The Fundamentals: Can Knicks thrive with a flawed defensive philosophy?
By Rob Mahoney
A 6-0 start was a testament to just how quickly the Knicks built on last year’s successes by adding some much-needed offensive texture. Whereas the scoring efforts of the 2011-12 team (sans the injured Jeremy Lin) were largely stale and uninspired, this year’s iteration — keyed by some changes from coach Mike Woodson — has offered a refreshing contrast in its evolution.
Much of the credit for that goes to Carmelo Anthony, who is playing some of the best basketball of his career. The long-awaited move to power forward has helped position Anthony for an advantage against any opponents who opt not to cross-match a wing player to defend him, but it’s what he has done with that positional leverage that’s been so striking. His three-point attempts and shots at the rim have both jumped at the expense of empty long two-point tries. He’s reading defenses effectively, and though his assist numbers don’t show it, this may be the high point of Anthony’s career in terms of sensible passing. He has eviscerated power forwards and small forwards alike in all the right ways, without the kind of possession-wearying over-dribbling that had crippled his teams’ half-court offenses in the past.
And better yet: It was out of those practical improvements that the Knicks developed the other vehicles behind their top-ranked offense. As Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted, those opponents who attempt to play more conventional lineups with two big men against New York have been burned when attempting to cross-match on Anthony and hide one big man against either Ronnie Brewer or Jason Kidd. Alternatively, Anthony’s ability to pull one big man out of the lane has cleared the airways of the Knicks’ offense and resuscitated Raymond Felton’s dribble-drive game to the benefit of New York’s many spot-up shooters. The Knicks’ current success wouldn’t be possible without some of their more recent additions, but this was their latent potential all along; by giving the rest of the offense just a little room to breathe, Anthony has been able to capitalize on his incredible gifts in a way that actually facilitates a vibrant, balanced offense.
But curiously enough, such scoring prospects have barely allowed the Knicks to break even of late. New York is just 3-3 since that season-opening six-game winning streak, with the victories coming against the debilitated Pacers and Hornets and the rebuilding Pistons. While the Knicks’ offense has more or less kept its shape under pressure, New York’s defense has given up scoring marks well worse than its already underwhelming season average four times in that six-game stretch. Three of those defensive lapses were so severe as to directly lead to losses — a strange development for a team that ranked fifth in points allowed per possession a season ago.
Such slips are inescapable given the particulars of New York’s strategy. The Knicks’ D isn’t some impenetrable front, crafted from stone and steel by master architects. It’s a good, flexible system that, if anything, is a bit too accommodating to unwanted guests. Woodson has preserved one of the quirkier defensive tenets from his Atlanta days in this New York team, and the trade-offs therein have caused the Knicks some early problems in their coverage.
Whether by design or necessity, Woodson’s post at the head of a Hawks team loaded with versatile athletes allowed him to employ an unusually switch-heavy defense. Elastic wings and quick-footed bigs made the prospect of defending the pick-and-roll a very different enterprise: Rather than concern his players with scenario-specific pressures, Woodson largely opted to simply switch defenders on the ball and adjust slightly on the roll man in order to compensate. It’s a strategy that allows teams to smooth over their inevitable breaks in defending the two-man game and to similarly defend against off-ball screens. It’s a philosophy that schedules immediate help by not forcing any player to waste even a fraction of a second fighting through a screen, thus theoretically covering the seams of a well-tailored defense.
But as we’ve seen in spots with this year’s Knicks, switching so frequently isn’t without its pitfalls. New York is in a relatively good spot to execute Woodson’s plan given that Tyson Chandler and Anthony are capable of handling themselves on the perimeter while both Felton and Kidd can play bigger defensively than the average backcourt. Yet just because the Knicks can manage switches better than most teams doesn’t mean they should readily embrace disadvantage as a part of their defensive strategy. Even if the risks are mitigated by the versatility of the starting lineup, inviting switches over the course of an entire game — or an entire season — simply creates too many opportunities for otherwise limited players to create positions of advantage.
