The New York Knicks have had an excellent start to the 2021-2022 season. At 5-2, they are tied for third in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Although no one expected them to be a top 3 EC team, especially ahead of the Nets and Bucks, it’s not completely unexpected for a team like the Knicks to take a step forward. Two years ago the Knicks were in disarray, losing more than twice as many games as they won (21-45). Last year, the team changed front offices, coaches, and voodoo dolls, and subsequently made a complete 180 finishing 10 games above .500 (41-31). Building upon that success seems normal, however there’s a nagging suspicion that this team is over-performing, and may be ignoring a crucial element of their success.
Perhaps at the steering wheel of the Knicks’ u-turn is coach Tom Thibodeau. New York’s head coach is known for his defense-first mindset, supplemented by his omni-present yelling and tough practices. Last year’s Knicks finished third in defensive rating (points allowed per possession), which fueled their success. This year beat reporters have noted that, much to Allen Iverson’s approval, Thibs’ practices have not been as taxing. Looking at the stat sheet, the Knicks are ranked a sub-par 20th in defensive rating. To compensate, their offense has picked up the slack and is 4th in the NBA.
The eye confirms this data. The Knicks have had multiple games in which they’ve had a commanding lead, only to let the opposing team crawl back & “make it a go.” New York had a 4 point lead against the Celtics on opening night going into the final quarter, and needed double overtime to settle things. Recall that Knicks were on fire in the first OT offensively, but couldn’t stop the Celtics from evening the score. In their third game, the Knicks were up 6 to end the third quarter, and lost to a Magic team they blew out previously. They had a 13 point lead with under 3 minutes against the Bulls, and barely escaped with a 1 point victory. The hapless Pelicans closed the gap to 2 points with 1:28 left in the game, before the Knicks sealed the victory.
Perhaps you could look at any 7 game span of most teams and find similar ebbs & flows. But these are all late-game breakdowns that wouldn’t exist if the Knicks could clamp down on their opponents once they get a sizeable lead. Which begs the question: has the team identity changed? Are they an offensive first team that plays marginal defense? And if yes, how good is that offense — are the Knicks really a top 5 offensive team? Is this all because center Noel has been hurt and coach has turned to offensive players to pick up the slack?
Or will coach Thibs get the team back to his roots and have them playing formidable defense? Should New York find their defensive groove again, the Knicks will likely maintain the huge upswing they’re experiencing this early in the season. Even if their offense drops down to 10th, returning to a top 5 defense would make the Knicks a dangerous team.