The New York Knicks’ early 2013 playoff exit could be attributed to a bevy of things: bad health, injuries, bad match-ups, stagnant offense, woeful rebounding, etc. Oddly, the one thing the Knicks had going for them in the postseason was a fairly stingy defense, which, if anyone had observed the 2012-13 Knicks during the regular season, knew was unusual. Last year’s Knicks team was a lot of things, none of which included a good defensive ball club. They were 17th in the NBA in defensive rating, giving up 103.5 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats. Similarly, they were 19th in the NBA in opponent field goal percentage, allowing opponents to shoot over 45% from the field.
Then, suddenly, they seemed to flip a switch in the playoffs. Two factors could have played into this: One, the playoffs reveal a much slower pace, so the Knicks’ first place ranking in opponent points per game in the playoffs can be attributed to less overall possessions. And two, the Knicks played two poor offensive ball clubs, the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, who ranked 20th and 19th in offensive rating during the regular season. However, even with those two factors known, the Knicks still ranked first in defensive rating during the playoffs, conceding just 95 points per 100 possessions — a mark that also would have put them at best in the league during the regular season.
So, what happened, and can the Knicks sustain such stinginess during the 2013-14 season?
Upon looking at the Knicks’ offseason moves this summer, it would appear that they will be an even worse defensive team. The Knicks essentially swapped Jason Kidd for Beno Udrih, a downgrade on the defensive end; acquired Andrea Bargnani, an even bigger defensive sieve and waste of a seven-foot frame than Amar’e Stoudemire; and re-signed Kenyon Martin as Tyson Chandler’s back-up. (Martin, for all of his willing efforts, violent rejections, and hard fouls, didn’t have that much of an overall effect on the Knicks’ defense last year. During the regular season, the Knicks’ defensive rating was three points better with Martin on the court, but they were actually almost two points worse with him on the floor during the playoffs). Metta World Peace is a nice pick-up, but he is no longer the lock-down defender he was in his prime.
Last season, too, Tyson Chandler was a shadow of his 2011-12 Defensive-Player-of-the-Year self. The Knicks also enjoyed two fairly committed defensive seasons from Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith. The extra effort from both players was nice, and if they willingly defend again this season, it’ll be a bonus, but looking at their respective histories, neither player prompts a ton of confidence that they will renew such a commitment this season.
Basically, the odds seemed stacked against the Knicks. However, there is data to suggest that the Knicks can be a good defensive ball club this season. In the 2012-13 campaign, the Knicks’ best moments almost always came when their defense performed admirably. November and March were the Knicks’ two best defensive months where they posted defensive ratings of 100.3 and 102.1, respectively, meaning they can play solid defense for longer stretches. Both stats would have put the Knicks in the top 12 in the NBA in defensive rating.
Likewise, their in-game splits show that the Knicks could defend when the situations called for it. The Knicks posted a 102.2 defensive rating in the second half of games in the regular season and a 99.0 defensive rating during fourth quarters. Likewise, in the fourth quarters, the Knicks allowed just 43.5% FG and 32% 3FG. In tight contests — specifically when the Knicks were tied or down by 1-5 points — they also posted 99.4 and 99.9 defensive ratings.
The Knicks were an odd team last year, one that seemed to have trouble kicking it into gear until their backs were against the wall. We saw this multiple times — they surmounted a double-digit lead with seven minutes to go to beat the San Antonio Spurs on the road. They overcame late deficits in Charlotte and Phoenix, until J.R. Smith came through in the clutch with two game-winners. The Knicks even hurdled a 27-point lead in Sacramento until a last-second Haily Mary three-pointer sank for the Kings, giving them the victory. In all of these cases (and there were plenty of others), the Knicks performed their best when the situation demanded it, and often, their comebacks were propelled by inspired team defense.
For a defensive turn-around to happen, Mike Woodson must be the masthead. During his tenure with the Atlanta Hawks, they were never a very good defensive team, usually posting defensive ratings north of 104, but they got better each season. When he took over as the Knicks’ head coach in 2012, he had the Knicks’ defense humming as one of the cheapest groups in the NBA. With a less capable unit this year, Woodson will have to be both creative and motivating. A good place to start would be to rid the Knicks of their switch-happy defensive philosophy, but, hey, that’s the coach’s job, not mine.
The Knicks have made no secret of their title aspirations this season, but in order to reach that goal, it is almost a necessity to have a top-10 defensive team. Last year, New York was an elite offensive team, and they could be even better this year with some of their incoming tools. However, both sides of the court need to be played. The Knicks have proven that they can defend at a high-level, now they must do it consistently in 2013.
*All stats taken from NBA.com/Stats
Follow Scott Davis on Twitter