A basketball game was played on Friday night, and somebody apparently forgot to tell the New York Knicks.
The contest between the New York Knicks and the Phoenix Suns should have been a tense, desperate affair; after all, both teams are fighting for their playoff lives. Both teams came into the week perched precariously in the ninth spot in their respective conferences—on the outside looking in. New York could have pulled to within one game of the idle Atlanta Hawks for the last, precious playoff berth in the East.
If the Knicks knew the importance of this game, they certainly didn't play like it. Suns point guard Goran Dragic scored 18 points in the first quarter and 32 points in 32 minutes as Phoenix cruised to an easy 112-88 win.
A dispirited Carmelo Anthony gave a damning critique of his team's effort in the locker room after the loss, per The Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring:
Melo, asked where the team's fight was tonight: "It wasn't there."— Chris Herring (@HerringWSJ) March 29, 2014
It wasn't there. Has the fight been there at all this season? Sure, the Knicks have gone on a few winning streaks, have blown out some lottery teams, but what does that say about their effort?
If showing fight means battling through screens and sticking with your man on D no matter what, then no, they haven't. If showing fight means responding to adversity and refusing to play down to one's opponents and those intangible qualities we attribute to great teams, then no, they haven't.
This is where newly appointed president of basketball operations Phil Jackson comes in. As a coach, Jackson helmed perhaps the most competitive squad in NBA history: the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls team that went an NBA-record 72-10. Now there was a team that never took a game off—no matter the opponent.
Even if you want to attribute the never-say-die attitude of those Bulls teams to Michael Jordan, it is important to remember that the Bulls reached the second round of the playoffs in each of the two seasons Jordan took his infamous midcareer baseball sabbatical. Jackson's teams always had talent, but they also played hard, and they didn't quit.
While Jackson will not coach these Knicks next year, he will need to have some kind of plan in place to motivate this group to play hard, particularly on the defensive end.
No "D" in "Knicks"
After Friday's win, the ever-diplomatic Dragic analyzed the Knicks' D (or lack thereof), per the New York Post's Marc Berman:
They went under the screen every time. It's not an easy shot, but it's not contested. Every time they do that, I'm going to have a good game. They didn't play good defense and we could get everything we want. You just swing the ball two, three times and find an open guy.
Dragic is being far too modest. A non-contested shot is an easy shot, especially to a player as talented as he is. The Phoenix point guard might have been the best player in the NBA this season not to make the All-Star Game. But, once again, it seems that nobody made the Knicks aware of this. They avoided Dragic like the plague, particularly in that fateful first quarter.
Does this signify a lack of preparation, basketball IQ or desire? How about "all of the above"?
Sadly, this kind of defensive ineptitude is nothing new for New York. It currently sits at 26th in the NBA in defensive efficiency and has seemingly mastered only two defensive maneuvers:
- The Late Jump-Out: This is where a wing defender completely ignores a three-point shooter in the corner and then lunges wildly at him from 10 feet away after the shot has already been released.
- The Unnecessary Reach-In: The Knicks rank a pathetic 29th in opponent free throws allowed per field-goal attempt, and with good reason. These are not the Bad Boy Pistons, fouling to intimidate. These fouls are often the work of lazy defenders reaching in instead of moving their feet on dribble penetration or foolishly grabbing at the ball-carrier 30 feet from the basket.
Both of these moves have one thing in common: They are symptomatic of defenders who would rather appear to play defense than put in the actual effort.
This may not be all that surprising, given the makeup of this roster. Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Raymond Felton, J.R. Smith and Andrea Bargnani all came into this season with poor defensive reputations. And rookie Tim Hardaway Jr., though ahead of the first-year learning curve on offense, may be the worst defender on the team.
There is a difference, though, between a team of poor defenders and a team that doesn't even try to defend. And the Knicks fall squarely into the latter category.
