This year the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis has been greeted by his adoring fans with chants of “MVP!” It’s not entirely without merit as Porzingis is second in the league’s most important MVP category — points per game. Realistically there’s little chance he’ll be among the top 5 this year, as LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Russell Westbrook will likely surpass the Latvian in votes.
With 5 wins and 4 losses, the Knicks are out-performing all but the most optimistic expectations thus far. The common reason to explain the team’s improvement is the Unicorn’s scoring increase. Porzingis has managed to score 30 or more points in 7 of 9 games, and there’s no doubt that he’s filling the void left by Carmelo Anthony, and then some. And then some more. However, it’s not the offense that is propelling the Knicks, it’s the defense.
Last year New York was 18th on offense and 26th on defense. This year the team ranks 13th and 18th respectively. In other words the Knicks’ offense has seen a minor increase, while the defense has gone from awful to average. This begs the question: in what areas has the New York defense improved? To answer, we look at the four factors.
The Knicks are identical with regards to opposition shooting efficiency, and nearly identical in forcing turnovers and committing fouls. The big change is in defensive rebounding where they’ve gone from the league’s worst team to average. It seems odd that a single category is responsible for the turnaround, but the stats are crystal clear on the matter.
Assigning credit to an individual in a team endeavor is where the science breaks down. One could argue that Enes Kanter is the sole reason for the turnaround. He leads the team with 9.7 dreb/36, which is nearly a rebound more than last year’s leader (Hernangomez 9.0 dreb/36). With Kanter’s strong rebounding and his high minute count (he’s 4th on the team, where Hernangomez was 7th), it’s hard to argue with that logic.
However Kanter isn’t the only improvement over last year. More than one Knick has improved on their rebounding rate, including Kyle O’Quinn (8.3 to 9.2 dreb/36), Lance Thomas (4.2 to 5.4 dreb/36), and Porzingis himself (6.1 to 6.9 dreb/36). So perhaps the credit belongs to the coaching staff for putting emphasis on preventing the other team from recouping their misses?
In any case while the 38 and 40 point outbursts are exciting, the Knicks wins are just as reliant on the often overlooked defensive rebound.