At 15-23, the New York Knicks’ record is far from admirable. However, in the weak Eastern Conference, it’s enough to put them just half a game out of the eighth place playoff spot. Entering the new year, the Knicks were just 9-21, but thanks to a five game winning streak and winning six of their last eight games, the team finds themselves right in the thick of things.
The Knicks have been a better all around team in 2014, thanks to several factors. Mike Woodson, despite still playing questionable lineups, has finally found a generally concrete rotation. The Knicks have also had great contributions thanks to Carmelo Anthony’s stellar play, Iman Shumpert’s resurgence, and Amar’e Stoudemire’s renaissance. What’s also improved, and proven to be crucial to their recent success, has been their defense.
For the season, the Knicks are just 24th in defensive rating, giving up 105 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats. They also rank in the bottom ten in opponent field goal percentage, defending the rim, and the three-point line. According to Synergy Sports, the Knicks rank 27th in the league in defense, giving up an average .92 points per defensive possession.
In recent weeks, however, much of this has changed. For January, the Knicks rank 11th in the league in defensive rating, giving up 102.4 points per 100 possessions. In addition, the Knicks have defended shots much better, forcing opponents to shoot 44% from the field (11th in league) and just 31% from three-point range, which is the seventh best mark in the league.
Part of the improvement has come from their own defensive principles. The Knicks, by eye, seem to be doing a slightly better job navigating picks and sticking with their men. While they still switch far too often, fighting through picks and screens has been part of their stronger defense lately. On the season, the Knicks are still one of the worst teams at defending the pick-and-roll, their main source of problems on defense. According to Synergy, the Knicks rank dead last in the league at stopping the roll man, allowing 1.21 points per play to the roll man. They’re no better at defending the pick-and-roll ball-handler either, allowing .86 points per play, 29th in the league.
However, their recent defense suggests that they’re stopping the pick-and-roll slightly better. As mentioned, the Knicks’ three-point defense has improved in January. A high three-point field goal percentage would suggest, partly, that the Knicks are ducking under screens or switching too often and allowing the ball-handler open looks from downtown.
However, it appears the Knicks are defending the pick-and-roll better elsewhere, too. In January, New York is 14th in opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area, allowing 58% shooting. Prior to January, the Knicks were 29th in the league in defending this area, allowing opponents to shoot 66%. In January, the Knicks are one of the worst teams in defending the mid-range jumper, allowing 43% shooting, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the modern NBA moving more and more away from the mid-range game, allowing opponents to shoot from the mid-range is actually a defensive plan for some teams, so the Knicks aren’t necessarily hurting themselves by giving up good looks from such distance.
The Knicks still have a long way to respectability, but given their strides on offense, their defense seems to be slowly improving, too. Defense takes effort and energy, and if the Knicks are willing to put in that hard work every night — as they have been recently — then the team will benefit as a whole.
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