By John Schmeelk
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For the Knicks to make a serious run to the NBA Finals, they have to improve their defense. There's a few ways that a team's defense can be improved.
1) Change in coach's strategy
2) Better Defensive Personnel
3) Better effort
Based on interviews and a great story by Zach Lowe over at Grantland, it is quite obvious that Mike Woodson has very little interest in changing his overall defensive strategy. The Knicks are still going to be a team that switches a ton of screens that will put themselves into mismatches from time to time. Inevitably, the Knicks would then double-team, which would force their defense to rotate to open shooters. The Knicks failed to rotate consistently, leading to their poor defense against three-point shots and a large number of defensive fouls.
The easiest solution is to not double-team as much. Make opposing big men score one-on-one against guys like Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks' big men need to force opposing guards into jumpers -- even if they are open -- rather than letting them drive to the hoop. Both of these are preferable to free runs at the basket or wide open three-point shots. Generally speaking, the three worst things you can do on defense is allow layups, open threes or send your opponent to the foul line. The Knicks do all three things way too often.
I'm sure Woodson and his staff are coaching their players on when to double-team, switch, etc., but the Knicks run into a big problem once those players hit the floor: They are not high-IQ basketball players. Anthony is a great player, but he does not play intelligent (or often high-intensity) defense. He often switches even when it is unnecessary.
Would anyone on this planet describe Smith as a smart defender? I don't think so. Iman Shumpert, with all his defensive ability, is often too aggressive for his own good and loses himself on rotations. Amar'e Stoudemire is notorious for doing mindless things on defense. Andrea Bargnani's reputation is not strong in this regard, either. The result is a bunch of double-teams and switches that are often unnecessary and hurt the team profusely. Woodson's strategy on its own is not necessarily bad, but the players have to employ it properly, something his players rarely do. Luckily for Woodson, he did get some new players that should help in this regard.
The Knicks personnel on defense should be better this year. Ron Artest, despite having lost some of his athleticism, is still a very intelligent defender and should help the team concept immeasurably. Kenyon Martin, another excellent and versatile defender, will be with the team for the entire season. Shumpert is healthy and has his legs underneath him for an entire season. More minutes for Pablo Prigioni will mean improved defensive performance as well. Artest and Martin should help with the team's rotations off the ball, while Prigioni and Shumpert should help defend opposing point guards.
One of the Knicks' biggest weaknesses last year was defending opposing point guards and keeping them out of the lane. Moving Raymond Felton off of them and onto opposing two-guards, where he has more success with his strength, would help things immediately. A bounce-back season for Tyson Chandler would also be a boon to the Knicks' defense. He did not protect the basket nearly as well as he did in his first season with the team.
With Stoudemire out, the only two true defensive liabilities on the team that will play major minutes are Anthony and Bargnani. Of course, right now, it appears that Woodson wants to play them together at forward with the starting lineup. It's a huge problem.
The final thing that the Knicks need to improve is their effort. One statistic from last year -- their drastically improved fourth-quarter defensive numbers -- indicates that the Knicks did not always play with the same intensity on defense. By some miracle, the Knicks transformed themselves defensively in the fourth quarters of games, holding teams to only 99 points per 100 possessions. That's third best in the league, and down from 103.5 points allowed per possession allowed over the course of the entire game (17th in the league).
There is no explanation for such a disparity except effort. The Knicks tried harder in the fourth quarter so their defense improved. You saw the same thing happen in the playoffs. Their defense improved not only in fourth quarters, but during full games when compared to the regular season.
Can Woodson get his team to play at that level of intensity for entire games? Is his team willing to make that commitment? Can he get them to buy in? That's the only way this team can really make a run into the playoffs. Perhaps the additions of Artest and more playing time for Martin, Shumpert and Prigioni will help bring the other guys around. But change has to come defensively one way or another, or the Knicks won't get any further than they got last year. It will be a second-round exit once again.
You can follow me on Twitter for Knicks, Giants, Yankees and everything else in the world of sports @Schmeelk.
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