Breaking Down What Makes New York Knicks Defense so Atrocious

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Breaking Down What Makes New York Knicks Defense so Atrocious
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Mike Woodson indicated before this season that he wanted his Knicks to be a top-10 defense. It was a lofty, but appropriate goal to set for a team that fancied itself a contender. 

If you used raw points allowed per game, as Woodson reportedly prefers, you'd find that the Knicks indeed have a defense that ranks in the top half of the league and is just under a point per game outside the top 10.

That, however, is a limited way of looking at things, given that per-game stats do not account for pace, and the Knicks play at the second-slowest pace in the league (they average just 92.72 possessions per game, according to NBA.com). 

Acknowledging the effect of pace begs the question: Just how bad has the Knicks defense actually been this season? And beyond that, why? Let's tackle the first question before moving onto the second. 

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

 

The Numbers

A closer look at the per-possession numbers on NBA.com reveals that the Knicks actually rank 27th in defense, having allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions so far this season. Only the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz have hemorrhaged points at a higher rate.

And things are only getting worse; the Knicks have allowed their opponents to score 109.5 points per 100 possessions in February, a number on par with the 2007-08 Knicks team that won just 23 of 82 games and finally spurred owner James Dolan to fire Isiah Thomas. Had that 109.5 number marked their full-season's effort, it would rank as one of the three worst defenses of the last five years. 

According to the video tracking service mySynergySports (subscription required), the Knicks have the NBA's worst defense against both pick-and-roll ball-handlers and pick-and-roll roll men. They also have a defense that ranks in the bottom five on a per-play basis against spot-ups and cuts, as well as in transition. 

via mySynergySports

Woodson told Grantland's Zach Lowe before the season started “We’ve just gotta clean up giving up so many 3s. And keeping guys off the foul line. That’s just moving our feet and being more dedicated to our rotations. Just things of that nature.” 

How has his team done on those fronts? Not great. 

As of today, only the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers—each of whom plays over 5.0 possessions per game faster than the Knicks—have given up more total three-pointers than New York this season.

The Knicks have allowed their opponents to attempt 17.0 above-the-break (i.e. non-corner) threes per game, the fourth-most in the NBA, according to NBA.com (again, this is despite playing at the second-slowest pace in the league), and opponents have hit 36.9 percent of those shots, also fourth-best. From the corners, Knick opponents have made 41.0 percent of their shots, which again is the fourth-best mark in the league. 

No team has forced its opponents to take mid-range shots a lower percentage of time than the Knicks, whose opponents shoot from the mid-range area only 23.7 percent of the time they rise up for a shot, per NBA.com

On top of all that, only the New Orleans Pelicans have sent opponents to the free-throw line more often per field-goal attempt than the Knicks have, according to NBA.com

Fourteen players have logged their season high in points against the Knicks, according to Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal, and seven players—Marco Belinelli, Lance Stephenson, Evan Turner, Jimmer Fredette, DeMarre Carroll, Mike Scott and Brandon Knight—have set their single-game career highs in scoring as well. 

The Knicks are a foul-happy team that can't defend the most basic of NBA actions and leaks threes at a preposterous rate. That is the reality of the situation. 

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

 

The Personnel

Given the players on hand, it was never remotely realistic for Woodson to expect his outfit to be a top-10 defensive team. You can count the number of "plus" defenders on one hand, and you don't need all your fingers. 

Of players who have received regular minutes, only Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and Kenyon Martin can realistically be considered consistently above-average defenders, and neither Chandler nor Shumpert has been close to the height of his defensive powers this season, while Martin has been in and out of the lineup with injury problems. Little-used backup point guard Toure' Murry is also a positive defensive force, but he has not received very many minutes despite New York's repeated struggles defending that particular position. 