Head coach Mike Woodson has been criticized this season for his poor defensive game plans. His switch-heavy defense does not suit a roster of players who switch more out of convenience than necessity. The team simply cannot defend the pick-and-roll, the most basic of all NBA plays.
But it has been the lack of accountability, even more than the schemes, that have doomed the Knicks this season. Players do not work hard on defense because Woodson has made it clear time and again that it will play no role in his decision to allot minutes.
Take the example of New York's two most promising young defenders: Iman Shumpert and Cole Aldrich. The big man from Kansas, Aldrich, has shown promise as a reserve center. More importantly, his defense in the paint is something the team could sorely use on the second unit. He may not be a future star, but he brings defensive skill and effort that could prove invaluable to this particular team.
But Woodson has never given the 25-year-old center consistent minutes, to the detriment of both Aldrich's development and the team's defense.
After playing him an average of 10.0 minutes during the team's eight-game win streak, Woodson inexplicable cut his minutes starting with New York's backbreaking March 23 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Aldrich has been playing less (an average of seven minutes per game) despite the fact that teams have been annihilating the Knicks' D during the past four games.
Shumpert's story is even more tragic. He was (and remains) New York's best perimeter defender, but he also showed promise on the offensive end, making over 40 percent of his threes last season. He was arguably the Knicks' second-best player during the 2013 postseason.
But Shumpert never truly escaped Woodson's doghouse this season. The tipping point may have come in a Nov. 20 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Though Shumpert shut down Pacers star Paul George for most of the game, he was charged with a ticky-tack foul in the closing seconds that allowed George to hit the game-tying free throws.
Despite his sterling defensive effort through most of the game, an incensed Woodson removed Shumpert for J.R. Smith in overtime, and George went on to demolish the Knicks in the extra frame. Per Herring, Hardwood Paroxysm's Jared Dubin and The New York Times' Beckley Mason:
Woodson will undoubtedly be fired after this season. While he might go on to blame injuries for his demise, his greatest sin was fostering an environment in which some players were scared to make mistakes, while other players (his players) received a pass—no matter what they did.
Hope, Thy Name Is Phil
Those Knicks fans who were wondering whether Phil Jackson actually watched the Knicks were heartened by his assessment of the team's assets during his first official day on the job.
Per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
Phil's early assessment of the #Knicks: per source, he likes Anthony, Chandler, Iman and Aldrich. Also likes youth of Hardaway Jr. & Murry.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) March 18, 2014
Clearly, this is a man who gets it. The Knicks may not have a lot of good defenders or young talent, but the Zen Master was able to identify it from Day 1. Players like Aldrich, Shumpert and rookie guard Toure' Murry could become good defenders in the right environment. Former Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler could revert back to his old form if he played for a coach he respected.
This is, after all, a team that is only one year removed from capturing the Atlantic Division title. What was the difference? According to Herring, it was the presence of veteran leaders who demanded accountability, especially on defense:
All told, the Knicks have posted just an 11-31 mark this season in the 42 games where they have allowed an opponent to hit five or more consecutive field-goal attempts, according to Stats LLC. And while that may sound terrible --their record in such games is seventh-worst in the NBA, but the 42 occurrences rank them right in the middle of the league--it is important to note how much differently they play before and after their opponents' runs.
In a stark contrast from last year, when the team benefited from the calming influence of Jason Kidd, the most veteran player seeing floor time these days is the often combustible Tyson Chandler, who was ejected during a game against Golden State last month as the team crumbled during an incredible Warriors shooting performance.
It is no coincidence that the Knicks went 23-15 in games last season when allowing an opponent to hit five straight shot attempts.
If Jackson can convince Anthony to return, the Knicks might be only a few tweaks away from at least returning to the playoffs. But they must find leaders—both on the roster and on the coaching staff—who will bring back that spirit of accountability.
Given Jackson's track record and what he has already said, there is little reason to doubt that he can find such people to bring the fight back to these Knicks.
Advanced stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.