Last night, New York's 116-108 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who are now a sterling 4-18 on the road, served as a microcosm of the Knicks' season-long (or is decade-long more appropriate?) defensive struggles.
It's easy, and just a little misguided, to say that the problems stem from head coach Mike D'Antoni. Sure, the Knicks' fast-paced offense saps needed energy and effort from the team on the defensive end, but yesterday's loss serves as a perfect example of how not to play fundamental defensive basketball.
The problems Knicks fans saw last night have been apparent all season, so let's look at the team's five biggest defensive issues from this season, using last night's trainwreck as our guide, and how the team can fix them.
The Knicks' penchant for using their length to get rebounds instead of their bodies to box out is borderline criminal. This was painfully evident when DeAndre Jordan grabbed two offensive rebounds on the same possession and finished it off with a thunderous dunk to put L.A. up 28-22 late in the first quarter.
First, Jordan out-muscled Mozgov, who was in perfect position for a rebound had he boxed out, for a loose ball. Then Stoudemire lost Griffin because he was halfway down the court instead of crashing the boards, so he was forced to switch and guard Jordan.
Jordan drove to the lane and missed a bunny, but once again, Stoudemire failed to box out his man, leading to the dunk. Of note is that Griffin was in a better position than Mozgov for the rebound, too.
With the Clippers up 6-5, Blake Griffin set a pick on Ray Felton, forcing the Knicks to switch Amar'e Stoudemire onto Baron Davis. Instead of sinking towards the basket, Stoudemire, for whatever reason, moved parallel to the baseline. This freed Davis into the lane, drawing Timofey Mozgov to him and freeing De'Andre Jordan for an easy dunk.
The Knicks' inability to defend the high screen isn't new. Teams try to attack Stoudemire and force him to make a split decision. The Clippers also did this multiple times with Randy Foye in the fourth quarter, which led to some jumpers and lay-ups that put the game away (Foye scored 17 of his 24 points in the last stanza).
Unfortunately, unless Turiaf is playing down low, the Knicks don't have a guy with enough defensive awareness to have Stoudemire's back. Stoudemire should probably sink to the basket more often in these situations and try and use his length to misdirect any shots should a guard try and take a jumper.
Mozgov has improved immensely since the beginning of the season, as he is no longer a human foul machine and can adequately catch passes and finish. Furthermore, he has become a legit threat to score 20 points on any given night, and he should be lauded for his work ethic.
However, his defensive awareness leaves a lot to be desired, and when teams are playing a two-man game down low, he seems to be confused as to whether to pick up the man with the ball or guard the man down low that he is closest too. Mozgov also needs to have a quicker reaction to low-post passes and get his body set in time.
These issues stem from Mozgov's recent introduction to the NBA, but they also have to do with his lack of chemistry and troublesome defensive partnership with Amar'e Stoudemire, a lazy defender at worst in his own right.
Case in point: With the Knicks down 52-41, the Clippers set their billionth high screen, allowing Eric Bledsoe to get free. Bledsoe blew by Stoudemire with a stutter step, and drove for a lay-up, but Stoudemire altered Bledsoe's shot and forced a miss. The ball went off the side of the backboard back to Bledsoe, forcing Mozgov between a rock and a hard place. Mozgov over-committed to Bledsoe, who was behind the basket overhang at this point and no threat to score, and Stoudemire did not pick up Jordan.
The lack of awareness on Mozgov's part led to Bledsoe making a quick dish to Jordan for an easy two.
Boy, did the Knicks need Ronny Turiaf last night.
Turiaf is out with an injury, leaving the Knicks with no big man off the bench right now. In fact, the Knicks only played with an eight-man rotation last night.
The Knicks have one of the most perplexing benches in the NBA. Ronny Turiaf has been excellent in his role, but he has been fighting nagging issues all year. Shawne Williams is a marksman from downtown and can play great defense on wingmen, but hide your eyes if D'Antoni wants to play him at the 4. Bill Walker is addicted to shooting threes and hasn't produced. Toney Douglas is up and down. Timofey Mozgov just came out of hibernation, and Wilson Chandler is coming off an injury.
