Before the season ends, barring a major injury to Carmelo Anthony or Amar'e Stoudemire, the New York Knicks' offense will look much better than its defense both in the box score and on the court. Right now, though, the expected outcome is flipped: New York ranks No. 23 on offense according to Basketball-Reference, scoring 99.5 points per 100 possessions. (League average is at 102.6, and all teams but the Washington Wizards are producing at least 96 points per 100 possessions.) On defense, the Knicks rank a lofty (for New York) No. 10, holding opponents to 101 points per 100 possessions. (League average is obviously 102.6 on this end, too.) So the Knicks are about three points worse than average on offense and 1.6 points better than average on defense.
That's quite a difference from last season, when the Knicks were 3.6 points per 100 better than league average on offense and 2.8 points worse than average on defense. We expected the addition of free agent center Tyson Chandler to help the defense, and maybe even get it to average, despite low expectations for Melo and Amar'e. The loss of Chauncey Billups -- necessary to grab Chandler -- was a drain on the offense, but a 6.6 points per 100 possessions drain? No. Not close.
So what's happened?
On defense, the better-than-expected performance comes with a huge caveat: the Knicks have largely played against awful offenses. In 14 games, New York has faced just three offenses in the top ten, going 1-2 in those games. Last week's grinding win against the 76ers was wonderful, and despite Steve Nash's strong performance on Wednesday, New York did hold down Phoenix's offense to subpar efficiency. But the bulk of the Knicks' defensive résumé has come against below-average offensive clubs. Four of New York's six wins have come against clubs in the league's bottom five in offense (Charlotte, Detroit, Sacramento, Toronto) while another came in the opener against Boston (No. 19) along with the aforementioned stunner against No. 2 Philly.
When you adjust for opponent offensive strength, the Knicks' relative defensive performance looks far from sturdy. The chart below presents the Knicks' opponent's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) in their game against New York, over the course of the season and the difference between the two. If the number in the final column (Performance Vs. Average) is negative, it means that in that game, the Knicks' defense held the opponent under their season average for points per 100 by that amount. The opposite applies for positive numbers in that column. Games in which New York held opponents to five or more points below that team's average offensive rating are highlighted in green; games in which New York let opponents exceed their average offensive rating by five or more points are highlighted in red.
|Team||Opp. Game ORtg||Opp. Season ORtg||Perf Vs. Avg|
In all, the Knicks have allowed teams to outstrip their usual performance by about one point per 100 possessions. Assuming New York's ends up playing an average schedule and this keeps up, the Knicks would finish the season around No. 17 or 18 in the league in defense. Much of that current No. 10 ranking is the smoke and mirrors of a weak schedule. The somewhat good news is that the Knicks have only had one really poor defensive showing in the last eight games, and that the team's very worst nights on that end largely happened in the season's first two weeks. Progress, we hope ... though everything we know about Melo, Stoudemire and Mike D'Antoni indicates that the club will be average at best on that end.
The real question that will decide whether the Knicks stand to impact anything at all this spring regards New York's shockingly bad offense.
It's not necessarily a shock that the Knicks' offense is imperfect; flaws showed even late last season as New York picked up steam after trading for Anthony and Billups. The cracks were apparent once the Knicks waived Billups and rookie point guard Iman Shumpert when down due to an injury in the preseason, and the problem was that Toney Douglas (a small two who can handle the ball) was the only point guard on the roster. Shumpert has returned and the Knicks (hilariously) brought in Mike Bibby, but the fact remains that the team lacks an NBA-level creator in the backcourt, which leads to far too many isolation sets and far too few pick-and-roll opportunities for Amar'e.
As a result, Stoudemire has the worst shooting percentage of his career and looks completely average on offense ... the only end of the game he was ever above-average. Zach Lowe of SI.com, who takes a different bead on New York's defense, discussed the Amar'e struggle on Thursday:
Stoudemire's play is increasingly worrisome, and not because the 29-year-old forward and Anthony are (predictably) struggling to mesh. He is shooting an Antoine Walker-esque 40.8 percent after four straight seasons of at least 50 percent, and he looks creakier and more flat-footed than ever on defense. He missed two games earlier this season with an ankle injury, and I hope for New York's sake that the ankle is still bothering him. If it's not, there is either an undisclosed injury, or Stoudemire's play is declining unexpectedly fast for some reason.
This is where the Knicks' season will be made or broken: whether Stoudemire can perform up to his standard on offense, given that the defense should slip and midseason roster upgrades will be difficult (Almost every usable asset on the roster was sent to Denver in the 'Melo trade). New York desperately needs its offense to regain its top-10 form from a year ago, with the benefit of Billups. Baron Davis will be back soon, and though he's been wildly erratic as a shooter, he can deliver the ball in the right spots and run a good pick-and-roll. He can help Amar'e get back toward normal.
New York still won't have a lick of deep shooting, and Boom will only add to the already high tally of "bad shots" the Knicks take every game. But to be anything, New York needs an effective Amar'e, and it's clear a more traditional point guard is needed for that task.
Whatever the case, this was not the season the franchise expected to have. With a quick pace to the condensed season and few options, it's time for the Knicks to start biting their nails.
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