The New York Knicks mercifully ended their four-game skid with a solid 99-93 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday. When you're losing games and hope, any win is solid. Of particular note was that New York didn't claim victory with great offense, as would be expected -- the Knicks shot an effective field goal percentage of just .480, and scored a nice but subsuperb 1.08 points per possession. New York won by boasting a defense that held Philadelphia to really poor shooting (.447 eFG) and pretty bad offense (1.02 ppp).
That's exactly what New York did last year. The difference between the 2012 team and the 2013 edition is no longer great in the standings -- the newer team is still better, but not by a whole lot. The difference comes in how the team gets those wins. In 2012, the Knicks excelled at defense, with the No. 5 unit in the league. They were fully mediocre on offense at No. 17 in the NBA. Thus season, the Knicks have risen to an extraordinary No. 3 in offense and ... fallen hopelessly to No. 18 on defense. This despite a healthy Tyson Chandler, who claimed the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year award.
You'd think you could blame Carmelo Anthony's power forward minutes for the defensive regression, but the data doesn't totally agree. 82games.com shows opponent shooting percentage at each position. Opposing power forwards are barely shooting better at all in 2013. The real problems show up at point guard (.456 eFG in 2012, .506 in 2013), small forward (.510 in 2012, .557 in 2013) and ... yes, center (an impossibly low .465 in 2012, .501 in 2013). Chandler himself is seeing opposing centers shoot an eFG of .517 on him. That figure was .465 in 2012.
The 2012 Knicks couldn't score efficiently but stopped enough teams to end up with a 36-30 record. The 2013 Knicks score at will, but can't stop anyone. The easy explanation is that the changing of the guards has sparked both changes. The Knicks' guards were in notoriously horrible shape before the brief, wondrous Jeremy Lin era; before too long, he was injured and lost. The Knicks' new guards -- J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd, even Pablo Prigioni -- started this season on fire ... offensively. Their collective and individual defense might not be as dependable, and frankly the shooting has fallen off quite a bit (particularly for Kidd, who shot a .602 eFG in November and December and is currently at .413 in January and February).
But none of it explains opponents' far easier time scoring on Chandler, unless he's been forcing to help so much that it's leaving him vulnerable. Opponents aren't taking more shots against him, they are just converting at a much higher efficiency. That wasn't an issue on Sunday -- Spencer Hawes, the Sixers' finesse center, shot just 3-11 against Chandler. And of course, there are few juggernaut centers lurking in the East playoffs. (The Knicks ought to hope that the Bulls improve enough that Chandler and 'Melo don't have to face Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer in the first round. I'm not sure Al Horford and Josh Smith are much preferred. A date with Brook Lopez certainly would not be.)
At this point, the fate of the Knicks relies on whether that offense can hold and whether Chandler can lead the defense back to excellence. If he and Mike Woodson can do so, this can finally be a complete team worth fretting over. Until then, it's a somewhat better bizarro version of the 2012 squad that flamed out in the postseason.
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