By John Schmeelk
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All of the credit for the Knicks success during this season’s final weeks has been given to Mike Woodson and Carmelo Anthony. It’s hard to argue with the way the coach has brought the team together and has them playing harder than they ever did under Mike D’Antoni. He connected with his superstar and helped Carmelo Anthony play like a top three player in the NBA. It’s not hard to argue that Anthony has been the best player in the league the last month. His game has truly become complete, with his new found dedication playing defense, rebounding, and passing the ball.
But in truth, the only reason the Knicks are in the playoffs is their defense. The Knicks are only the 19th best team in the league offensively, according to points per 100 possessions. Defensively, the Knicks are the 5th best team in the league, allowing only 98.6 points per 100 possessions. Mike Woodson deserves credit for installing that mentality, but there are two players that have been playing great defense even before the coaching change: Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert.
We’ll start with Tyson Chandler, who is really the MVP of the Knicks team. People raised their eyebrows when the Knicks cut their only experienced point guard in Chauncey Billups to sign Tyson Chandler. But even discounting Billups season energy injury, the move was a no-brainer. Besides being a great team spokesmen and leader, Chandler is the anchor of everything the Knicks do defensively. He communicates, helps, and has learned not to foul. Foul trouble and injuries both plagued him in his early NBA years but he has conquered both this year for the Knicks.
His dedication to not only to defense but to winning at any cost is clearly infectious. Having won a title with the Mavericks last year, his teammates listen to him. Even Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, two guys with bigger names and contracts, have been affected by his presence. That’s what a leader does. Chandler has brought the toughness and grittiness to the Knicks that has been lacking since Patrick Ewing.
As an added bonus, Chandler has become the best finisher in the NBA, with an insane shooting percentage of 68%. He replaced Amar’e Stoudemire as the Knicks primary pick and roll option and the team did not miss a beat. In a fairer world, he would be the Captain of the team and the face of the franchise. He is the embodiment of all the small things the Knicks do better that helped them get into the playoffs. The Knicks turnaround defensively started with him.
He has also had a great impact on the younger guys. Iman Shumpert was known as a great defender coming out of college, but he has said how Chandler helped him understand how important defense is at the NBA level. In just his rookie season Shumpert is already one of the premier perimeter defenders in the league. Against the Heat last week, he stole the ball from Dwyane Wade twice behind the three point line. He just picked the pocket of one of the best players in the world. As Shumpert went in for the layup you could just see the look on Wade’s face as he thought: “Who does this kid think he is.”
Iman Shumpert is the honey badger, a moniker that has gained momentum on twitter in recent weeks, based on a viral video that has been all over the internet. Just search for it. He just doesn’t care who he is guarding. There’s no intimidation. He plays 100 miles per hour every play and just tries harder than everyone else. Put on top of that the best pair of hands on defense I’ve ever seen in a Knicks uniform, and he deserves consideration for a place on one of the NBA’s all defensive teams. He should get all-rookie consideration as well. But he’s not the only one.
On the New York Times “Off the Dribble Blog” last week, Jamie O’Grady made the case that Tyson Chandler should receive serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year, and I couldn’t agree more. The turnaround he helped orchestrate to turn the Knicks into a top defensive team has been startling. He has changed the culture of a franchise. He might not win since the Knicks aren’t on top of the standings. But they are near the top of important defensive stats, and they are only there because of Tyson Chandler. Isn’t that what being Defensive Player of the Year is all about?
– With the second game of a back to back, the Knicks should rest all their major starters tonight against the Bobcats. If the team loses and they happen to play the Bulls instead of the Heat in the first round, all the better. With Derrick Rose and his injuries, the Bulls are the safer bet for the Knicks to advance to the second round of the playoffs. It looks like whomever the Knicks play, the game will be on Saturday. I can’t wait and it will be a lot of fun.
You can follow Schmeelk on Twitter for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports @Schmeelk.