Defense wins championships.
It’s been the mantra for the copious amount of winners in the sports world for decades, and should be treated as more than just an ordinary cliche. Especially so in the National Basketball Association, where none of the past ten champions finished lower than ninth in Defensive Rating in their respective seasons and the average ranking was fourth.
It was a defense-first mentality that took shape as the theme of the New York Knicks of the 1990’s, where from the 92′ season up to the 99′ year they never finished worse than 4th in the league in DRTG. (Above stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference) Two of these teams made the NBA Finals, and none of them went home sooner than the second round of the Playoffs. These rugged teams are still a favorite of Knick fans fortunate enough to have witnessed them (I hate being young) — because of their toughness, resilience, and propensity for winning on the basketball court.
Two seasons ago — the first featuring Carmelo Anthony on the squad when training camp arrived — found a Knicks team struggling to claim Eastern Conference dominance. The silver lining of the Knicks’ season (a season that ended in a first-round beatdown at the hands of the Miami Heat) was that they had somehow replicated the defensive strength personified by their 90s forebearers. This helped fans believe a return to lockdown defense — and more importantly, winning — was nigh. The 2012 New York Knickerbockers finished fifth in the league in DRTG, led by Defensive Player of the Year award-winning center Tyson Chandler.
This season, the Knicks faltered somewhat on D, finishing ranked 17th in the association under DRTG rankings. This came as something of a surprise — there was plenty that went wrong, and a few things that should have gone right. More importantly, there are things that can be done — tangible things — to fix all this.
Let’s consider these fixable things, shall we?
During the 2012 offseason, the Knicks surrendered a bevy of individual defensive talent. Landry Fields, Toney Douglas and Jared Jeffries — for as laughable as those names are to the common basketball fan — were key pieces in the Knicks’ surprisingly stingy defensive system. None of the three returned, but Glen Grunwald did still managed to replace them with three very capable defensive players: Pablo Prigioni, Ronnie Brwer, and Marcus Camby.
Still, there were problems: Pablo Prigioni wasn’t given nearly enough playing time all season; Ronnie Brewer slipped out of his starting spot and the rotation early on, eventually getting traded for a second-round pick; and Marcus Camby appeared in just four games all season. (We can applaud the signing of Kenyon Martin, though he was brought onto the team near March.)
In addition to this, the 2012 versions of Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler were miles above their levels of play this season. In Shumpert’s case, it was a combination of injury and rust (note: even with Shumpert back into the swing of things and comfortable with his healed body, Mike Woodson failed to play him as many minutes as he should); while Tyson Chandler’s backslide from defensive anchor to passable rim protector came seemingly out of the blue. Look no further than the Knicks’ DRTG with Chandler on/off the court, courtesy of NBA.com/Stats: the Knicks were actually better on defense with Chandler on the pine this season, which, of course, wasn’t the case the season prior. Down the stretch, Chandler even found himself sanctioned on the bench in favor of Kenyon Martin, who makes 50 times less money (salary information from StoryTellers) than Tyson does this season. Yowza.
Clearly, losing players that can defend well hurts. But is there more to this?
Head coach Mike Woodson took over the team late last season, but it was his defensive schemes being run even with Mike D’Antoni at the head coaching helm. The key to Woodson’s defense is that it’s — as we all know by now — predicated on lots and lots of switches, which ostensibly helps compensate for the team’s lack of athletic defenders. Last season Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were playing big minutes, and were big liabilities on the defensive end. While Fields and Douglas were athletic, they were still of little experience guarding at the NBA level. Jeffries was a veteran, but wasn’t the nimblest athlete on the court. Thus, Woody went with a defense that would switch nearly every pick placed on the court.
Why was this so successful last year while being a trainwreck this season? Once again, it boils down to the players on the roster. Not only did the Knicks get older and slower (why did Mike Woodson turn to a full-court press so often?), they also had less versatility and — more importantly — less depth. Last season the Knicks had three players that could guard three positions on the floor, while this year the Knicks had just one: Iman Shumpert, who missed half of the season recovering from his ACL tear and spent another quarter of it finding his defensive rhythm.
One enormous difference between the Knicks of 2012 and 2013 was in their choice lineups. New York was nothing if not a traditional PG, SG, SF, PF, C team a year ago. Following some late season success with Carmelo Anthony playing the power forward, the tone was set for the 2013 season, where the Knicks were one of very few teams to adopt small-ball as their identity. This major revision helped spur the Knicks to their best offensive year in team history, tying the Bockers of 1989 with an ORTG of 111.1.
However, this could also be looked at as a factor in the Knicks’ defensive collapse, as such a pattern is prevalent in small-ball teams. From a Zach Lowe article on small-ball posted in October: “The evidence is scattered, but in general, smaller lineups score more efficiently than traditional units but give up more points per possession on defense…”
All this being said, how were the Knicks able to win fifty games during the regular season with these defensive issues? In short, their pace of play: The Knicks rank 17th in DRTG this season, a defensive stat that is pace-adjusted, pinning every team’s defense to it’s performance per 100 possessions. The Knicks played at a pace of 92 possessions per contest, fifth-lowest in the league. Take away the adjustment for pace and the Knicks are allowing the eighth-fewest points per game in the NBA.
The Knicks have more than a few problems to solve this offseason, only one of which is attempting to improve their lot on the defensive end. The team desperately needs versatile defenders who won’t spend the entirety of the season in a suit or riding the bench, and to that end a possible return to prototypical lineups may be something to consider. Having Iman Shumpert set to go in full health will be huge, and we can only pray that Tyson Chandler returns to his beastly defensive form of just a year ago. The Knicks’ snail-like pace bailed them out during the regular season, but eventually it proved useless against the Indiana Pacers in the second round of the Playoffs. New York won’t need to step back to square one to solve their defensive problems, but a good amount of change is needed if a return to dominant — or at the very least solid — defense is to be in play.