By John Schmeelk
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I sat for hours on Thursday talking to other Knicks writers on Twitter, going through every basic and advanced stat I could find in an attempt to pin down what the Knicks need to do to fix their team.
If there’s one defining factor that needs to change for them to turn their season around, what is it? Different people have different issues that they think are extremely important.
Some are obsessed with the starting lineup. Some want to go after the coach and others the superstar. Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal wants Mike Woodson to make a lot of adjustments to his offense, and he makes a persuasive case for it. Some think Jason Kidd needs to play young again. Others point to Iman Shumpert not being the same. The list goes on and on.
But here’s the thing: The Knicks’ offense is fine, and has been fine even during this rough stretch. In the last 28 games, when the Knicks went 14-14, they were still the seventh-best offense in the NBA. The Knicks were the second-best offense in the league during their 18-5 start. The only difference is that the Knicks made two more threes per game in those first 23 games and shot 41 percent from behind the arc, compared to 35 percent in the last 28.
Those two threes per game are literally the only difference, spare a couple more turnovers per game over the last .500 stretch. Even the points-scored-per-game differential stands at about six. The Knicks were never going to average 41 percent on their three-point shots, and that regression was expected. Even having the seventh-best offense in the league, however, is good enough for the Knicks to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and take their chances against the Heat.
Defense is another story. As Glen Grunwald said to the media on Thursday, since the first day of the regular season the Knicks were an inferior defensive team to what they were last year. It doesn’t make much sense, since the Knicks have better defensive players this season than they did last year at important positions like point guard. Baron Davis and Mike Bibby were Woodson’s two point guards after he took over last season and the Knicks were an excellent defensive team. Ray Felton isn’t very good, but he’s better than either of those two guys, right? Is Woodson teaching it a different way? I doubt it. So what’s the problem?
The symptoms are obvious. The Knicks have been the 20th-best defensive team in the NBA in each of the last three months. It’s enough evidence to show that November (they ranked 10th) was an aberration. The troubles can be traced to two very specific scenarios: pick-and-roll and isolation defense. The Knicks are the sixth-worst defensive team in the league against the pick-and-roll and the eighth worst against isolation. Those are the two most common plays run against the Knicks. Most people will lay all the blame at the feet of the guards, but the problem is not that simple. Help defense and rotations, especially on pick-and-rolls, are the key to slowing those plays down. As bad as the guards have been at staying in front of their men, the help defenders have been just as bad. Even Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler has been lacking in many of those areas.
Some of that comes down to scheme. At times it seems like the players don’t know whether to switch or try to fight over the screen on a given play. The fact that there is still confusion this late in the season puts part of the blame at the feet of the coach. But again, the pick-and-roll defense last year after Woodson took over was excellent with inferior point-guard defenders. (Yes, I realize Shumpert often times guarded the opposing point guards, but Davis and Bibby were still out there and being targeted by opposing offenses.)
So is it really the coach?
Part of it, maybe, but most of the blame has to fall on the players. When Woodson took over for Mike D’Antoni last year he made the team uncomfortable. Woodson himself said he thought the team might be scared of him. It carried over to the first two weeks of the season this year. It’s the type of bump you normally get with a new coach, and it’s pretty obvious that the team isn’t uncomfortable anymore. Defensive scheme is important, but not as important as effort. The Knicks are simply not trying as hard as they did at the end of last season and the first two weeks of this year. It shouldn’t take a new coach or some fancy motivational tool to get a team to try hard defensively, but apparently that’s what this Knicks team needs. Woodson is going to have to get creative and use some extreme tactics like outright benching if this team doesn’t start playing better on defense.
The only way the Knicks reassert themselves as contenders is if they commit to defense and improve substantially in that area. The Knicks need to be a top 10 defensive team if they want to be considered a legit contender. It’s the one thing that needs to happen if the Knicks want to start winning consistently again. It’s that simple. Woodson needs to reach his team or the players need to make a commitment on their own. It isn’t asking too much. They all need to back up their championship talk. Someone needs to take the reins and lead. The team needs to understand the extra work and effort required of a team to win a championship.
In the end, the starting lineup is superfluous. So is what position Carmelo Anthony plays. So is the Ronnie Brewer trade. Kenyon Martin won’t be the key to a championship. It’s a fun debate and one we’ll have in this space over the next couple of weeks. But none of it will matter if this team doesn’t play defense. Everything else will take care of itself if the Knicks start to guard people. It’s all that matters. It’s everything.
– I like the Brewer swap for Martin. It was obvious that Brewer had fallen out of favor and had even dropped behind James White in the Knicks’ rotation. They traded him to free up space for Martin, who could see upwards of 20 minutes a night if Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby never get healthy. Martin could be a good pairing with Amar’e Stoudemire with the second unit to sure up some of the defensive lapses we’ve been seeing from them lately. The best news is that it is only a 10-day contract, and the Knicks will get to decide whether or not he can really help the team before committing to him for the rest of the season. A wise move by Grunwald.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and New York sports.
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