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Schmeelk: Knicks Still Play No Defense

NYK Embarrassed By Lowly Suns

John Schmeelk
December 18, 2018 - 12:44 pm

The Knicks have gone through countless coaches, players, front office regimes and styles of play since Jeff Van Gundy quit on December 9th, 2001. Despite all those different faces that have cycled through Madison Square Garden the last 17 years, one thing has remained constant: The Knicks do not play any defense.

With another new head coach this season, David Fizdale, the Knicks are the second-worst defensive team in the NBA. The big number to look at is always defensive efficiency, measuring the amount of points a team allows per 100 possessions. The Knicks are worse than every team in the league at 112.7, except for one: The Cleveland Cavaliers at 115.1.

Last night, the Knicks let the Suns, the third worst offensive team in the league with a 102.2 net rating, score 128 points, including a 41 point third quarter. It wasn’t just one quarter, though. The Suns scored 59 points in the first half and didn’t score fewer than 28 points in any quarter. From start to finish, the Knicks defense was porous, which has been a theme all season.

The only stretch of games that the Knicks defense was consistently decent came during their three-game winning streak against the Celtics, Pelicans and Grizzlies when they held the Grizzlies to under a 100 points, and the Celtics and Pelicans to under 110. Their defense is why they won those games and its disappearance otherwise is why they now have the fifth worst record in the NBA.

David Fizdale has tried different things. He has tried switching all screens, but that becomes impossible with Enes Kanter playing major minutes at center. He has tried showing on screens, and then asking his players to get back to their original matchups, but that is hard to do with current NBA rules and floor spacing. Guards have gone over and under screens. None of those traditional strategies have worked.

Lately, Fizdale has even tried to go to a zone defense. Except for one small stretch against the Hornets, the zone has been largely ineffective too. Using zone in a year where the goal is to develop players doesn’t make a lot of sense. Kevin Knox needs to be working on his one on one defense. The Knicks need to figure out if Emmanuel Mudiay is any better as an on-ball defender. Can Luke Kornet be a good defensive big? How about Allonzo Trier? You don’t learn that by having the team play zone to chase wins.

When Fizdale arrived, both he and the Knicks front office team of Steve Mills and Scott Perry all stressed that defense would be a huge part of the Knicks identity moving forward. There’s one big insurmountable obstacle that Fizdale has been unable to overcome to achieve that goal: The Knicks have a bunch of terrible defensive players on their roster.

A coach can come up with as many defensive schemes as he likes and coach his players perfect defensive technique, but it doesn’t matter if the guys on the roster are bad defenders. Despite some public perception, defense is a skill that requires certain size, athleticism and instincts that come players just don’t have. Playing harder will not turn a player that lacks defensive traits into a top defender. Effort is necessary but it is only one part of the equation.

Tim Hardaway Jr. still has major issues defensively, despite the fact he has become one of the best charge takers in the NBA. Enes Kanter does not have the lateral mobility to guard the pick and roll, or the athleticism, leaping ability or length to be a good rim protector. No one has played more minutes than those two players this year.

Emmanuel Mudiay, fifth on the team in minutes per game this season, still struggles as a perimeter defender, though his size and athleticism leave some hope for improvement. Kevin Knox’s rookie defense has been very poor, which is not atypical for a rookie. Trey Burke lacks the size to be a good defender. Mario Hezonja, despite the coach’s praise earlier in the year, is not a defense-first player.

The Knicks do have some good defenders on the roster, but injuries and lineup decisions have prevented them from playing together a lot. Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson are both good perimeter defenders. Mitchell Robinson is an excellent rim protector, and has the quickness to guard outside the paint as well. Noah Vonleh has proven to be a versatile defender that can switch screen and rolls and bang inside. Lance Thomas and Courtney Lee are both solid veteran defenders. Luke Kornet can block shots.

Those players have not had much of an opportunity to play together, spare a stretch where the starting lineup featured Frank Ntilikina, Damyean Dotson, Tim Hardaway Jr, Noah Vonleh and Mitchell Robinson. That lineup played elite level defense (98.5 defensive rating) over 94 minutes against other teams starting lineups. It should be no surprise that it features four of the team’s best defensive players.

Fizdale is hamstrung right now, with injuries to Dotson, Robinson, Trier and veterans Lee and Thomas only just returning from long absences. But once he gets his full complement of players back on the floor, the only way he is going to instill a defensive mindset and any consistency stopping opponents is by playing his better defensive players together. Until then, it will be the same old story for the Knicks absentee defense, which will lead a lot of losses and a real chance at the top pick in the draft.

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