It’s been a tale of two seasons for the 2021-22 New York Knicks. The Knicks went 5-1 in their first six games, leading to a “Bing Bong” craze overtaking the Big Apple. But since then, New York has lost four of their last six contests, moving backwards in a competitive Eastern Conference.
As the Knicks sit at 7-5, the team is wondering how they can assert themselves as legitimate contenders rather than just playoff hopefuls. The answer is simple, really. But it requires a look back to last season.
The New York Knicks made the playoffs with defense
Head coach Tom Thibodeau came to the Knicks last year and immediately knew what he needed to improve. In 2019-20, with David Fizdale and Mike Miller leading the way, New York’s defensive rating was 23rd in the NBA. The year prior, it was 26th. But Thibs, a veteran coach who championed great defenses with the Chicago Bulls, was quickly able to transform the Knicks into a defensive juggernaut.
New York held opponents to a league-low 44.0% clip from the field and 33.7% clip from three. As a result, Thibodeau’s bunch allowed just 104.7 points per game, over two points lower than the next-best team. By season’s end, only the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers had a better defensive rating.
The Knicks, who finished 41-31 and earned the four-seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, had a strong defense overcoming a lackluster offense. While New York managed to stifle opponents better than nearly everyone in the NBA, its offensive rating was just 23rd. In addition, its 107.0 points per game bested just four clubs — a sorry group of teams who finished a combined 118 games below .500.
The Knicks have swapped out defense for offense
Knicks fans won’t be upset seeing how much the offense has improved compared to last season. Entering Friday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets, New York is averaging 110.8 points, the seventh-best clip in the NBA, while earning the fourth-highest offensive rating. But the high-scoring Knicks have sacrificed the same defense that made them successful in the first place.
Following their 112-100 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, their third double-digit loss in a week, the Knicks own the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating. Through 12 games, they’ve given up an average of 109.6 points per game, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the eighth-most in the league. And as StatMuse pointed out, they have already allowed career-high nights to Pat Connaughton, Ricky Rubio, OG Anunoby, and Jaylen Brown this season.
Thibodeau made his frustrations known against the Bucks when he benched all five of his starters for the entire fourth quarter. The quintet — Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson — has been outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions this season and carries a defensive rating of 119.3.
“Yeah, just they didn’t play well,” Thibodeau said after the loss, per ESPN. “That’s it. We’ve gotta figure it out.”
Could the Knicks switch up the starting lineup?
Thibodeau has used the same starting lineup in 10 of New York’s 12 games. His five starters have played more than any five-man unit in the NBA so far. But while they can score, defending is a serious issue.
Perhaps a shakeup is in order. Backup center Nerlens Noel is the team leader in defensive box plus-minus, followed by second-year forward Obi Toppin. Could Noel replace Robinson in order to improve overall defense? In his one start, he finished a team-high +12 as the Knicks held the 76ers to just 96 points.
Realistically, rather than changing the lineup, Thibs could simply give some more time to his reserves. New York has a quietly deep bench led by Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, and the aforementioned Noel and Toppin. Those four, along with Immanuel Quickley, have outscored their opponents by 20.9 points per 100 possessions. They’ve also played better defense than Thibs’ starting five.
Whatever New York’s head coach decides, there needs to be far more emphasis on fixing this problematic defense. Otherwise, last year’s breakthrough season could simply wind up as a flash in the pan.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.