Despite shortcomings on offense, defense has held the Knicks to their best start in years. It stems from Tom Thibodeau and better effort.
Through the first 21 games of the season, the New York Knicks’ team defense has propelled them to their best start since the 2017–18 season. The sample size of games is no longer small enough to ignore the fact that the Knicks are among the most efficient defenses in the NBA. They are first in opponent points per game, seventh in Defensive Rating, and they allow the fifth-fewest points in the paint. The team’s defensive success is coming although they are not in the top 10 in steals or blocks and are forcing the second-fewest turnovers per game in the league.
How does a team that does not force turnovers succeed in the NBA? Solid schematic choices and stable execution are good places to start. Though head coach Tom Thibodeau is known for revolutionizing NBA defense in the late 2000s, his scheme with the Knicks has been relatively straightforward. It allows the Knicks’ younger, inexperienced players to contribute while playing to the strengths of the Knicks’ more athletic players. The goal of Thibodeau’s scheme is not complex: protect the paint at the expense of allowing teams to attempt more threes against them. Only 33.3% of opponent field goal attempts come within six feet of the hoop, while 44.4% of opponent field goal attempts are threes—the fourth-highest mark in the league.
The keys to this scheme have been the Knicks’ ability to succeed at protecting the paint while forcing opponents into less than ideal attempts away from the rim. Opponents are currently shooting a league-worst 43.1% on field goals and a league-worst 32.0% on threes against the Knicks. Teams average only 22.3 assists against the Knicks, good for second worst in the league.
The two things that are driving the Knicks’ defensive success are solid rotations powered by a simple but effective pick-and-roll defense scheme, and a defensive effort that has not been seen from New York in many years.
The Knicks employ a “Shallow Drop” coverage against the pick-and-roll. The central premise of this coverage, which is also known as “Zone Up” coverage, is that the big man guarding the screener will prevent the ball handler from getting an open look at the rim by not following the screener all the way out to the three-point line. This means the guard covering the ball handler will try to go over the screen, particularly if the ball handler is a good shooter, to prevent him from attempting an open three. One weak-side defender will usually drop to the rim while the other assumes responsibility for both weak-side shooters. By using this scheme, Thibs is inviting opposing teams to beat them with mid-range jump shots, pick-and-pop threes for opposing big men, or opposing bigs making plays in the short roll.
Watch in the following play how Mitchell Robinson can stand his ground, blocking the ball handler from getting to the rim. Simultaneously, Julius Randle cheats off his man to further seal off the paint, and R.J. Barrett can easily read the weak-side shooters so that no one can access the paint and he can still contest a weak-side three:
While Robinson has been the star of the Knicks’ defense so far, Thibodeau’s effect can be seen in the way that the rest of the team is becoming more comfortable with one another. Effective team defense is not common for young players, but Robinson, Barrett, and Randle are all showing more savvy this year on that end of the ball. Note how Barrett and Randle are getting comfortable working in tandem on their weak-side defense:
Part of the art of NBA defense is tailoring your scheme based on opposing personnel. Against the Warriors, the Knicks concluded that a deeper drop can be used against Brad Wanamaker. Because of Wanamaker’s limited off-the-bounce chops, there is no need for the screener’s defender to come out far at all. Instead, Burks is free to fight over the screen knowing that Wanamaker will not be able to get to the rim:
While there is not tremendous variance on the surface between each of these plays, the minute differences are what makes an offense work harder for their shots. Another example of schematic tweaking came against the Celtics, specifically against Kemba Walker. Knowing that Walker is effective creating off the dribble, Randle can give more of a hedge until he can read whether Elfrid Payton is going to get over the screen or not:
While scheme makes the defense’s life easier (and the opposing offense’s life harder), it will only take you so far if a team is not working hard on the defensive end. Further credit can be given to Thibodeau for instilling a mentality in players that each game counts and each game is winnable. For the first time in many years, each game feels like it has stakes. The most prominent examples of this mentality come on the defensive end.
The Knicks’ success at stopping various play types despite not rostering elite defenders at any position is evidence of the improved effort on defense. The Knicks allow the seventh-fewest points per possession when defending isolations. They allow the second-lowest effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) on spot-up plays. They are allowing the fourth-lowest eFG% when an opponent attempts a field goal of a screen.
While the numbers are encouraging, the effort on the defensive end is more of an eye test thing. This year, the Knicks are feeding off each other’s energy. Robinson’s leaping blocks on the perimeter and rejections at the rim have energized teammates since he came into the league, but this year the team has other defensive catalysts. Perhaps the most infectious defender on the Knicks this year has been Barrett, who has not shied away from challenging matchups and works his tail off on rotations and help defense:
Note how he can essentially defend two players at once, using his length and athleticism. He has made a habit of running the right shooters off the line and loves to contest opponent threes. In the clip above, Barrett knows Damion Lee is a limited attacker and would rather Lee take a contested three or try to make a play off of the bounce than give up an open three.
This is not an isolated incident. Barrett has made a habit of providing good help in the paint while still flying out to contest opposing shooters. The desire to run from in the paint all the way to the three-point line cannot be instilled in players who only know low-stakes games. Even in a blowout win against the Celtics, Barrett left it all on the floor:
Barrett’s most important impact has not been from contesting threes, but the effect that it has had on his teammates. Payton, the Knicks guard who has been ceaselessly derided for lack of effort, has even shown great spurts of energy on defense, the likes of which would never have been seen last year. Plays like these underscore the team’s newfound energy on defense and overall mentality towards winning games:
While the Knicks still need to compete more effectively on offense to truly solidify themselves in contention for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, the strides they have shown on defense this year cement a foundation for the organization moving forward. If New York continues to establish itself as a defensive stalwart through tactful schematics and infectious effort, the organization will gain the respect around the league it has been missing for the past few years.