The New York Knicks at 7-6 have shown signs they can be a force in the Eastern Conference with some impressive road victories against contending teams, whilst in others showing a myriad of defensive lapses. Talent-wise, the Knicks can be a force, but they must fix their defensive issues to realize their exciting potential.
Offensively their point of emphasis is shooting the 3-ball more. They’ve embraced this philosophy, being top 5 in the league in offense and 3-point percentage. This was evident when they surpassed their franchise record by hitting 24 three-pointers in their rout of the Orlando Magic. The Knicks started the season 5-1, but losing four straight at home has taken a shine off of their hot start. New York’s defensive issues were laid bare in recent games. It’s been a startling drop-off from last year. Chemistry wise the starting unit has also been underwhelming, while their bench has carried them. These primary issues must be addressed if they are to be a strong playoff contender. Let’s look at some of these issues, the positives, and how they can fix their issues.
Knicks Must Fix Defensive Issues
First Unit Chemistry
Much of their defensive issues start from their first unit guard play. Knicks front office improved the guard spot considerably in terms of talent and scoring with multiple-time All-Star Kemba Walker, and sniper Evan Fournier. However, there has been a large drop-off in terms of perimeter defense. Perhaps larger than the Knicks front office anticipated.
Chemistry is another issue. They are often being outworked by their own bench. For instance, their bench is posting a combined +38 plus-minus on the court, while the starters are -78. This historically bad stat shows the huge problems in the first unit, with their bench showing them up in every way.
Fournier is a quality scoring guard and should be utilized more. However, he’s been lost in the offense at times as the first unit often goes into isolation sets due to Randle’s spotty ball movement and Kemba’s early struggles. There is a ton of talent with this trio, but the chemistry has been underwhelming to date. Especially defensively.
Prior to Kemba Walker’s 26 point explosion in their loss to Charlotte on Friday, his play at the point has been disappointing. From initial impressions, he’s struggling to run the offense and generate better looks for his teammates. He’s also been ineffective in the paint and running the pick and roll, normally a strength of his. When he does come out of screens he primarily looks for his own shot. This is fine when the shots fall. When they don’t, the offense quickly becomes stagnant. Before Friday’s game, he failed to crack double digits in points in his last three starts, shooting 42% from the field, averaging just 3 assists per game. These numbers are below a player of his pedigree. It is still possible that once he gets comfortable in the offense he can be close to the player he was. He shows flashes, but not consistently.
The Knicks have the 5th worst defensive rating, as opposed to the 3rd best last season. This tells its own story. They have allowed the most 3’s in the NBA to this point. A common trend to start the season. They’ve been undone by not rotating enough or working hard enough to cover open shooters from penetration and kicking out to the wing. We saw that particularly in their recent home loss to the Bucks where Pat Connaughton had a career night draining seven 3-point shots. Milwaukee hit 26 threes on Wednesday night. An unwanted Knick record. In the same game, they allowed 30 wide-open attempts. They did well to form a wall around Giannis, but didn’t rotate enough to close down the wings. This has been the story in most games this year.
We’ve also seen career nights from crafty vet Ricky Rubio who dropped 37 points and 8 threes for the Cavs. Myles Turner hit 7 threes for the Pacers’ visit to the Knicks. New York is struggling to match their opponent’s intensity on their own home floor which is a trend that needs addressing.
They also are being outrebounded, the Knicks sit 20th in the league in defensive rebounding. A bad combination when they aren’t rebounding or closing out shooters.
Great Depth on Offense
Although we started with their issues, there are still plenty of positives. This team is blessed with an abundance of heart and talent. They already showed this by making up a 21 point deficit in defeating the Bucks the week prior on the road.
They play fast, and overall offensively they are in the top 5 in the league.
Much of this can be attributed to the excellent depth on this team and it’s formidable second unit lead by Derrick Rose. Without question, the second unit works more effectively. For instance a staggering 68 of the 100 total points were scored by the bench against the Bucks in Wednesday’s loss.
Immanuel Quickley has started to find his rhythm off the bench. Providing energy and 3 point scoring whilst being effective off the dribble with his floater. Toppin provides relentless energy in transition and provides quality minutes almost every night. Burks is a versatile 3 and D wing defender, and Noel is an excellent interior defender when healthy. While Gibson is a steady veteran presence.
Rose is more of a floor general than Walker, plus he’s more effective in transition and quickening the pace of the offense. Even in his MVP season, the perimeter shot was not a high percentage shot for him. However, he’s added this to his game shooting 48.9% from range so far this year. Proving how much he has evolved over the years. Rose has been something special for this Knicks squad since last season. Both in terms of leadership and performances. In the Knick’s signature comeback win over the Bucks last week he went 10-18 from the field, 23 points and 8 rebounds off the bench.
Surprisingly, the Knicks are dominant on the road. They currently boast a 5-2 road record, beating the world champion Bucks, resurgent Chicago and contending Sixers. This is a great sign for the team that they are beating contending teams on the road. It’s never easy to win on the road. It speaks to their talent and depth and the tantalising prospect that the Knicks can be a force, but they must fix their defensive issues and win more home games.
How Can The Knicks Fix Their Defensive Concerns?
Here are a list of possibilities:
Start Rose. Undoubtedly Rose is the more comfortable in the offense, and the offense works better with him running the point. However, starting him would affect the chemistry of the second unit. He has established great chemistry with Obi Toppin and Quickley. Perhaps the Knicks make this move hoping to address the balance issue in the first unit.
Run more sets through Fournier and RJ Barrett, two comfortable ball handlers and versatile scorers. Kemba can be used in off-guard sets more.
Utilise rookies Miles McBride and Quentin Grimes. These are two excellent defensive prospects who can shoot the 3-ball and certainly improve the defense from the guard spot. However, the question remains whether they are ready for NBA minutes.
Increasing the minutes for Obi Toppin. This should be a priority. He is proving to be far more than a mere backup to Julius Randle. Obi on the court means the team plays faster, gets easier buckets as he excels in transition. His outside game is extremely limited, but he cuts to the basket well and offers a threat from lobs and alley-oops and his energy boosts the team. Thibodeau has a habit of taking him out of games when he’s making a difference.
Lastly, they could look for a midseason trade for a perimeter defensive guard.
Knicks Can be a Force but Must Fix Defensive Issues
Knick starters get outscored often. Per ESPN the first unit get outscored by 14.4 points per 100 possessions. While also showing a penchant for blowing double-digit leads. In consequence, they may consider moving one of their high energy players to the starting line-up. For instance Rose, or swap Noel and Robinson at center.
Offensively, the starters must start moving the ball better and getting easier looks. It’s not sustainable for the second unit to outwork the first unit massively on both sides. However, the offense hasn’t been a problem overall. Its quite unusual for a Thibodeau team to be lacking defensively and to struggle on their home floor. This team is too well coached for them not to find the answers however. It is still very early, and the Knicks have a winning record and are right in the thick of it in a loaded Eastern Conference.
Overall, talent-wise the signs are there for the Knicks to be a force, but they must fix their defensive issues to be a serious playoff contender.
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