So far, New York’s leadership has talked the talk about the rebuild. Here’s why rebuilding around “defense” may be vulnerable when the Knicks walk the walk.
Hear me out: before the canonical retcon in Rogue One, the Death Star was largely considered the most brutal yet comically vulnerable weapon ever conceived, because a well-placed skeeball throw rendered it into space dust. Essentially, the Death Star was the most promising Knicks teams during the Carmelo Anthony era—a high-octane offense with the defensive capabilities of a screen door. This time, however, the Knicks may be building the inverse: a defense-oriented team with pitiful scoring.
In other words, the Knicks’ newfound infatuation with defense, as well as a neglect for other key areas, may end up being the core tenant that works against their first legitimate rebuild in decades.
The Knicks have been preaching defense, accountability, and a “no shortcuts” mentality for the past season, and they’ve managed to do a decent job sticking to the last two. Front-office hero Scott Perry has taken the reigns of making safe, shrewd deals in opportune moments, and has shown great constraint instead of going nuclear every time a big name comes up in the news. The first tenant, defense, hasn’t translated to much on the court, but the firing of Hornacek (part regime change, part ineptitude) and the ensuing hire of David Fizdale show a commitment to a focus on defense going forward—at least on paper. With the 2018 NBA Draft tomorrow and a slew of prospects touting lockdown defense, they may go for another specialist, which would, in turn, create a sort of pattern. But is choosing a player with the highest defensive capabilities the correct choice for this rebuilding team? The buzz around Mikal Bridges as a 3-and-D savant by fans still drunk off of Frank Ntilikina defensive highlight videos by Knicks Film School, are dominating Knicks conversation at the moment.
And since Knicks fans are always seemingly wrong, it’s about time they became acquainted with the real consequences of where this new mindset could take the team—buying too much stock in a lockdown defense could keep a team from realizing its true potential. It’s safe to say that maximizing the quality and quantity of playoff runs is the goal of the Knicks’ current regime, and a preoccupation with defense over other essential priorities could be detrimental to their objectives.
The examples aren’t plentiful because few teams have approached success from this perspective, and even fewer teams have gone on to be legitimately competitive, but the most recognizable iteration was the consistently successful Memphis Grizzlies of yesteryear.
Memphis Grizzlies (2012–2017)
The last era for the Grizzlies was something Memphis could be proud of, sort of like Tennessee barbecue or Three 6 Mafia. In four of five seasons, the Grizzlies managed to be top three in opponents points per game and top 10 in Defensive Rating. Such a string of consistent, exceptional defense was unprecedented in the modern era. The only teams that managed to come close in that five-year span were the San Antonio Spurs and the Utah Jazz, both of which were top three in opponents points per game in three out of four years. One of those teams saw the NBA finals twice—the two others did not. The difference? The Spurs ranked in the top 10 in points per game four out of five times. The closest the Jazz ever got was 13th in 2012. The Grizzlies were even worse at 20th in the same offensive measurement (via Basketball-Reference).
Each of those five seasons, Memphis managed to make the playoffs. However, three of the five times they made the postseason, they were decisively knocked off by the Spurs. So, while their impressive regular season displays were enough to secure a spot in the tough Western Conference, time and time again, the postseason exposed the Marc Gasol–led team for what they were: a group of try hards who couldn’t buy a bucket. During that string of playoff runs, the only player to average 20 points per game was Mike Conley. He did so once.
NBA fanatics’ obsession with championships as a lone metric for success is tiresome, sure, but if your team falls short every year—because their roster possesses a modicum of offensive talent—frustration is understandable. In retrospect, was there ever a championship window open for the Grizzlies? Will they try to recover quickly by reloading in this year’s draft? Or will they throw the whole team away? Not much is certain about their future, but it’s clear now that whatever they did worked, but there was a catch: no amount of defensive pressure will make up for an abysmal, or even passable, offense. That’s the deal with the devil the Knicks are flirting with. If their defense-heavy strategy even works, it caps the team’s potential, preventing a realistic championship window from opening.
Back in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks are weaving a similar story. Theirs, however, isn’t going quite as smoothly as the now-defunct Grizzlies.
Milwaukee Bucks (2014–present)
Revisionist history decided that the Milwaukee Bucks’ rebuild began with Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the truth is the 2013 draft was generally weak. In reality, Jabari Parker, the 2014 second-overall pick for the Bucks, was the chosen one. The Greek Freak emerging as a monster on both sides of the ball was an accident. Since then, Milwaukee’s draft strategy has been dubious at best. Their trend of selecting lanky non-shooters like Antetokounmpo has shown a commitment to defense, but not much else. The most notable additions to their core have been Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton who have shown strides in development while maintaining defensive prowess. As the most productive draftees, they’ve been steady contributors, improving every year even though a majority of the time it appears to be Giannis Antetokounmpo and The Pips.
Anyone who has paid attention since Antetokounmpo’s sophomore season will tell you that shooting has been his Achilles’ heel since the jump. Specifically, their three-point shooting has been very weak across the board. Over the course of the past three seasons, they’ve only had two starters shoot at a 40 percent clip: Khris Middleton in 2015 and Tony Snell over the past two.
