By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks are 18-6 and have the best record in the Eastern Conference, including three wins in four games against the Heat and Nets. They’ve played more road games than home games and have lost only one game at Madison Square Garden.
They’ve done all of it without Amar’e Stoudemire, Iman Shumpert or Marcus Camby. Even Carmelo Anthony, Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace have missed time with injuries.
It couldn’t be any better, could it?
Yes, it could.
A ridiculously potent offense is masking a serious deterioration on the defensive side of the ball. And it will eventually cost the Knicks in the playoffs if they don’t get it corrected. The best statistic to look at would be defensive efficiency. It very simply tallies how many points a team would give up in 100 possessions, therefore accounting for field goal percentage defense, how often a team fouls and the pace at which they play.
First, let’s start with this season’s numbers. Overall, the Knicks sit at a decent 17th in the league, allowing 102.7 points per possession. Considering they have the second-best offense, behind only the Thunder, they’re still winning games. When you take a deeper look, however, a trend becomes pretty clear.
Since November 21 (15 games), the Knicks are allowing 106.4 points per 100 possessions. That ranks 26th in the league. In their last five games, they are third-worst in the league, allowing 110.2 points per possession.
Things are getting much, much worse — not better.
Here’s an even more telling number: last year under Mike D’Antoni, the coach everyone decried for not coaching defense, the Knicks allowed 99 points per 100 possessions. At the time, it was 10th best in the league, far superior to anything Mike Woodson’s Knicks have been putting up this season. Just remember, D’Antoni was the guy everyone said couldn’t lead the Knicks to anything significant because he didn’t coach defense. Under Woodson last year, the Knicks were the fourth-best defensive team in basketball, dropping to 97.4 points per 100 possessions. The drop-off this year has been substantial and disturbing.
The common perception is that Woodson been successful with this group because he has made them tougher, held them accountable, and focused on defense. The facts don’t support that narrative one bit. They are worse defensively this season — and it isn’t close. Roster makeup can’t be blamed either since this year’s team has better individual defenders.
The Knicks had no one to defend against opposing point guards last year, but this season they have Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd (though his ability to defend quick PGs isn’t there anymore). Ronnie Brewer is a defensive specialist on the wing. Tyson Chandler is back as Defensive Player of the Year. Stoudemire, one of the worst defenders in the league, has not been on the floor. A number of defensive-oriented big men were added this offseason, like Kurt Thomas, Wallace and Camby. Granted, Shumpert has been out, but that’s no excuse.
The high number of three-pointers on offense can be blamed for some of the backslide, since long rebounds often result in transition opportunities. But that should mitigated by the lack of turnovers on offense, which often lead to easy baskets. The truth of the matter is the Knicks have become comfortable trying to outscore their opponents. Anthony, and to a lesser extent J.R. Smith, have both regressed on that side of the ball. Anthony can guard his man one-on-one but his help-defense and defense on screens is putrid.
The same way Anthony and Smith were given credit for focusing on defense last year and transforming their game, they deserve blame for losing that focus and backsliding significantly.
Woodson, however, deserves the bulk of the blame. He has not been able to keep his team’s defensive intensity — and attention to detail — at a successful level. The Knicks switch way too much and put themselves in bad mismatches all over the floor. It leads to double teams that are sloppy undisciplined, and unnecessary. Opponents are getting to the hoop way too easily.
Can you imagine how bad it’s going to be when Stoudemire returns?
If the Knicks really want to challenge for an NBA title, they’ll need to get back to playing defense, like during first week of the season and the final month of last year. If they don’t, their three-pointers will stop falling and they could have a very, very disappointing second-half of the season and playoff run.
Right now they aren’t going to win anything playing — or not playing — this brand of ‘D.’
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.