Is Anyone Else Worried About the Knicks Defense?

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.

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Mike Kurylo

Mike Kurylo is the founder and editor of KnickerBlogger.net. His book on the 2012 Knicks, "We’ll Always Have Linsanity," is on sale now. Follow him on twitter (@KnickerBlogger).

35 thoughts to “Is Anyone Else Worried About the Knicks Defense?”

  1. “Is Anyone Else Worried About the Knicks Defense?”

    Definitely.

    Also, Mike K editorial content? LETS GOOOOOOOO!

  2. Though Walker and Fournier are vets, the team is still trying to work in two new starters, so maybe it’ll take a bit longer for the team to fully be what it will be. Randle needs to get comfortable deferring more on offense than he did last year, too, probably.

  3. Also, Mike K editorial content? LETS GOOOOOOOO!

    This is when I knew this could be a special year for the Knickerbockers.

  4. The team’s defense has definitely taken a step back. But the good news is….

    It appears to be end of games where this is the biggest issue. We’ve given up leads and some of that is the defense but some is also our offense not executing well. I have faith the team will get better with crunch time situations as the season progresses.

    Noel will help for sure.

    Kemba is the weakest link but he might also be saving himself this early in the season on that side of the ball and might tighten it up later or in the postseason.

    WE could let Grimes play too if IQ keeps not shooting well.

    Still think Bullocks over Burks would also have made a difference. We would not have given up 3 point shooting if we went that route but oh well!

  5. Again, Bullock vs Burks isn’t just about fit, but about the contract each was willing to sign. The team is clearly aiming to have tons of cap space in 2023. Burks accepted a team option for that season, where Bullock’s deal is partially guaranteed for $5.45 million.

  6. Katz touched on this yesterday–basically the real damage is being done in transition as opposed to the half-court, so the Payton/Bullock for Kemba/Fournier swap doesn’t explain as much as you might think.

    Part of this is our more dynamic offense naturally leading to more turnovers, but I’m inclined to think it’s the kind of thing Thibs can clean up as the team gets more experience playing together. We won’t be top 5 again, but I’d bet we finish in the top 15 and still wouldn’t rule out the top 10.

    Huh, this is a very unfamiliar posture for me.

  7. We only have one at least good perimeter defender in RJ so its gonna be tough even if Noel comes back.

    We have a surplus of no D playmakers so I think trading one of them for another wing defender or freeing up a rotation spot for the rookies would be something Leon looks at.

  8. Just adding to the conversation re: league trends, as I haven’t been able to watch many full games so far this year.

    Defensive Four Factors

    eFG 10th
    TOV 24th
    DRB% 20th
    FT/FGA 26th

    Opponents are shooting 84.6% from the line against the knicks on 21 attempts per game. Right now, the Hawks are getting obliterated by their opponents at the line, with their opponents shooting 86.2% and the league-best Blazers only facing a 68.1% mark.

    As you can reason out, this, unlike free throw rate for/against, is virtually all luck and, given that it’s an average of all 29 other teams, the range of outcomes is quite narrow. Here is the normal range of #1 vs. 30% opp. FT%, by year:

    2021 80.3. vs. 74.5
    2020 79.5 vs. 74.9
    2019 78.7 vs. 73.3
    2018 79.5 vs 73.8
    2017 78.9 vs 75.1

    So practically, if the Knicks had the extreme luck of the Blazers so far, and their opponents had shot a shitty 68.% from the line instead of a near-best 84.6%, they would add 25 points, or about 3.5 points to their MOV per game.

    There may be intentional issues to fix, but jumping from 4.8 to 8.3 MOV is… significant.

    Ride it out, guys. 7 games is too soon to wring hands about. They could very well be 10-2 or 5-7 before long. Check back in after 20 or 30 games.

  9. Despite all the signs so far, I am not worried. We have the solution in-house. I am with TNFH–Thibs can fix it. He is not going to let the defensive foundation he built crumble. For example, his 31-51 and 47-35 TWolves teams both ranked the same in points allowed per possession.

  10. I am not hitting the panic button. We have basically been a bit below expectations on defense but we haven’t had Noel and have run a little bad. If we had a chance at being a top 10 defense I’d have juiced my win prediction substantially but this is who we are, just a little worse right now.

  11. So our opponents are shooting better from the free throw line? Hmm, might be time to get Mike Bibby on the bench again so he can toss a towel when the team is shooting free throws.