Amar'e Stoudemire may well be the single worst defensive player in the league. Carmelo Anthony is at times a willing and engaged defender but more often does not come close. Andrea Bargnani did a passable enough job of playing post defense before injuring his elbow but played some of the worst help defense known to man whenever he was put in a pick-and-roll action.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The wing duo of J.R. Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. might be the most inattentive in the NBA. Raymond Felton hasn't fought over the top of a screen to stay with his man since he was at North Carolina. Pablo Prigioni is a master sneak artist, but he's too slow to stay with today's high-powered NBA point guards off the dribble.

Chandler has played some of the worst defense of his career. And Shumpert has regressed. 

Woodson has "overseen" it all. Despite professing to be a defensive coach, Woodson has often opted for players who tend to bring more on the offensive side of the court than on defense throughout his Knick tenure. He has remained staunchly in the corners of Bargnani, Smith and Hardaway Jr. despite repeated failings on that end of the court, and he maintains that Raymond Felton is the ideal point guard to play next to Carmelo Anthony, continually playing Felton in excess of 30 minutes per game even while the front office was trying like mad to give him away before last week's trade deadline. 

Before injuries hit the rotation, he was keen on playing lineups that included both Stoudemire and Bargnani on the front line, even at times playing the two of them with Anthony—disaster defensive units that allowed 112.7 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. He steadfastly stuck with the big frontcourt featuring Chandler, Bargnani and Anthony for far longer than it ever proved useful offensively (because it never did), even though it allowed an even more alarming 114.3 points per 100 possessions.

He's continually played Stoudemire and Hardaway together of late, ignoring the fact that the team leaks points like the Titanic when they share the floor

It took him nearly 40 games to go back to the starting-lineup configuration he used late last season—Anthony at power forward with Felton, Prigioni and Shumpert in the backcourt together—despite the fact that it went 16-2 to end the year and nothing else he tried was remotely working. 

It can't be denied that Woodson was dealt a bad hand if he wanted to be coaching a top defense, but he's compounded the problems of the roster by playing it about as poorly as it could possibly be played. 

 

The Scheme

Depending on what day of the week it is, as well as who you're asking, the Knicks' defensive scheme either calls for them to switch pick-and-rolls or it doesn't. Switching has been a trademark of Woodson's defenses since his days coaching the Atlanta Hawks, and he professed before the season that his scheme worked because the Knicks were a top-10 defense last season (again, by raw points allowed; they ranked 17th on a per-possession basis).  

He has, however, at various times this season stated that he does not want the team switching on pick-and-rolls. According to Ian Begley of ESPN New York, Woodson said in December, "I don't want to switch. I've always wanted to put the emphasis on our perimeter guys to guard perimeter players. Bigs are supposed to guard bigs and when there's some breakdowns there is supposed to be help. It's a team defense."

That's a stark departure from how his teams have played in the past, from how the Knicks played last year and, indeed, from how his team has actually played this season. If Woodson doesn't want the Knicks to switch, the message is not getting through.

The constant switching of picks often causes immediate mismatch problems, like when Raymond Felton gets caught guarding the opposing center 10 times a game, but sometimes it doesn't become apparent that the switch has doomed the possession until four or five moves down the line. 

Take this possession from Monday night's loss to the Dallas Mavericks, for example. Smith and Chandler switch a pick-and-roll at the top of the key so that Smith is now guarding Dirk Nowitzki near the free-throw line. The ball is entered to him there, and as he works his way down into the paint, Chandler is forced to double off of Monta Ellis to deny an easy foray to the rim.

Chandler's rotation forces Anthony to leave his man to help on Ellis as he drives along the baseline, which necessitates help from both Hardaway and Felton, who leaves his man—Jose Calderon, with a 40.8 career three-point percentage—wide open outside the arc, where Ellis finds him with a pass. 

Chandler came under fire in January for attacking the switching strategy, stating in his press availability:

I don’t want to switch. I personally don’t like it. You come with a defensive plan and then every guy kind of mans up and takes his responsibility. I think switching should always be your last resort. That’s me, personally.

He's since been more or less muzzled when it comes to talking about the team's defensive schemes. 