Case in point: New York’s 114-111 loss to Dallas on Wednesday. Switches were hardly all that went wrong for the Knicks’ defense on this particular night, but those voluntary concessions allowed the Mavericks to create mismatches against an opponent that should have been out of their league. A side screen set by Shawn Marion allowed him to draw Kidd, whom he promptly backed into the post. From there, New York’s over-helping instincts became their undoing. The Knicks are so averse to allowing low-post scores that they virtually doubled Marion with a prolonged dig by Brewer, opening up a wide-open three-point attempt at the top of the floor.
A similar formula has allowed quality three-point looks to any team diligent enough to exploit the Knicks’ weaknesses and has resulted in New York’s surrendering the second-highest three-point percentage in the league. Switching isn’t the only problem, but it’s a strategy that makes the Knicks that much more exploitable. As mentioned above, it lures Brewer, Kidd and Felton into needlessly doubling the post at times. It creates ample opportunity for opponents to draw the flat-footed Kurt Thomas and Steve Novak out to the perimeter, making the Knicks ripe for victimization in isolation scenarios that yield easy dribble penetration or virtually uncontested three-pointers (by virtue of Thomas and Novak’s sitting back and anticipating the drive). It reduces individual accountability for players like J.R. Smith, who was already prone to floating away from his man as if he were playing in a daydreamed one-man zone and now needn’t worry about that pesky back screen.
Plus, for a team that switches so often, New York doesn’t reap enough of the targeted rewards. Screeners with any shooting ability whatsoever still cause problems for the Knicks, as quick, creative guards exploit their slower defenders to draw in New York’s entire defense and enable those shooters. Switching also hasn’t made the Knicks any more successful at defending dribble hand-offs — an area of the game in which, according to Synergy Sports Technology, New York has been the least successful across the league in terms of points allowed per play. They save themselves from having to deal with Anthony’s slow-motion recovery after hedging opposing ball-handlers in pick-and-rolls, but is that convenience really worth the assortment of strategic concessions that the Knicks are making elsewhere? Is that momentary benefit good enough to warrant consistently guarding shooters with a sagging defense? As of today, the evidence certainly leans toward the contrary. The Knicks want to switch pretty much everything (save Chandler’s matchup on some occasions), but then feed into their disadvantage by over-helping. More restraint might allow opponents to attack some manufactured weaknesses without compromising the Knicks on the whole.
Though the Knicks may be straining under the weight of the mismatches that their defensive philosophy invites, their offensive buoyancy removes any need for panic. Woodson and his staff will have all the time and practice they need to sort out the defensive kinks, thanks largely to Anthony’s performance at his new position and the buffer created by a reconstructed offense.
• J.J. Hickson is on a hell of a bounce. After appearing utterly unusable during his 2011-12 stint in Sacramento, Hickson made a nice run for Portland at the tail end of a losing season. Such flashes in March and April aren’t at all uncommon for end-of-the-rotation types, and Hickson’s statistical improvements could have easily been considered late-season mirages.
But the first 12 games of this season have affirmed what we saw in Portland. Hickson ranks second in the league (among qualified players) in total rebounding rate, trailing only Cleveland’s Anderson Varejao. That’s a huge jump for a player who has characteristically been an underwhelming rebounder, and whose career mark in rebounding rate is a full six points lower than his current season average. Hickson’s rebounding numbers should be expected to dip to more reasonable values, but the underlying improvement (not to mention the benefit of a Blazers team with little rebounding competition) appears solid.
• J.R. Smith’s appearance on the turnover percentage leaderboard (11th; 7.6 percent) may come as a surprise, but this is actually the fifth straight season in which Smith has improved his ball control. Credit goes to improved judgment both on the part of Smith and his coaches, who are progressively finding more effective ways to use his considerable talents.
• The Wizards have found new and exciting ways to stay winless, all while Randy Wittman is digging for some combination of players that works. Wittman recently distributed minutes rather evenly (at about 20 minutes per player) over a 10-man rotation in back-to-back overtime affairs. If there were anyone that Wittman could lean on for a big-minute night at this point, I suppose he would. But instead the Wizards get a potpourri, and not a win to show for it.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Brooklyn’s secret weapon, which is somehow a secret only to Avery Johnson
I’d love to give Johnson the benefit of the doubt with regard to one of the more promising and underused elements of the Nets’ offense, but given his strategic track record this season, I fear that it may have gone honestly overlooked. The Deron Williams-Joe Johnson pick-and-roll is a fun little setup that has created some quality attempts for the Nets against tough defenses, and yet we find it oddly absent from Brooklyn’s clutch repertoire. For the most part, the Nets’ offense is doing just fine; Brooklyn ranks fifth in points scored per possession, is tied for sixth in turnover rate and stands just outside the top 10 in effective field-goal percentage. The offense is efficient and sustainable on the whole, but has a tendency to bog down into isolation as a default late in games. Why not run a quick screen for Williams and Johnson — a strategy that the Nets have dabbled with, but not embraced.