While the shooting struggles remain persistent, the front office acknowledged that Catholic school basketball (all defense, no shooting) wasn’t a winning strategy in this new era, due to a wake-up call on the heels of Jason Kidd’s first season as head coach. In late 2015, the Bucks traded their best three-point shooter, Brandon Knight, for Michael Carter-Williams, Tyler Ennis, and a lesser Plumlee. That season, the team’s record was 33–49—way below expectations. They ranked 26th in Offensive Rating and 25th in points per game. Jokes about Space Jam arm-having losers flew across the internet.
Subsequently, they flipped Carter-Williams in 2016 for Snell, their most consistent three-point shooter to date. A new offensive-focused strategy appears to be paying off for the Bucks—the following two seasons they ranked 19th in Defensive Rating but have nominally increased their ORtg ranking, ending at ninth this past season (per Basketball-Reference). Despite their defensive struggles, Milwaukee managed to clinch the playoffs, and even gave the Boston Celtics a run for their money in a nervous seven-game series.
The Bucks’ front office simply realized building a team around defenders is a good strategy if you plan on middling, but offensively-gifted players make a team successful (and so do Greek Freaks). They went so far as to sign current Knick Michael Beasley and the ghost of Jason Terry. Those probably weren’t the best moves, but it shows a change in philosophy. John Hammond and company saw the fall of the Grizzlies in real time and refused to meet the same fate. The Knicks should do them one better and avoid over-prioritizing defense altogether. Thursday’s draft could be the day they decide to walk in the footsteps of Milwaukee and Memphis.
They don’t need an elite defender in the draft
It’s in the team’s best interest to consider the offensive ceiling just as much as the defensive ceiling when selecting their first-round draftee tomorrow. Mikal Bridges’ name popping up with the Knicks isn’t too alarming. Ever since the emergence of Draymond Green, NBA enthusiasts have been clamoring for more long-armed pseudo-forwards. However, Collin Sexton, the undersized two-way guard, has been popping up in recent mock drafts, which raises some concern. Both players have high defensive ceilings but very little to fall back on offensively. Particularly, in Sexton’s case.
Besides, the Knicks already have two players in the tentative starting lineup who are projected to be elite defenders—namely, Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina. Ntilikina, who is now 6-6, could develop into the player that Bridges is projected to be. With a giant wingspan and verifiable defensive acumen, Frank fits the mold, at least, once he spends enough time in the gym. If the line of thinking is that switching Porzingis off of a quicker, perimeter shooter for Mikal, well then that particular defensive set has a variety of flaws. Typically, he’d be switched onto a wing, which might actually be worse if his man manages to get the ball or have an off-ball screen set for him. The alternative, which is Porzingis switching on to a five-man, isn’t much better, because if you think Porzingis needs work as a perimeter defender, I can assure you Enes Kanter is far worse. Going forward, Ntilikina and Porzingis will be the Knicks’ defensive anchors. They’re the Marc Gasol and Mike Conley of the team, but the comparison between Ntilikina and Conley stops on the defensive side of the ball, which further suggests the Knicks are in desperate need of a secondary scorer. Neither Sexton nor Bridges look like they could be that guy.
“Drafting Mikal Bridges is a bad idea” might be a burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth level hot take, but his potential as an elite defender serving as the make-or-break point is concerning, as the Knicks are in dire need of far more than a catch-and-shoot defense specialist. Choosing two-way players with potential to dominate on both sides of the floor sounds like the obvious, level-headed choice for a team in the infancy stage of a rebuild.
A Game About Buckets
Today’s NBA is consistently compared to the NBA of the ’90s. Whether it’s calling today’s players soft or complaining that every Euro step or step back is a travel, the notion is essentially irrelevant. The fact is, everyone has gotten better at shooting. For the past four seasons, the league average field goal percentage and three-point percentage has increased. It’s also probably not a coincidence that in the same span of time, the Warriors have terrorized the league (although, they did rank 17th in three-pointers attempted this past season, per NBA Stats. This isn’t an argument that Golden State has made the NBA better, but the NBA has simply improved offensively during the duration of the champs’ reign.
The star power in the NBA is also overwhelming. Every year there’s an All-Star stub, and every year Damian Lillard manages to cry about it. In a league where 25 points and six assists per game doesn’t guarantee an All-Star nod, offenses can’t be considered anything but deadly. With two stars on every team worthy of a second look, at least one of them will get buckets on any given night. Speaking of the Portland Trail Blazers, the sweep by the New Orleans Pelicans was, in part, due to the stifling defense in the backcourt by Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo. However, Pelicans’ superstar Anthony Davis still managed to average 33 points, and Holiday 27.8, too, before getting smacked by the Warriors in five games. Ntlikina and Sexton simply wouldn’t have nearly that kind of offensive impact for New York. Defense might win championships, but first you have to make it out of the second round.
A takeaway from all this? The Knicks could be entering dangerous territory over the next couple drafts, the team’s primary source for its rebuild. New York has a strong defensive specialist in Ntilikina and a special two-way player in Porzingis. Taking a page from the Grizzlies of old and the early Bucks is fine, but the front office could be subscribing to a dangerous team philosophy that could end up working against them rather quickly, especially in this new sharpshooting league. The Knicks need to prioritize scoring as much as defense. Drafting players like Ntilikina, where shooting is a singular problem becomes a team issue when it’s repeatedly overlooked by top brass. Eventually, it compounds and becomes an obvious weakness. Over the last twenty years, the Knicks have dug their own graves multiple times in a myriad of ways. If they’re not careful, the Porzingis era will just be another tale of when the Knicks refused to practice moderation.