Because of the mixed messages, there is often rampant miscommunication when it comes to whether or not the Knicks should switch on a given pick-and-roll, especially when the ball-handler dribbles away from the pick. 

Not helping matters is that often players get caught in between, which necessitates aggressive help defenses from wing players who are supposed to be covering shooters along the perimeter, resulting in plays like this one. 

This type of defense is typical of Smith and can often be seen from Hardaway and especially Shumpert, who has taken to so aggressively helping out in the lane that his man is left wide open for three or a pump fake and drive to the rim against an overzealous closeout.

There is no trust among any of the players that the next man in line will do his own job, so everyone is scrambling to help somewhere else, and it almost always happens two or three beats late anyway. 

Woodson also said before the season that he wanted the team to double less often. "I would like to get back to that where we don't have to [use them] as much," he said in the preseason, according to ESPN New York's Begley. If those are in fact his wishes, the message is again not getting through. 

The Knicks double non-threats in the post so often that it has become a running joke amongst Knicks fans on Twitter. Take this possession, where—like the switch that leads to Smith guarding Dirk at the free-throw line—an Iman Shumpert double-team of Nick Young in the post doesn't immediately doom the possession, but does so a few moves down the line. 

via ESPN

Here's what Young sees as Shumpert comes over to double. Shumpert's man at the top of the key—Wes Johnson—is open one pass away, which means Felton has to abandon his man—Jodie Meeks—on the other side of the floor. Because Meeks is open, Anthony has to step up and leave Kendall Marshall alone in the corner. 

via ESPN

Once Felton and Anthony have rotated to cover Johnson and Meeks, respectively, Shumpert has to run all the way across to the far corner of the floor to get to his new man, Marshall. However, Johnson sees Marshall open while Shumpert has just taken off to get there and hits him with a skip pass. Because Marshall gets the ball while Shumpert is still on the move, he's able to wrong-foot him and get into the paint for a basket. 

In the video below, Melo doubles Jared Sullinger 20 feet from the hoop when he has his back to the basket and is pretty much a total non-threat. This results in Felton leaving Jeff Green to slide onto the cutting Gerald Wallace, whom Melo was guarding, and Green gets a wide-open three. 

It's just a completely unnecessary double-team, and it results in Boston getting a far better shot than what they would have gotten had the Knicks just let Sullinger go one-on-one with Smith in the post. 

All of these issues and more are apparent on the game film from last week's loss to the Atlanta Hawks, when the Knicks let Mike Scott go off for 30 points. Just by looking at the plays where Scott scored out of the pick-and-roll, you can see basically everything that is wrong with New York's defensive strategy. 

Miscommunication. Bad position. A simple lack of effort. Not knowing the tendencies or strengths of opposing players. Late help. Late recovery. Switching. Unnecessary double-teams. It's all there. 

The Knicks' defensive issues become magnified in transition, where everything is chaotic and helter-skelter to begin with. Much of New York's transition-defense problems stem from the fact that the team has multiple players who would rather complain about foul calls than get back on defense (I'm looking at you, Ray Felton, and you too, Carmelo Anthony), but they often just simply don't account for a man or two when marking up, instead committing multiple players to the man with the ball in his hands. 

Other times, they just don't run back fast enough, even when they're not busy complaining. 

In each of the last two clips in the video above, all five Knicks cross half court on defense before the ball does, yet Lance Stephenson and Paul George each get directly to the rim without so much as a single Knick between them and two easy points. 

It's not easy to pinpoint a specific thing that is wrong with the Knicks defense, simply because there are just so many things wrong. There's the personnel, the scheme, the execution, the communication, the effort and the coaching. And then there's the fouling, especially, and the complaining about being called for fouls (looking directly at you again, Felton).

None of it is good. None of it is going away any time soon. This is a bad defensive team with a bad defensive coach, one who has built up a false reputation as a defensive tactician despite having never coached a team to a top-10 defense in a full season. 

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