Mike Woodson is on-record that one of the New York Knicks’ goals this season is to be a top-10 defensive team in the NBA. It’s a lofty goal, especially when one considers New York’s current roster and the franchise’s general aversion to team defense — at least in recent memory. Ask the coaching staff about last season, though, and they’re quick to blame things on injuries which disrupted lineup consistency. And in fairness, ever-changing rotations and new personnel were certainly factors in the team finishing 17th in the league in defensive efficiency (106.3 points allowed per 100 possessions). But New York’s lack of continuity in execution can’t be completely blamed on their players’ lack of familiarity with one another.
Simply put, if the Knicks are going to make any kind of leap on the defensive end this season, it’s going to require far greater effort. Effort alone, however, won’t cut it. This team needs to play smarter, not just harder.
It’s no secret that advanced statistics and analytics are here to stay in today’s NBA, and if he values his job, it will be incumbent upon Mike Woodson to embrace the numbers-revolution, not shun it. Case in point: the Knicks’ offense depends heavily on three-pointers and baskets at the rim off pick-and-rolls. It isn’t a particularly novel approach, mind you, but when New York spaces the floor with good shooters, they are more likely to successfully convert three-point attempts, and, over time, those makes draw opposing defenses away from the basket. Stretching the D allows the pick-and-roll to work its inside magic.
Seeing as how New York seems to know where its offensive bread is buttered, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the Knicks to focus on making it harder for opponents to do the same kinds of things to them. It’s fairly well established that virtually all championship teams have a top-10 defense, but in recent years, defending the rim and/or the three-point line have proven absolutely vital to teams that excel in the playoffs. The Knicks sure didn’t do anything particularly well on defense last season, but one way to increase their defensive efficiency would be to defend with vigor those two locations on the floor.
Take a look at the last three season’s worth of final four playoff teams — their opponent field goal percentages (OFG%), particularly from the restricted area, corner threes, and above-the-break threes, is revealing:
Almost every one of these teams excelled in defending two of the three aforementioned areas of the court. Sure, there are a few exceptions (italics), like the 2010-11 Thunder, who were average or below average in defending all three locations, and the 2011-12 Miami Heat, who actually won a title despite being one of the worst teams at defending the three-pointer all season. (Not surprisingly, though, during the postseason Miami defended above-the-break threes at an elite level, allowing just 25% shooting on such attempts.) Last year, Miami was again below average at defending above-the-breaks threes — those are the farthest shots on the court — but nonetheless, Spoelstra’s team defended the other two locations at an elite level.
The data clearly shows that contending teams usually rank in the top-10 in defending the rim and the three-pointer. Last year’s Knicks, however, were ranked just 26th in OFG% in the restricted area, 13th corner threes and 18th in above-the-break threes. The Knicks were a little bit better at defending those zones in the playoffs, but for the most part, they didn’t approximate the performances of their legitimate championship-contending competition.
Making matters worse, not only were the ‘Bockers deficient in defending the opposition’s shots, but they also lagged in shot blocking. Though blocked shots are rarely the best indicator of good defense, it just so happens that championship teams tend to rank higher than league-average in blocked shots, too. The Knicks were dead-last in in the category last year, and anyone who watched them with regularity knows that they simply do not have an intimidating inside presence who is capable of deterring opposing guards from waltzing into the paint. (New York’s 7’0 center, Tyson Chandler, is an all-world defender, but he has only averaged 1.3 blocks-per-game for his career.)
None of this is to say that having an excellent defense guarantees anything. For example, last year’s Indiana Pacers and the 2011-12 Boston Celtics were great defensive teams, but neither squad even made it to the Finals, let alone won it all. Undoubtedly, defense is a championship-prerequisite in the NBA, but teams that have advanced to the Finals in recent memory, like the Heat, Spurs, and Thunder, have all had elite offenses, too.
By any measure — playoff stagnancy and occasional isolation-dependence aside — the Knicks have the offense (they were ranked 3rd in offensive efficiency league last year, in no small part because of their prowess from long-range). Given the makeup of their roster, though — Bill Russell ain’t walking through that door! — making significant strides at defending the rim and threes might be the only viable path to Woodson’s top-10 defensive rank demands. And the franchise’s championship aspirations, too.