This inconsistency leads to more minutes for the starters, and less energy on the court, specifically on defense.
"There will be times when you play bad, and there's times when the ball doesn't go in, and there's times you lay an egg. But it should never be because you just don't have the necessary heart or desire to do it."
Mike D'Antoni made this scathing comment, among others, after last night's game. He also noted the team's "lack of commitment."
Stoudemire and Felton also said that the team's effort wasn't there.
With the way the Knicks played, they would have given up 100 points against five folding chairs. Their lack of commitment was borderline offensive in the second quarter, when they gave up 21 points in just over five minutes to close the half.
Knicks fans have become painfully aware that their beloved team's defensive issues stem from incompetency down low, so what to do about that?
The easiest solution is to draft a big man, but the cupboard is bare. The Knicks will probably draft in the late teens. Kenneth Faried, the 6'8", 225-pound rebounding and hustling machine from Morehead State, will be available, but he is a bit small for the 4 and plays in a zone within a weak conference.
Another option is a massive boulder, 6'10", 260-pound Jordan Williams of Maryland, who I am guessing will come out if he is projected to go in the first round. The problem is that he doesn't fit in the D'Antoni system well, and scouts are worried about him guarding mobile power forwards in the NBA, a big problem for the Knicks right now.
The best options are Kansas juniors Marcus (6'9", 215) or Markieff Morris (6'10", 230). They do play all over the court and can shoot the three: the former is one of the best all-around players ever coached by Bill Self and is the more polished twin, and the latter is an excellent defensive rebounder and shooter.
If Kansas keeps impressing, I can't see Marcus dropping to the Knicks, but Markieff most likely will. He needs to develop more of a post game, but with Amar'e on the court, the Knicks won't have to worry about that much.
Sign me up for the Knicks getting a veteran center for the MLE next offseason, as long as a new CBA permits it. Samuel Dalembert and Nazr Mohammed could possibly be had for the MLE, and both would offer much-needed depth down low. They could also tutor Mozgov in their defensive ways.
For all the DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler fans out there, it's not happening. They're too expensive if the Knicks get Carmelo Anthony.
Why not sign him to a 10-day contract and see if he can contribute? The 7'0" center played well in seven games for the Knicks last season, even posting 17 points and 18 boards in a 104-101 win over the Celtics in April. Barron played 44 minutes in that game, too. Although he couldn't find time on the Suns, he certainly wasn't a fit there, so perhaps that was working against him.
Barron isn't a defensive stalwart, but the Knicks can use his length to give Mozgov and Stoudemire some rest.
Considering that Timofey Mozgov, Ronny Turiaf and Amar'e Stoudemire weren't even on the Knicks last year, and that the former two players have missed time for early ineptitude (Mozgov) and injury (Turiaf), it isn't surprising to sometimes see the players lack communication on switches, as well as seeing players left wide open for easy dunks and lay-ups following drives.
With Mozgov having a solid place in the rotation now, the three amigos have to develop on and off-court chemistry...somehow. A vague idea, I know, but communication needs to improve. Maybe Stoudemire and Turiaf should take an Intro to Russian class together at NYU or something.
Stoudemire was one of the Knicks who called the team out for a lack of effort, but he was easily the laziest Knick on the defensive end last night. While Wilson Chandler was breaking sweats guarding Blake Griffin in the fourth quarter, and Danilo Gallinari was making the Clippers pay at the line with his drives (14-of-14), Stoudemire was playing perhaps his worst defense of the season and was a non-factor on the boards with five caroms.
There really is no other way around it: Stoudemire needs to lead by example on defense. It has gotten to the point where teams are specifically attacking him and scoring 100-plus points per game for doing so.
Stoudemire announced that the Knicks were "back" when he signed as a free agent, but the Knicks won't truly be back until they match the defensive intensity and effort exuded by Willis Reed's Knicks of the 1970's and Patrick Ewing's Knicks of the 1990's. Much like those teams, the Knicks' ultimate long-term success will depend on the man in the middle, specifically his defense.
The Knicks will never truly be "back" until Stoudemire plays with the defensive desire that his Hall of Fame predecessors played with, and the potential addition of Carmelo Anthony isn't going to change that fact.