And that's putting it kindly.
Mike Woodson's Knicks finished 17th in points allowed per 100 possessions. All season long the team was plagued by poor habits on the defensive end like irregular switching, excessive double-teaming and lazy rotations. What made it an even bigger letdown was that Woodson led New York to the fifth-best D-efficiency a year ago.
We were promised elite defense out of the Knicks, and after a nine-game stretch of stingy defending to begin the season, the Knicks became inept on that end of the floor. Here's footage from Knicks training camp of Mike Woodson explaining the importance of a top-notch defense.
Through the first three weeks of 2012, the mantra held true. After the first nine games, the team's D-rating stood at 97.36, which would've placed second behind Indiana had it been their mark on the season.
Unfortunately for Woodson's Knicks, that stellar defense went missing for a large portion of the season. It was the root of a mediocre 22-22 mid-portion of the season (sandwiched between an 18-5 start and 14-1 end). The following are the flaws that made the defense so bad, and possible solutions to fix the defending in 2014.
Some time during the team's incredibly average stretch of basketball through the winter months, Mike Woodson began to preach a peculiar rule. Knicks players started switching on nearly every screen-and-roll play thrown at them.
Because of switches on even the most basic screen plays, the unfavorable Knicks matchups were found all over the court. And don't think the Boston game was the only time this issue reared its ugly head. It cost the Knicks various buckets on D during their futile run, and kept the team from crossing into the next-level of Eastern Conference elitehood.
How To Fix It?
The solution here seems pretty elementary—fight through screens. Knicks defenders had no problem doing this early in the season, and it led to a solid defensive start. Here's a clip from New York's first game of the year on Nov. 2 against the Miami Heat.
Notice how J.R. Smith fights through one screen. Chris Bosh does a decent job of impeding Ronnie Brewer's route back to LeBron James, but Brewer gets back just in time to force James into Tyson Chandler, who's waiting at the rim. The Knicks busted a pretty nice set by Miami here by fighting through.
Elderly Front Line
When the Knicks assembled their veteran-led squad for 2012-13, many eyebrows were raised regarding the team's reserve frontcourt. Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas and later Kenyon Martin were expected to bolster the defensive front line and protect the rim.
Statistically, they were the Knicks' best defenders. The problem, though, was a predictable one. They were missing from the lineup far too often, and the defense suffered mightily as a result.
At 38, Camby appeared in just 24 games, and Wallace played in only 21. Forty-year-old Thomas found his way into 39 games before his season ended with foot surgery, and Martin was in and out of the lineup with various injuries after the team signed him at the trade deadline.
All four players finished with the best five individual defensive efficiencies on the team (minimum two games played). Due to their age—and as a result, unreliability—New York was left with Tyson Chandler as the lone enforcer in the paint for much of the season, and Chandler's performance suffered. His defense was a considerably less effective than it was in 2012 when he took home Defensive Player of the Year honors, which played a big part in the team's defensive struggles.
How to Fix It?
The overused phrase "veteran leadership" ran rampant around this ancient Knicks roster, but the vets undoubtedly had a positive impact on the team's mindset in 2013. With that said, New York was forced into a position where they were winning games late in the season despite their age—not because of it—and it's clear the team needs a rejuvenation in the frontcourt next year.
He's projected to be a mid- to late-first-round pick this June, and the Knicks are slotted to select 24th overall. He's an athletic big whose offensive game is a work in progress, but whose defense can make an impact in NBA paint today. Here's an excerpt of his profile from DraftExpress:
Dieng's added strength and improved fundamental base allowed him to more easily stay in front of and contest opponents, though he still relies heavily on his outstretched length to contest shots. His improvements on the perimeter were perhaps even more decisive, specifically in the pick-and-roll game where he has an incredibly unique combination of tools. Dieng's combination of mobility, size, length, and change-of-direction ability make him a menace shutting down pick-and-rolls, specifically with his ability to block shots from behind on drives in the lane.
If Dieng comes off the board before the Knicks' selection pops up, there are alternatives via the free-agent market.
Ex-Knick and current Denver Nugget Timofey Mozgov is set to be a restricted free agent this summer, and the Knicks will reportedly have interest in offering their mini-midlevel exception. Mozgov is still unpolished on offense, but his defense is good enough to be considered an improvement over most Knicks. A seven-foot body standing underneath the basket, for the right price, can't hurt.
Another maddening tactic the Knicks used on defense through the regular season—and even in the playoffs—is overusing the double-team.
At least once per game, it seems, the Knicks scurry to double a post player whose ability just doesn't call for two defenders. The help defender then fails to return to an assignment resulting in an easy jumper or cut to the basket for the opponent. Let me show you what I mean.
In last round's Game 5 against the Boston Celtics, Carmelo Anthony—a far-too-usual culprit—was at fault for three easy Boston points in the third quarter.
Jason Terry dumped the ball off the Brandon Bass near the low block, with Raymond Felton stuck guarding him—a clear mismatch. However, Kenyon Martin is creeping on the other side of the paint, working his way over to help the Knicks' point guard contain Bass.
Anthony overreacts to the mismatch and swarms Bass with a half-hearted steal attempt. Bass finds an open Terry, thanks to 'Melo, and feeds him for the easy three.
A second example features the same pair of defenders, but in different roles. In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semis against Indiana, the Knicks were trailing by double-digits with only a few minutes left. George Hill feeds Roy Hibbert—who has Carmelo Anthony checking him—just outside the paint.
A panicked Ray Felton leaves Hill to try to deter Hibbert—who has a foot height advantage on Felton—even though there's no way Hibbert is capable of blowing by Anthony, and despite the fact that 'Melo allowed just 0.63 points per play this season when defending post plays, which ranked 14th of all NBA players (via Synergy). Tyson Chandler is also lurking under the rim as emergency help.
Hibbert passes over Felton with ease and finds a left-open Hill. J.R. Smith's rotation is a split second late and Hill has a clean look for three to essentially clinch the win for Indy.
How To Fix It?
This one isn't an all-that-difficult fix, either. Knicks players need to be more sensible when sending an extra defender, and Woodson has to be on top of this on the practice floor.
If the Knicks are going to have a quick trigger finger and double at will, then the rotations need to be much more crisp than what we've seen.
Don't Forget About Shump
These necessary fixes—in addition to Iman Shumpert improving in what will be his third NBA season—should help tighten up the defense for New York. And Shumpert's contributions can't be understated.
In 2012, Shumpert led all rookies in steals per game with 1.7, which was seventh among all players that year. After a slow recovery from ACL surgery in his sophomore campaign with New York, Shumpert finally appears to've returned to dominant defensive form—and perhaps even better.
Through eight games this postseason, he's posted an individual defensive efficiency of 92, which ranks ninth among those who've played at least four playoff games and average at least 15 minutes (via NBA.com/Stats).
A full season of a healthy Shumpert will do wonders for the Knicks defense in itself. If the team gets a jump on the situation by patching up their defensive wounds from 2013, next season has the potential to be even more memorable.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.
Statistical support provided by Basketball-Reference, HoopData, NBA.com/Stats, and Synergy.
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