced to take a closer look at the numbers.
While Chandler may still be the best defensive player on the team, he’s not playing at last year’s DPOY level. His defensive rating has risen from a Balkmanesque 99 to a more mortal 104 this season. Even Jason Kidd, a 39 year-old veteran whose body is held together by paper clips and scotch tape and once known for his suspect defense, has a better rating (103). Unfortunately, Chandler is being asked to work harder than ever on the defensive end, thanks in part to a weaker defensive supporting cast this season.
The Knicks miss the defensive contributions of several departed players, (not just Renaldo): Jared Jefferies (100), Jeremy Lin (101) and Landry Fields (102). Jefferies may have only played 729 minutes, but he was used specifically as a defensive stopper, giving the Knicks much needed help in the paint when Chandler was on the bench. Many observers suggested that defense was one of Lin’s weaknesses, but who wouldn’t take his defense over the Knicks’ current floor general, Raymond Felton (109)? Looking at what kind of performance the Toronto Raptors are getting from Fields for his giant new contract and how much the Knicks’ spacing has improved in his absence, we should no doubt rejoice management deciding to let him depart. However, he did give us 1894 minutes of strong defense at the wing that we have been unable to replace, not to mention some excellent rebounding. The Knicks brought in Ronnie Brewer to replace some of what Fields brought to the table, but he’s been a disappointment on defense (106) as well as on offense, leading him to the very end of the bench, after beginning the season in the starting line-up.
Another reason the Knicks’ defense has taken a nose dive is a rash of injuries. Last season, the Knicks benefited from the play of defensive minded rookie Iman Shumpert (101). He’s spent much of this season on the shelf recovering from last year’s season-ending injury and his defense since returning to the line-up hasn’t been the same (107). The loss of Jefferies was seen as acceptable, in part because the Knicks were bringing a former DPOY, Marcus Camby, to take his place and hopefully play better offense at the same time. To further shore up the front line they also dragged defensive-minded big man Rasheed Wallace out of retirement. The good news is that both of these guys have still got game on the defensive end: Camby’s rating a solid 102 and Wallace’s a team leading, Balkman-like 99. The bad news is these two 38 year-old geezers can’t stay on the court, due to various injuries, with Wallace only appearing in 20 of the Knicks’ 50 games and Camby a mere 14. The addition of Kidd to the roster initially seemed to help make up for the loss of Lin and Fields on D, but failing health and a failing jumper have greatly reduced his role as the season has progressed.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the drop in the Knicks’ defensive ranking is a change in philosophy. The NBA landscape is evolving and the Knicks’ management and coaching staff is trying to change the team along with it. After many years of defense seemingly being the biggest key to winning a championship, offense has become king. Five of the top six teams in offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) all lead their divisions: the Thunder, the Heat, the Knicks, the Spurs and the Clippers. Only one of these teams (the Spurs) is even in the top five on defense. The one big exception to this trend are the Central Division leading Pacers, that rank 24th on offense, but win games thanks to a defense that’s ranked first in the league. Obviously good defense is still quite helpful, but few people think the Pacers are as a good as the Heat or the Thunder, teams which not only feature the league’s top two offenses, but have better than average defenses. It’s not a coincidence that Miami and OKC met in the finals last season and are now favored to have a rematch there this season.
Credit the Knicks’ management for recognizing this trend and changing the team’s personnel accordingly. The addition of Kidd and Felton has helped the flow of the team’s offense and the subtraction of Jefferies and Fields has helped improve the Knicks’ spacing. Perhaps the biggest nod should go to Coach Woodson. While I’m sure the Knicks’ mediocre defense is a constant source of frustration to a man that prides himself on his ability to coach defense, Mike D’Antoni couldn’t get his Knicks’ teams anywhere near the Knicks’ current defensive rank of 15th without Woodson, even with Fields and Jefferies. Instead, we should credit Woodson for coaching to his personnel and employing a style suited to success in today’s NBA. Too many coaches (see D’Antoni in LA), can only coach one style. Woodson has found a way to win with a style and pacing different from those he employed coaching Atlanta or even last season while coaching New York.
The Knicks’ much improved offense (17th to 3rd) has directly led them from a team on the play-off bubble to a Division leader challenging the champion Heat for first place in the conference. Hopefully, Camby, Wallace, Shumpert and Kidd will fully regain their health and their form and we can have some great defense too.