Recently Charles Barkley and Steven A. Smith have come out blaming D’Antoni for the Knicks mediocre performance. On national television Barkley said that D’Antoni is “just not stressing defense. He’s just being too damn stubborn, like he’s trying to win his way. … Looking at these Knicks, it’s like he is trying to prove a point that he can win with his system. And dammit, it ain’t working. And it ain’t gonna work.” Smith uses “statistics” to back his point:
Whether it was in the lockout-shortened season of 1999 with the Nuggets, his four-plus seasons in Phoenix where he averaged 58 wins, or the near three seasons in New York, D’Antoni has never stewarded a team that yielded less than 100 points per game.
His first team in Phoenix (2004-05) was dead last in the NBA in points allowed at 103.3 per game. The next season the Suns were 28th in the league at 102.8. At no time did the Suns rank better than 23rd ranked in the league defensively, and, actually, that’s the good news.
Mike D’Antoni is most understood by those that use traditional statistics because he has fast paced teams. Since 2005, his teams have ranked 4th or better in pace in five of six seasons, and this year the Knicks are second in the NBA. And fast paced teams tend to “break” per game stats. Imagine a baseball manager that can change the rules of the game by giving each team 4 outs per inning instead of 3. Statistics like ERA and runs per game would get inflated for both offense & defense. However it doesn’t necessarily mean the manager’s pitchers and defense got worse. Rather it would simply mean that the opposing team has more opportunities to score.
In baseball we measure how a player or team performs by looking at their success divided by the number of opportunities they receive. No one cares about hits per game, when hits per at bat is a more descriptive stat. Pitchers aren’t judged by runs per game, because runs per inning is superior. However in basketball no adjustment by traditional stats are made. Much like baseball, advanced stats look at how teams score per chance allotted, or per possession. On the other hand, when Smith and Barkley look to describe D’Antoni’s teams, they are working from flawed assumptions.
There’s no question that D’Antoni’s team rely on offense to win, but how bad his defense has been is largely misunderstood. His Phoenix teams ranked 17th, 16th, 13th and 16th in defensive efficiency. Not great, but certainly better than the Barkleys and Smiths would have you believe.
The pair assert that D’Antoni doesn’t pay mind to his defense and the team’s woes are due to his inability to adjust his strategy. However I’m not sure that’s true. It’s obvious that the team is moving from D’Antoni’s preferred offensive style of pushing the ball up the floor and rapid ball movement to a move iso-friendly style. No Knick under D’Antoni’s reign has been able to hold the ball without action longer than Carmelo Anthony does. So he hasn’t been unbending with regards to his offense.
With regards to defense, D’Antoni seems to be doing the best he can with the players available. New York’s three biggest stars, Amar’e, ‘Melo, and Billups aren’t good defenders. Hence the Knicks have been playing more defensive minded players alongside them. Toney Douglas played nearly 30 minutes Tuesday night, including a good portion in the fourth quarter in lieu of Landry Fields and alongside Billups to give New York a better perimeter defense.
New York has also given considerable minutes to Jared Jeffries. Mind you, Jeffries is the antithetical D’Antoni player. He has no skill on the offensive end, save for rebounding. He’s incredible feeble inside the paint, and useless outside of it. For the Knicks, Jeffries is averaging a PER of 4.1, and a TS% of .212. Despite his offensive shortcomings, Jeffries played 25 minutes yesterday.
In Smith’s article he asserts that “we can’t blame Knicks president Donnie Walsh for assembling the ineptitude we’re witnessing at this moment.” However there isn’t much defensive talent on this team. Beyond Douglas and Jeffries, only Turiaf and Balkman are the Knicks other options to prevent other teams from scoring. However Turiaf has shown to be injury prone, while Balkman has seemingly alienated every coach he’s played for. The problem isn’t so much D’Antoni’s refusal to focus on defense, but rather the lack of defenders on the roster.