In spite of having the NBA's oldest team, the New York Knicks have the best offense in the NBA as measured by efficiency. How would Tom Thibodeau, the NBA's best defensive mind, go about stopping them?
First, it's time to give Knicks the credit they're due. We have officially entered "Sign of the Apocalypse" territory when the New York Knicks are underrated but they are. They have achieved their lofty 5-0 record by combining the league's most efficient offense with the league's most efficient defense.
The Knicks are for real. Stopping them is no easy trick.
In order to lay out the blueprint, the first thing to do is look at how the Knicks are achieving their great success, and it's not hard to find the answer at all. They combine great three-point shooting with one great offensive player.
The Knicks are simply lights-out from three. They're shooing an outrageous .426 from deep on the season and making 12 long-range shots per game.
That would make them the best three-point shooting team in the history of the league if they maintain the pace. They attempt three-pointers on 34.1 percent of their field goal attempts. That's the heart of their offense.
While that might be the heart, the guts are with Carmelo Anthony, who is currently the NBA's leading scorer. While Anthony can make the three, what he does more is attract defensive attention inside the arc and is their main scorer there.
In fact, the Knicks have only made 22 conventional field goals without Anthony on the court this season. They average 105.9 points per 48 minutes when Anthony is on the court, compared to 95.1 when he is on the bench. The Knicks also average 5.1 more points per 100 possessions while he's on the court.
Anthony might not be the most efficient scorer on the Knicks, but he makes the Knicks a more efficient team because, as one of the league's best pure scorers (if not the best), he demands attention.
So in order to stop the Knicks, two things are imperative: stop the three-point shot and stop Carmelo Anthony, neither of which is an easy task.
Only the first part Thibodeau's defense is well-equipped to handle the three-point shot. Since he's taken over as the head coach of the Bulls, Chicago has given up a league-low .326 three-point average to opponents, which was the sixth-lowest given up by opponents of the Knicks last year, and lowest by any team who played them at least three times.
The Bulls, however, weren't so successful against Carmelo Anthony, who averaged 29.8 points against the Bulls last season, which, over four games, made him the second-most damaging opponent the Bulls faced.
When Anthony was on the court against the Bulls, New York had an offensive rating 102.1. When he was on the bench, it averaged 77.1. That's a difference of a neat 25.0 points per 100 possessions.
Of course, nothing Anthony did was more damaging than this.
So how can the Bulls, firstly, continue to stop the three, and secondly, start stopping Carmelo Anthony?
To the first question, the Bulls are well-equipped to keep stopping the Knicks from mutilating them with the three the way they have their previous opponents. It goes to the core of Thibodeau's defensive premise, which is to use rotations to seal off the perimeter and then challenge jump shots.
The Knicks are extremely alert when it comes to their threes. The key to their success is that they hit a lot of wide-open shots behind the arc, and they're able to do that because they're looking for it. If you lay off them when they take the ball up court, Anthony, J.R. Smith or Raymond Felton won't hesitate to pull up and drain it.
If you rotate, but don't make sure you have the defense to help the helper, then Novak will destroy you with a wide-open baseline three.
In the sequence of plays below, look how wide-open the Knicks are in their three-point attempts. Whether they're kicking it out to a wide-open, deadly shooter or pulling up and taking the shot, in each case, the shooter has enough time to count how many licks it takes to get the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Roll pop before he shoots.
The Bulls' key to success in defending the three is that they rotate extremely well and don't surrender any room at the three point line.
Not only do they rotate to the ball well, but they rotate to cover the man left open by the rotation for the help as well. As a result, teams have difficulty finding an open three. Just as the Knicks are off looking for that open three-point shot, the Bulls are equally aggressive at keeping it from coming.
Note the effectiveness of that rotation in the clip below, as the Suns are unable to get the ball inside or find a good outside shot. Note also how they hug the ball-handler, even past the arc.
Eventually, they're forced to take a bad shot with the clock winding down, and even though they get the offensive board, it's shot-clock violation.
As far as Anthony goes, Thibodeau may have found the answer to Anthony (finally) in the person of Taj Gibson, who was put on Anthony late in the fourth quarter the last time the teams faced off. Gibson kept Anthony more or less in check, as Anthony hit on only two of his seven attempts from the field, although one was from three and Anthony did draw the foul once.
In all, per Synergy play logs, Anthony scored seven points on eight possessions being guarded by Gibson, and that's a deal the Bulls would gladly take. Gibson is one of the few players who has the strength to not be overpowered by Anthony and the foot speed to stay in front of him.
Watch how Gibson is able to guard Anthony on a pair of plays where he's usually at his deadliest, with the ball on the floor in isolation.
The basic blueprint to stop the Knicks isn't complicated: challenge the threes and slow down Anthony. Of course, having a blueprint and building a house aren't the same thing. The real job is in executing it, and the Knicks haven't made that easy for anyone yet.