2. Evan Turner, ever the wild card
The Sixers have started to figure a few things out within their offense, and having an NBA-viable version of Evan Turner has gone a long way in those specific improvements. How to best use a player of Turner’s skills is still up for debate, given that he’s too shaky a shooter to rely on as a spot-up option and too limited to be a team’s top functional playmaker. But the first step toward solving this riddle is establishing some baseline of performance and production, which these last few weeks have effectively done. In his last six games, Turner is averaging 16 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists. That’s the kind of potential for production that coach Doug Collins and the Sixers can’t rightly ignore, no matter how curious a talent Turner is to incorporate into an offensive system.
3. Glen Davis takes a tumble
There’s good effort, there’s reckless hustle and then there’s Glen Davis:
4. The best Kobe ever?
It’s fair to wonder if this is the best that Kobe Bryant has ever been as an offensive player. He isn’t racking up stats in such absurd volume these days (gone are the 30-plus-points-per-game seasons), but Bryant is nonetheless leading the league in scoring while posting career highs in virtually every mark of efficiency imaginable. This version of Bryant is almost entirely distinct from the one that gunned in a way that was somehow both charismatic and off-putting; it’s the olive branch to Bryant’s critics that frankly I never thought we’d see. He isn’t as wholly — and coldly — productive, but his judgment and shot selection are nearing career levels without at all disabling team-wide efforts for offense.
5. Chandler Parsons, masquerading as a volume scorer
We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that some facsimile of Parsons’ 31-point explosion against the Knicks is the new norm, but it was great to see a player who gets so many of the game’s details right to dominate in the most obvious way possible. The Rockets’ second-year forward was already a promising cutter, passer and defender, but he’s made some incredible leaps this season with his shooting consistency — and now has a career high in a marquee game to show for it.
6. Where have you gone, Isaiah Thomas?
The Kings are, unsurprisingly, a mess, and in the midst of their 4-9 start, sophomore point guard Thomas has essentially tripped his way out of Keith Smart’s rotation. Thomas was one of the team’s brightest spots a year ago, but Smart and the Kings are desperate for even a vaguely successful offensive formula, given that a competent team defense with this bunch of young players may be a bit of a lost cause. So Thomas was shuffled out — first out of the starting lineup and then even regular reserve duty — for the sake of finding some semblance of offensive flow. The experiment has gone about as well as you’d imagine; Sacramento still ranks 20th in points scored per possession, its spacing is a mess and even Aaron Brooks’ best showings don’t much help the Kings’ overall offense. Thomas has had an underwhelming season in his own right, but his demotion says more about Sacramento’s lack of options than it does about his statistical regression.
7. Long live mutton chops
On the bright side for the Kings: James Johnson’s taste in facial hair is exquisite. (See the bottom of this post.)
8. Omer Asik as a case study in repetition
By this point, Asik’s finishing struggles are fairly well known. While the Houston center thrives in the complexities of team defense, his capacity to convert the simplest of basketball plays is extremely limited.
Nevertheless, Asik is getting plenty of chances to convert looks at the rim via mismatches and quick rolls to the rim this season, and Houston’s guards haven’t been shy in the slightest about giving him the ball. Asik has received a consistent vote of confidence from virtually every level of the Rockets’ operation, and already we’re starting to see some improvements in his rolling footwork, along with some safer catches. Everything we’ve seen from Asik offensively in Houston would seem to suggest that he’s raw more than flawed. He was never really afforded offensive opportunity in Chicago, largely because he seemed incapable of it. But now I’m fascinated to see if Asik can actually improve substantially as a finisher through repetition alone, or if there really is a deep-seated flaw to his offensive game that will keep him a defensive specialist.