NEW YORK — For years, the biggest bugaboo for the New York Knicks has been their lackluster defense. Is this the year that finally changes?
Since Jeff Van Gundy abruptly left the team in 2001, the Knicks have finished in the league's top 10 in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) only once, while they've ranked in the bottom 10 in 10 of 14 seasons. On average, they've finished with the NBA's 22nd-ranked point-prevention unit over that span of time.
Last year's team, the first of the Phil Jackson/Derek Fisher era, was particularly dreadful defensively. The Knicks finished with the third-worst defense in the league, per NBA.com, continuing a downward trend that saw their defensive efficiency ranking drop from fifth in 2011-12 to 17th in 2012-13 and 24th in 2013-14.
They were simply not good at any aspect of NBA defense.
They finished 27th in opponents' effective field-goal percentage (a weighted shooting percentage that accounts for the extra point that comes with a three-point attempt), 27th in opponents' free-throw rate and 26th in defensive rebounding percentage. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks ranked in the NBA's bottom 10 in points per play allowed on isolations, pick-and-rolls, post-ups and in transition, while they were dead last at defending both spot-ups and plays where a shooter used an off-ball screen.
With numbers like that, one might figure that the Knicks would be going back to the drawing board—that they'd be reimagining their entire defensive game plan in order to more effectively deter opponents' scoring. Coach Derek Fisher, though, suggested that won't be the case.
“We haven’t completely changed anything, how we guard the pick-and-roll [or anything else]," Fisher said before his team's preseason game against the Boston Celtics last Friday. "When you have 23 feet of bigs in the paint, it makes the paint look smaller. We got a good amount of guards developing well. [Cleanthony Early] is getting better. We have a number of guys who can do the things we need to do on both ends. I don’t think it’s strategy or X's and O's. We have a team constructed that’s more balanced.’’
The "23 feet of bigs" Fisher alluded to presumably refers to free-agent signings Robin Lopez and Kyle O'Quinn, as well as No. 4 overall draft pick Kristaps Porzingis. While not quite 23 feet tall combined, Lopez, O'Quinn and Porzingis each stand 6'10" or taller and, unlike last year's bigs, they're all active and engaged defensively at all times.
The developing guards, meanwhile, are second-year undrafted free-agent Langston Galloway and rookie Jerian Grant, whose rights were acquired on draft night in exchange for Tim Hardaway Jr., one of the worst defenders in all of basketball. Galloway is the best defender remaining from last year's team, while Grant has the kind of game-changing athleticism no Knicks guard, save for Nate Robinson, has had in years.
Along with swingman Arron Afflalo and forwards Derrick Williams and Kevin Seraphin, the Knicks have seven brand new rotation players this season.
So, rather than make swift schematic changes, Fisher and his staff are instead banking on the idea that better personnel will execute the scheme better than their predecessors.
"A lot of guys we had on the team are gone," Fisher said when asked about the difference between this season's defense and last year's. "Who we have now weren’t there. It sounds simple to say we have a different team. Robin Lopez is really good defensively. I don’t know how much to say it’s the players that will make the difference."
Lopez, for his part, says he is taking a more active role in terms of the defensive communication in order to help prop up some of the players that aren't quite as strong on that end. “I’m trying to be a little more outspoken," he said. "I know being in the back I’m somewhat of a leader on the defensive end. I’m trying to live up to that.’’
Lopez is known around the league as a strong communicator, and his active feet should help him paper over the mistakes made by some of the players in front of him. In a starting lineup that features Jose Calderon and Carmelo Anthony, there will presumably be plenty that needs papering over.
But the Knicks should know better than anyone else how depending on one man in the back to cover for everybody else is folly—they tried to have Tyson Chandler do that for years, and it just wasn't enough. They need to be stronger on the defensive perimeter as well.
In order to accomplish that, Fisher and the staff are placing a newfound emphasis on defending the three-point line. It's the one thing about the defense that anyone with the team will admit is different from last season.
Fisher famously said last year that allowing threes was not the difference between winning and losing. That attitude showed up in the team's performance on the defensive end. Knicks opponents shot a higher percentage beyond the arc than any other team in the league.
After his team's preseason win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Fisher was asked how he viewed the defense having allowed Philly to launch 39 three-point attempts, despite the fact that the Sixers only connected on eight of them. His response: "If they're taking that many [threes], you're fortunate that they miss that many. If you take 39, even on a bad night, you'll probably make 13. So it's really about taking the attempts away. It's not just about hoping that they miss 31 of them."
That's the kind of question that, with last year's attitude, likely would have prompted a wildly different answer. It's also one that shows the Knicks still have plenty to work on defensively, even if they encouragingly rank fourth in the NBA in defensive efficiency during the preseason, per NBA.com. New York's preseason opponents have launched an average of 28.4 three-point shots a night, a figure that is even higher (by more than six attempts) than it was last season.
The 25.4 percent clip those opponents are connecting at is unsustainably low. It's nearly 7 percent lower than the rate forced by the league's best three-point defense from last season (the Houston Rockets). If opponents start connecting at even a slightly sub-average rate from beyond the arc, that would chip away at the defensive improvements that appear on the surface.
To emphasize just how important closing out hard and taking away the attempt itself is, Langston Galloway said the Knicks are doing 4-on-5 defensive drills in practice. "We are just emphasizing taking away three-pointers as much as possible," Galloway said. "If you look at the Finals last year, there was a lot of three-pointers made. It's definitely changing. The league is evolving and I guess, you say, 'Stop 'em before it changes.'"
It may have taken a year under this regime to notice the importance of deterring the deep ball, but as they say, it's better late than never. So even if the Knicks aren't making wholesale changes to the way they defend the floor, the fact that they're emphasizing some new things within the scheme should help. Having new players, many of whom are simply better defenders, should as well.
But it will all still come down to how the players, new and old, actually execute the scheme. And that remains to be seen.