By John Schmeelk
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There’s no question that the Knicks’ defense has been poor this year. It needs to get better if they want to be considered anything close to a contender. But here’s a fact that most people would find hard to believe: The Knicks’ defense this season has been better than it was last season. It’s admittedly close, but this year the Knicks are allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions, while last year they were at 103.5. Take into consideration, however, that teams have far more easy transition layups off of Knicks turnovers this year as compared to last season, which skews the numbers a little bit.
The Knicks’ field-goal percentage defense is 1 percent better (43 percent vs. 44.8 percent) and they are allowing one fewer three-pointer per game (seven vs. eight). Teams are getting to the line far more this year, but the bottom line remains that the defense has actually been slightly better. Here’s the rub: Last year a far superior offense washed away many of these defensive mistakes. An offense that was ranked third in basketball last year (108.6 offensive rating) has dropped all the way to 25th (97.9). The offense has been a horror show.
So what’s been the problem? Bad shooting. Carmelo Anthony is only shooting 41 percent (down from 45 percent) and averaging five points per game fewer at 23.3 ppg. Raymond Felton is shooting only 37.5 percent, which is down from 42 percent last year. J.R. Smith has only played one game and shot very poorly. The team as a whole is making three fewer three-pointers per game — 5 percent worse from last year — and making four fewer free throws per game. They are also turning it over three more times per game. All of this gets put together and turns into one of the worst offenses in the NBA.
Some of this is simply guys shooting poorly, and it starts with Anthony. His shot selection has been poor, he is struggling to finish around the basket and he is taking way too many contested shots. Shooting just 41 percent from the field and 32 percent from the behind the arc, Anthony’s inability to work on his game in the offseason because of his shoulder is showing on a nightly basis. Things like floor spacing can come into play here, but the bottom line remains that Anthony must shoot better and make better decisions if the Knicks want to win basketball games.
Felton, who had to be the Knicks’ second option while Smith was out, has struggled with his shot as well, shooting under 38 percent from the field and just 24 percent from three. Felton, unlike Anthony, is taking open shots, but they just aren’t falling. A couple more makes late by Felton and the Knicks would have at least one more victory. Smith needs to get going, too. Despite his inconsistent and erratic play, the Knicks desperately need his shooting to spread the floor and his ability to create his own shot and get to the rim. The Smith that played in April last year before the playoffs started would be quite welcome.
After a hot start, Tim Hardaway, Jr. has gone cold from three-point land, and considering his inconsistent shooting in college there has to be some level of concern there. Andrea Bargnani has been fine, shooting the ball at 47 percent — 35 percent from three — but he isn’t getting to the line nearly as much as he has the past few years in Toronto. The Knicks need to continue to go to him in the pick-and-pop, and Anthony has to be willing to get him the ball when defenses collapse on him. Once teams begin to run out on him he can use that pump fake and get to the free-throw line. Ron Artest and Iman Shumpert have been good enough with their shooting to keep opposing teams honest.
Despite a below-average defense last year, the Knicks were a 54-win team because of their offense. This year there has been an astronomical drop-off at that end of the floor. I’m not willing to say that the addition of Bargnani and absence of Steve Novak and Jason Kidd has ruined what was a top-three offense last year. There’s no reason this group of players can’t have similar success. The players have to shoot better, first and foremost. But once that happens, the coach also has to mold the offense around his players.
Wouldn’t Bargnani be better utilized if he was on the floor when Anthony wasn’t so he could be used in the high screen-and-roll more? Bargnani is a liability on defense and must be used as an offensive commodity when he is on the floor. Mike Woodson looks as though he didn’t have more than a month with this group in training camp and preseason. He still has no idea how to use these guys and get them to play well together. The ball movement has either been nonexistent or turnover prone. Until that changes, and the Knicks’ best players start to shoot better, there’s going to continue to be rough basketball at Madison Square Garden.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything on the Knicks, Giants and New York sports.
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