  12. Our defensive eFG% is pretty decent– 10th overall. That’s the cornerstone of a good defense. We were a strong defensive rebounding team last year and we’re not very good so far this year, so maybe there’s some noise in that. It’s not like the players who left were great defensive rebounders. This year our second unit is getting wrecked on the defensive boards, maybe Noel’s return will help with that.

  13. My worry is that if the offense grows a bit, and the defense slips a bit, then we’re likely to be around where we ended up last year.

    Also if the defense is predicated on one person (Noel), then that’s a bit worrisome as well.

  14. One person in a 10 man rotation is a pretty significant contributor to the team. Its not that Noel alone is the key but his addition to the rotation shores up some stuff and that could potentially have a tipping point affect on the rest of the team. When so few players play in a game, one person can make the difference in a pretty significant way.

  15. We’ll know a lot more about this team in about 3-4 weeks. I think we’re going to be okay though. This is a good team that seems to have some real great spurts of play. They’ll get more consistent as they play together more.

  16. in the ny post article today…thibs specifically cited the absence of Noel as one element of the defense not being as solid (or appearing to be as solid) but he also said that they are incorporating 3 new starters (alluding to mitch i think being out most of the year)…and that it will take time and they will get there with hard work, blah..blah…blah…

    we’ll see whas up around 25 games in..

  17. I mean that is true but last year they had a super short training camp and a new coach/staff and they were able to be boss on defense from the get go. So with a regular training camp, a lot of returning players who know the system and just incorporating 2 new players, you would think it wouldn’t be as hard. But I think the real reason is that Kemba and Fournier combined are a drop off defensively from Elf and Bullocks plus they’re missing Noel AND Mitch is getting back into game shape. Honestly, I’m not too concerned about it.

  18. yeah it’s hard to make much of tiny samples like this, especially with so many criss-crossing confounders,
    but there are at least a few things that are worth batting down. i’m not going to give every little data point bc those esoteric posts tend generate a shitty interaction reward to effort ratio here. but here are some big picture points.

    1. i like fred, but his article provided poor context. yes, we are 25th in non garbage time transition defense per poss, but our half court defense has actually been a larger contributor to our drop in overall def per 100 so far. specifically, our half court pts/play went from 3.9 pts better than the median defense yr ago to 0.7 pts worse ytd, much larger than the transition delta’s contribution.

    2. shot quality allowed appears to have worsened. for example, here is a newish $$ service (linked
    data is free) that attempts to rank pure shot quality. this includes not only where the shot is taken from but a gazillion other things, like who the actual shooter is (and note to jowles above it considers opp ft%). it believes our def was 12th best in shot quality last yr and 19th ytd.

    https://shotquality.com/team-standings

    3. there is peripheral evidence that our non-transition defense has gotten worse. for example, we have a very high foul rate after made fg (ie not much transition), arguably worst in the league relative to opponent’s natural foul drawing propensity. we also are toward the very bottom of the league in a weird but maybe not irrelevant thing: turnovers generated relative to opponent’s percent of fgs that are assisted. i don’t cited this randomly; it’s something i’ve long believed can be vaguely probative. and this has come against moderately below average offensive opponents.

    it’s hard to say much of anything after 7 games, let alone 7 games without noel. but i still think the smart money is on our defense falling out of single digits this year.

  19. I am not really worried about the defense. I don’t think it will be as good as last year, but I think Thibs and Co will make the necessary adjustments and have the team playing better defense as the years progresses. What I am worried about is the seemingly unsolvable mystery of weakside help rotation on Randle. That needs to be figured out prior to playoff time.

  20. The Honorable Cock Jowles: Defensive Four Factors

    eFG 10th
    TOV 24th
    DRB% 20th
    FT/FGA 26th

    Opponents are shooting 84.6% from the line against the knicks on 21 attempts per game. Right now, the Hawks are getting obliterated by their opponents at the line, with their opponents shooting 86.2% and the league-best Blazers only facing a 68.1% mark.

