Through the first month of the season, the New York Knicks were the league's most dominant team. The veteran-led 'Bockers morphed from washed-up castoffs to 2012-13 title contenders in mere weeks, and Mike Woodson had the team playing the best ball New York City had seen in decades.
Sure, they were scoring at an offensive efficiency of 110.84 through 25 games, which would be tops in the league today, but the Knicks were carried by its efforts on the other end of the court. Woodson's defense has crumbled from league-best to liability. And as it's eroded, so has the Knicks' chances at playoff success.
Through the first nine games of the season (8-1 record), the team's defensive efficiency of 97.4 would place impressively at third. In the 56 games since that short stretch of lock-down D, Woodson's defensive unit has played to an efficiency of 105.2, which would fall right in between the Portland Trail Blazers' and Houston Rockets' full-season marks for 25th.
Overall, the Knicks' defensive efficiency of 103 ranks 15th in the NBA. More importantly, their defense isn't good enough to carry them very far into postseason play.
Dating back to 2006-07, the lowest an eventual champion has ever finished in defensive efficiency rating was seventh.
The Knicks' struggles on defense over the last few months become even more frustrating when you consider how dominantly they were locking down early on.
The most common question is why they haven't been able to regain that dominant form, and there are a few reasons why.
Over-Reliance on Switching Around Screens
During the Knicks' initial nine-game run, opposing offenses weren't yet aware of how to out-smart Mike Woodson's scheme. This changed very quickly, and painfully, for New Yorkers.
Per Woodson's preachings, Knicks defenders switch on nearly every pick set by the opposition, instead of fighting through and sticking with their man.
As the season grew older, teams quickly adjusted and learned they could throw New York out of whack with elementary screen plays.
Wild switching often leaves the Knicks with matchup dilemmas all over the floor, such as Tyson Chandler stuck with a guard in the corner or Jason Kidd being posted up in the paint.
The team's help defense has also proved too futile on various occasions to justify Woodson's plan.
With more switches come more rotations, and Knicks players fail to grasp the concept of rotating far too often.
This is a screenshot of how the Knicks defended the Washington Wizards in one sequence, after a few ill-advised switches and a simple ball fake. This actually happened.
This game plan crushed the Knicks the most during a January matchup with the Boston Celtics at home. The following is a clip of one occasion where switching killed New York's hopes, and a breakdown by Posting and Toasting's Seth Rosenthal.
Looking back at highlights from the team's opening-night victory over the Miami Heat, you'll recognize that Knicks players fought through nearly every screen in an attempt to hang with their assignment.
Miami—who's second in offensive efficiency—scored just 84 points that night.
Dependence on Older Players
Critics were quick to condemn the Knicks' front office for assembling a roster with eight players over the age of 30, but the team had a distinct plan.
"We don't think we got older," said general manager Glen Grunwald (via the Wall Street Journal) last summer. "We feel we got more experienced and better."
Pablo Prigioni, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, Marcus Camby and Jason Kidd were all 35 or older on opening night, yet the team insisted age wouldn't be an issue since the eldest Knicks would be role players.
The critics were right.
The Knicks depended on Wallace and Camby to anchor the reserve squad's defense, and neither has been healthy for much of the season.
As of March 20, Tyson Chandler is sidelined with knee and neck troubles, Kurt Thomas will be missing nearly a month with a stress reaction in his foot, Rasheed Wallace's regular season is over and his future beyond that looks grim as well, and Marcus Camby finds himself in and out of Mike Woodson's rotation.
Wallace and Camby have posted the two best individual defensive efficiencies on the Knicks, and Kurt Thomas comes in at fifth-best. Kenyon Martin, fellow veteran reinforcement, has the best mark of all active players on the roster, but Woodson must be cautious not to overwork the 35-year-old as he has with several key Knicks pieces.
The players the Knicks brought in as backbones to the defense were their most fragile pieces, and not much has gone right on the injury front.
Banking on Iman Shumpert as Savior
After missing all of November and December while recovering from a blown out knee during the 2012 postseason, second-year swingman Iman Shumpert returned to the lineup with the burden of lofty expectations.
Shumpert was the Knicks' best defender in the backcourt during his rookie season and posted a defensive efficiency of 101. The Knicks were struggling through their defensive woes in his absence, and the sentiment among Knickland was that Shump's presence on the hardwood would reverse his team's inability to guard.
Courtesy of the natural, gradual recovery from ACL surgery and Mike Woodson's reluctance to insert Shumpert in optimal situations, Shumpert hasn't made a significant impact.
After averaging 29 minutes in his inaugural NBA campaign, that number is down to 20.6 this season.
Through the early portion of his return, Woodson was starting Shumpert out of position at the small forward, where he was responsible for huskier players closer to the rim—not exactly Utopia for the 210-pound sophomore.
That defensive efficiency rating has bloated to 107 after 28 games, and the recovery process is moving along much slower than the Knicks had hoped. He's still capable of theft—he has logged 1.6 steals per 36 minutes—but the Messiah Shump project hasn't turned out as planned.
Of course, unlike the issues with elder Knicks, this could turn around in the Knicks' favor by playoff time. Shumpert is 22 years old with the motor you look for in a young guard. His game is built primarily on athleticism, and he's been robbed of that athleticism as he slowly reclaims his standout form.
With another month of basketball to play, he'll only become more comfortable on that repaired knee. Then, it will be on Woodson to put the player and the team in prime positions by assigning Shumpert the opposing point guard and finding more minutes for him in general.
The Knicks' defense has crumbled to pieces. But there's still time to salvage tough wins over the final 17 games by getting back to what lifted them to that rapid November start.
If New York revitalizes itself on the defensive end, their playoff chances could be as real as they were during their 18-5 start.
But if the team doesn't make the necessary improvements, they'll be facing a long summer after an early playoff exit.
And that's the last thing the Knicks—a team with a championship window that's already coming to a close—can afford.
All advanced stats gathered from Basketball-Reference and HoopData.