By John Schmeelk
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New York’s issues all came bubbling to the surface for one game, showing how the flaws in its stars too often outweigh what they do well.
Derrick Rose’s scoring numbers are even better. He shot an impressive 11-of-16, scoring 25 points. That’s about as efficient as you can get. He even hit a couple of really big shots at the end of the game trying to bring the Knicks home. Those two guys carried the offense.
Do you know what else those two had in common? They had the two worst plus/minus ratings on the team Wednesday night. When Anthony was on the floor, the Knicks were outscored by 13 points. When Rose was on the floor, the Knicks were outscored by 21 points. When they played together, they were outscored by 21 points. That’s the crux of the Knicks’ problem right there. (In fairness to Rose, he played nearly all his minutes with Anthony, while Anthony had about five minutes on the court without Rose.)
The Knicks’ two best players offensively do not help them elsewhere. It doesn’t happen every game, but far too often the issues Rose and Anthony have on defense completely neutralize or overwhelm whatever it is they do well offensively. When they played together against the Sixers, the Knicks’ defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 118.6. That’s more than 20 points worse than what the team did over the course of the entire game.
When Anthony was off the court, the team had a defensive rating of 54.2. When Rose was off the court, it was 56.5. Obviously, it’s a small sample size with a radical result, but it is symptomatic of a larger issue.
Anthony has the worst defensive rating on the team, with the Knicks giving up 110.4 points per possession when he’s in the game. The team is outscored by more than two points per game when he is on the court. The team’s defensive rating improves by nearly seven points when he’s on the bench. The team’s overall performance is virtually identical whether he is on the court or not. (The team’s offense drops just as much when he hits the bench.)
Rose’s defensive impact hasn’t been quite as negative, with the Knicks’ defensive rating dropping by three when he’s on the bench. The team’s offense craters when Rose doesn’t play, dropping by nearly eight points per 100 possessions. The team has been demonstrably better when he plays, partly due to the fact Brandon Jennings has played poorly on both ends of the floor recently. His defense has been just as bad, if not worse than Rose’s.
Obviously, bad team defense can’t be put on the shoulders of two players. That’s not fair to them, and it lets others off the hook, like Joakim Noah, who has been far from the defensive cornerstone he was supposed to be. It is important, however, for a team’s best players to set the tone defensively for the rest of the players to follow. No one on the Knicks does that.
George Karl was out of line with a lot of things he said in his book. One thing he was not out of line about was what he wrote about Anthony’s defense from their time together with the Denver Nuggets: “He really lit my fuse with his low demand of himself on defense. He had no commitment to the hard, dirty work of stopping the other guy. My ideal — probably every coach’s ideal — is when your best player is also your leader. But since Carmelo only played hard on one side of the ball, he made it plain he couldn’t lead the Nuggets, even though he said he wanted to. Coaching him meant working around his defense.”
Every single word of that is true today for the Knicks. Anthony can’t give a fiery speech to the Knicks about playing harder and more consistently on defense because he doesn’t do so himself. Even on the final play of the game Wednesday night, he failed to get his hand up when T.J. McConnell tried to drive on him before shooting a turnaround, fadeaway jumper at the buzzer to give Philadelphia the 98-97 win. Despite the fact that he had a body on McConnell moments before the shot, he didn’t even try to contest the jumper. Kristaps Porzingis, coming over to help, made a much more spirited attempt.
If either Anthony or Rose was a very strong defensive player, the team might be able to overcome the deficiencies of the other. But with both struggling at that end, it’s impossible for the Knicks’ starting unit to be anything but poor defensively. You can’t hide two players, especially when one is the starting point guard who is put into so many pick-and-roll situations.
The Knicks are in a dire situation now, and it’s time for coach Jeff Hornacek to make some drastic moves with his rotation. Maybe Anthony and Rose can’t play together as much. Given Jennings’ struggles defensively, Anthony wouldn’t do much better with him in the lineup, so perhaps it would be wise to pair them together when the opponent has its bench personnel on the court. Anthony can still play at the end of games, but it would avoid the defensive issues to start games and halves against the opponent’s best players.
Right now, Hornacek tries to pair Porzingis with the Knicks bench after subbing him out early in halves. Perhaps that should be Anthony’s role instead, and let Porzingis play more with Rose in high pick-and-roll situations. They’ve taken Porzingis out of those situations far too much recently, instead having him post up more.
Nothing will change for the Knicks until their defense improves. The defense won’t improve until their two best players do better on that end of the court. The chances of that happening, unfortunately for the Knicks, are slim to none.
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