By John Schmeelk
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As last season moved along, it was obvious to everyone involved that the Knicks would have to improve their defense to take that next step as a basketball team.
The offseason acquisition of Metta World Peace and re-signing of Kenyon Martin certainly helped in that regard, but the trade for Andrea Bargnani seemed to do the exact opposite. A potentially healthier Amar’e Stoudemire playing more games would also do anything but improve the team’s play in its own end.
It’s been obvious this preseason that when Tyson Chandler isn’t on the floor the Knicks can’t defend. With Bargnani at center the defense is about as sturdy as a house of cards. Just imagine what will happen when Stoudemire starts getting minutes. It’s becoming painfully obvious that either Martin or Chandler is going to have to be on the floor at all times for the Knicks to be even respectable defensively.
So what purposes do Stoudemire and Bargnani serve? The Knicks’ offense was already fantastic last year, averaging 108.6 points per 100 possessions (offensive rating), third best in the NBA. Can the offense really get better? Overall, maybe not, but it can get better against some of the teams the Knicks had the most trouble against. Those teams also happen to be some of the best defensive teams in the NBA and are in the same conference.
Both the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls gave the Knicks fits last year, the latter sweeping them in the regular season and the former knocking them out of the playoffs. Defense was an issue against both teams, but so was the Knicks’ usually vibrant offense.
Against the Pacers in the regular season, the Knicks’ offensive rating dropped to 91.8. That number is far below the Pacers’ regular season defensive rating average of 96.6. The Knicks’ number jumped to 100.4 in the playoffs, but it was still below what the Pacers averaged against their other playoff opponents and way below the Knicks’ season average.
Meanwhile, the Knicks’ offensive rating against the Bulls in the regular season was 100.2, way below the Knicks’ season average and even lower than what the Bulls averaged against all opponents in the regular season (101.3).
The question is why? The Bulls and Pacers have something in common: they allowed the fewest 3-point attempts and makes in the league last year. The Knicks, meanwhile, averaged more attempts and makes than any other team in basketball. In other words, what the Knicks used most to score points is what the Bulls and Pacers were best at stopping. Both the Bulls and Pacers defended the 3 extremely well and also protected the rim with their tall front lines. The Knicks had no answers.
Those teams, like most good defensive teams, force teams to shoot from mid-range. According to hoopdata.com, the Pacers allowed more shots than any other team from 10-23 feet away from the basket. The Bulls forced the third most shots from that area. It’s the lowest percentage place an offense can shoot from, and an area the Knicks particularly struggled from last year. Their combined 21.2 shots per game from 10-23 feet was in the bottom third of the league, and their percentage from those spots (39.6) was right near the middle. Here’s the real kicker: the Knicks have had fewer of those makes assisted than any other team in the league (40.7).
Why? Carmelo Anthony isolations. Of the Knicks’ 8.4 makes per game from mid-range last season, Anthony accounted for 3.5 of them, or more than 40 percent. He has an even lower assist percentage on his makes than the team. This points to his wing and mid-post isolation game, which also serves to slow down and stagnate the Knicks’ offense. The Pacers and Bulls simply man Carmelo up with good wing defenders, and if he drives they have their superior rim protectors waiting for him (Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, etc.). It leads to low shooting percentages and bad offense. It’s inefficiency at its best.
This is where Stoudemire and Bargnani can help. Before his last two injury plagued seasons Stoudemire was one of the best mid-range shooters in the game, routinely shooting well above 40 percent from 16-23 feet. Bargnani has shot 43 percent from 10-23 over the last four seasons. Both players also had a fairly high assist rate from those zones, around 60 percent with everything combined. It points to the pick and roll, and the wide open mid-range jumpers that often result when opponents’ big men leave them to guard the man with the ball going towards the basket.
In the playoffs last year the Knicks’ offense became very stale, predictable and easy to defend with the constant isolations that played into the Pacers’ hands. With Stoudemire and Bargnani (or at least one of them) healthy, it will give the team a legitimate offensive method to attack both the Pacers and Bulls. It will also give them another way to move the ball and not get over-reliant on isolations.
The Knicks were great at the pick and roll last year with Chandler and Martin their only options, and both guys dove to the basket 95 percent of the time. Now they can pick and pop. It’s up to coach Mike Woodson to utilize it and implement it. It’s what the Bulls and Pacers force you to do, and the Knicks can now be very proficient at it.
Now will this make up for both guys defensive deficiencies? Probably not. But it will help the offense against better teams and keep the ball moving. Will the Knicks still rely heavily on the 3-pointer? Yes, and they should against the teams that don’t defend it well. But now against the teams that do they have a better option. We haven’t seen it much in the preseason but a lot of that has to do with Raymond Felton’s absence. Friday is the dress rehearsal and it’s time for Woodson to utilize his new weapons properly.
* If Chris Smith makes this Knicks there needs to be an investigation. This is a basketball team, not some strange form of basketball nepotism. Toure Murry and Ike Diogu have done enough to win spots on the roster. It shouldn’t be taken away from them because JR Smith’s brother happens to play basketball (but not very well).
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