With the way the [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
have laid down defensively over the past month, defensive sieve Amar'e Stoudemire should have no problems fitting in right away.
After an almost magical start to the season, the Knicks stumble into Thursday night's matchup against the [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
having lost five of their past eight games. But contrary to popular belief, their recent skid has little to do with their 3-point dependent offense coming up empty.
No, it has much more to do with the fact that they've taken the holidays off on the defensive end of the floor.
Rewind to Dec. 7, the morning after the Knicks spanked the defending champion [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
on national television 112-92, even without [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
. Things were good in Knicks Nation. New York ranked comfortably atop the East with a 14-4 record, boasting the league's most efficient offense and an 11th-ranked defense anchored by a supposedly rejuvenated Anthony and reigning Defensive Player of the Year [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
That seems like more than a month ago, doesn't it? They've gone just 7-6 since that Melo-less romp in Miami while absorbing various injuries to Anthony, Chandler, [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
and [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
. They've looked every bit like the injury-rattled, slightly above .500 team that many expected of the ancient, if talented, roster -- not the title contender that many Knicks fans hoped after a hot start.
But save me the "live by the 3, die by the 3" knee-jerk diagnosis. The Knicks haven't been lights-out from downtown lately, but did you really expect them to shoot 42 percent from downtown all season? The inevitable regression to the mean should be a shock to exactly no one and the reports of the Knicks' death by 3-point shot have been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, the Knicks have shot 35.9 percent from beyond the arc during their slide since Dec. 6, a conversion rate that still ranks above the league average. The horror! Sure, it's convenient to point out that Mike D'Antoni's [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
never won a title by shooting nothing but 3-pointers, but it glosses over the fact that there's actually a track record of success for teams reliant on the long ball.
Let's take a quick stroll through history. Most recently, the 2010-11 [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
title team, anchored by Chandler by the way, ranked fifth in 3-point attempts. The 2008-09 Magic reached the NBA Finals while having the most 3-point dependent offense in the league. The 2006-07 Spurs shot more 3s than D'Antoni's Suns in their Western Conference semifinal matchup (gasp!) and then eventually won the championship. And then there's the [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
who won back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995 after shooting 100 more 3-pointers than any other team in each banner-raising campaign.
The problem for the Knicks isn't that their 3-point shot has gotten cold(er), but rather that their defense hasn't been able to absorb a slight thawing. Since the Melo-less win in Miami, the Knicks have allowed a bloated 106.3 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com's advanced stats tool, a rate that would rank 27th in the league over the entire season. After being a borderline top-10 defense for the opening month of the season, the Knicks' D has essentially been a doormat for opposing teams.
So what's the issue? The Knicks haven't bothered to play defense until the fourth quarter -- and that's often a little too late. This isn't just an knee-jerk overreaction to the past two losses to Sacramento and Portland when the Knicks couldn't overcome double-digit halftime deficits. This trend has lasted all season long. The Knicks currently rank 28th in first-half defense and the only time they've looked like an above-average defensive team is after three quarters.
Knicks by quarter this season
Q ORtg Rank DRtg Rank 1 111.3 2nd 105.7 24th 2 110.5 3rd 107.6 24th 3 106.3 3rd 103.0 19th 4 110.0 2nd 95.1 3rd Courtesy of NBA.com
Problems had surfaced long before injuries forced the Knicks to start a 40-year-old [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
and [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
. Coach Mike Woodson has tried to balance their offensively skewed squad by inserting the defense-focused [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
into the starting lineup, but the results have been disastrous.
Numbers from NBA.com's advanced stats tool tell us that the lineup of Felton, [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
, Brewer, Anthony and Chandler has played 71 minutes together since Dec. 1, giving up a pathetic 116.7 points per 100 possessions. That's the worst defensive rating for any of the 30 units across the NBA that have logged at least 70 minutes over that time. Adding insult to injury, that lineup's offense has scored a measly 85.4 points per 100 possessions over the same period.
Going small hasn't paid dividends for the Knicks lately and it raises an important question: Does sliding Anthony to the 4 make sense if even a Defensive Player of the Year can't compensate for their woes on that end of the floor? The issues go beyond Anthony, who will never be confused with [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
as a defender. Kidd and [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
are older than time by NBA standards and their lack of athleticism has been exposed when asked to move more than a foot in either direction.
Compounding the lack of mobility is that the Knicks just don't have reliable options outside of Chandler to plug the middle. Opponents have absolutely slammed the Knicks in the pick-and-roll this season -- they rank ninth-worst in the NBA according to SynergySports when the ball handler makes a scoring play -- but much of the damage is done when ball handlers keep Chandler on an island off the ball and exploit [Only registered and activated users can see images. Click Here To Register...]
and Thomas' glacier-like footspeed in open space.
Small ball can work only if the perimeter defense is rock-solid and that hasn't been the case with the Knicks lately. So if the Knicks can't go small, then they'll have to go big, right?
Therein lies the problem. Stoudemire carries a reputation of a star fit for coming to the rescue, but he's likely to make the Knicks' defensive issues worse, not better. He looked absolutely lost in Tuesday's loss to the Blazers, which can be excused because of rustiness. But the larger sample of the past three years points to an outlook just as grim.
Despite their lofty contracts and reputations that have approached MVP candidate territory at times, the Knicks have been outscored with the Anthony-Stoudemire partnership on the floor by 2.3 points every 100 possessions since 2010-11. That's a sample size that is as big as you can get (1,659 minutes). The offense with them together would rank 10th in today's NBA, but the defense -- 27th.
Chandler makes it all better, right? Wrong. In fact, the star trio of Anthony-Stoudemire-Chandler also has been a losing combination, being outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions in their time together on the floor. Why? The offense absolutely tanks with Anthony and those two bigs in the paint, scoring 98.5 points per 100 possessions over 794 minutes. You know who has a better offensive efficiency than that? The 2012-13 Bobcats, currently sporting a 98.7 points per 100 possessions, which is good for fourth-to-last this season.
The news isn't all bad, Knicks fans. Look at the schedule. The Knicks have 12 games left in January and Thursday night's test against the Spurs represents the only one against a top-10 offense. And who knows, coach Gregg Popovich may or may not place a call to Southwest Airlines seeing as it's a back-to-back and their fourth game in five nights. All in all, nine of the Knicks' next 12 opponents are below-average offenses and the three that aren't will be played in Madison Square Garden.
Under normal circumstances, the soft schedule would mean the Knicks are poised for a defensive correction, but these aren't normal circumstances. Integrating a healthy Stoudemire on the defensive end would be tough as it is, but he's nowhere near 100 percent as was evident by his grounded game Tuesday.
The Knicks' title-contention status has always rested on their defense and considering Woodson's reputation as a defense-minded coach, that status is ironically on increasingly shaky ground. Are the Knicks legitimate contenders? With the defense reeling and Stoudemire's integration looming, the Knicks have more questions than answers.