    As you can reason out, this, unlike free throw rate for/against, is virtually all luck and, given that it’s an average of all 29 other teams, the range of outcomes is quite narrow. Here is the normal range of #1 vs. 30% opp. FT%, by year:

    2021 80.3. vs. 74.5
    2020 79.5 vs. 74.9
    2019 78.7 vs. 73.3
    2018 79.5 vs 73.8
    2017 78.9 vs 75.1

    So practically, if the Knicks had the extreme luck of the Blazers so far, and their opponents had shot a shitty 68.% from the line instead of a near-best 84.6%, they would add 25 points, or about 3.5 points to their MOV per game.

    There may be intentional issues to fix, but jumping from 4.8 to 8.3 MOV is… significant.

    Ride it out, guys. 7 games is too soon to wring hands about. They could very well be 10-2 or 5-7 before long. Check back in after 20 or 30 games.

    Great post, thank you.

  21. Another question to consider, who is really an elite defensive team this year? Looking at the east, Miami, Milwaukee, and Toronto look good but everyone other team has question marks (not convinced the Bulls can keep it up imo). West you have Jazz, Warriors, maybe Denver? But again a lot of teams with question marks.

    I’m with everyone else on the board to reassess come 20 games or so. Our two losses included breakout, red hot shooting from guys (Cole Anthony from Magic, OG Anunoby for Raptors) and we had stretches where we were in control in each game. And I honestly don’t think we’ve hit our stride yet on either end of the ball. Think we’re still a work in progress.

    That said a nice bounce back game against Indiana will do wonders :)

  22. Two of our better defensive players are probably Grimes and Deuce but they don’t play. I think they’ll help us in this department down the road, though.

  23. Our G league team will have Sims, Simms, Samanic, MJ Walker and Myles Powell on it. Our 2 draft picks should be playing too. That’s an interesting team.

  24. I am more upset at the sustained intensity level on Monday (or lack thereof)… I felt like I brought the intensity as a fan sitting on my couch… I also didn’t check my emotions at the kitchen/living room threshold… and I bought them into the living room and then the Knicks really let me down…

  25. PTMilo – That’s pretty interesting. Do you have a stat service you use beyond that one you mentioned using the free data from or are you just pulling from B-Ref?

    I wish I had the energy I did 15 years ago to dive into all the new data available. It’s pretty exciting. The comp to baseball numbers is becoming real it seems, though I am sure it’s still a ways off.

  26. kevin5318:
    @NYPost_Berman
    Nerlens Noel will make season debut tonight in Indy.

    It’s probably going to take awhile for him to be effective consistently, but sometimes the adrenalin gets you through the first night. We could use his energy.

  27. Mike Kurylo:
    My worry is that if the offense grows a bit, and the defense slips a bit, then we’re likely to be around where we ended up last year.

    That was or at least should have been the consensus view.

    I think the “rose colored glasses” conclusion was that both Payton and Bullock were overrated defensively. That could be the case, but imo Kemba and Fournier were still a net downgrade. So we were dependent on RJ really stepping up defensively. I also happen to think Nerlens isn’t fully appreciated here because people like Mitch, but Nerlens was terrific last year except when he was less 100% in the playoffs. He was an impact defender on some nights. He won games.

    All that said. I think the biggest issue is that people are underestimating just how much better the east is this year compared to last year. IMO, there was a huge leap. Even most of the bad teams aren’t as bad as they used to be. That’s going to show up somewhere in the data.

  28. Does anyone have any idea what’s wrong with Nicolas Claxton?

    They are saying he has some kind of non Covid related illness (as opposed to an injury) but he was supposedly seen at Nets practice in street clothes. So whatever is going on is apparently not contagious.

  29. @ShamsCharania
    Sources: The NBA Competition Committee today discussed the uptick in transition “take” fouls this season and encouraged the league office to develop a rule change that would eliminate incentive to utilize the tactic in future.

    Clyde might get his wish soon.

  30. I think Zach Lowe and maybe Kevin Pelton were complaining about it too. And they’re not wrong.

  31. Do you have a stat service you use beyond that one you mentioned using the free data from or are you just pulling from B-Ref?

    ya i have access to a few things. there is so much in the public domain now that it hardly matters tho. if you don’t have any ins via team/media the $$ services are totally not worth it (i mean just to nerd out, it’s different obv if you’re srsly betting), and all their plans are incredibly low value to price (ie synergy’s base retail subscription is something like $50 a month but excludes by far its most important value-add: the linked video clips). that excludes cleaning the class which isn’t really that useful but it’s at least priced for retail. as you imply, it’s more about having the beautiful bill james geekenergy than access to anything.

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