Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek has consistently articulated that his team should be constructed on a solid defensive foundation. Few would argue against his premise. The NBA rule changes, such as the one implemented after the 2003-2004 season disallowing hand-checking of players on the perimeter to essentially foster a more aesthetically appealing game for the primary purposes of entertainment value, have palpably tilted the advantage to the offensive side of the court.
Yet defense remains the essential element of championship teams. The recent dynasties or mini-dynasties, the Golden States Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat, have, with a few exceptions—last season’s Cavaliers team was below average both during the regular season and postseason defensively—been able to lock down opponents.
As some Knicks fans and professional pundits bemoan the lack of scoring production from the team’s point-guards as they watch Damian Lillard (25.2), Russell Westbrook (24.9), Kyrie Irving (24.6) and Kemba Walker (21.8) all enter last night’s (Wednesday) schedule among the top 20 scorers in the league, Jarrett Jack (8.0) and rookie Frank Ntilikina (5.4) aren’t the fundamental reason Hornacek’s crew is 21-27 heading into tonight’s road game against the Denver Nuggets.
The Knicks have lost nine of their past 12 games because they have been a poor defensive team over this stretch. Tuesday, they surrendered 123 points to the Warriors while scoring 112, and on Sunday inexcusably gave up 127 to the Los Angeles Lakers in a 20-point defeat. The Lakers put up 30 or more points in every quarter.
The Knicks rank 16th in the NBA in opponents’ points allowed, right in the middle of the pack. A counter argument could be the Warriors are 21st at 107.2 yet have the league’s best record (38-10). However, an objective position is the Warriors are one of the best defensive teams in the league when need be and when they so desire. Conversely, the Knicks are incapable of conveniently throwing their defensive switch on and off.
The Boston Celtics sit atop the Eastern Conference—they were 34-14 before facing the Los Angeles Clippers last night—on the strength of being the No. 2 ranked defensive squad, allowing only 98.3 points per game. They were less than a point behind the No. 1 ranked San Antonio Spurs (97.6), who boasted a record of 31-18 and have played most of this season without injured star forward Kawhi Leonard, who is a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Indeed, the Knicks, 19th in scoring at 104.7, have a lot of room for offensive growth. Yet scapegoating their point guards’ pedestrian scoring is misleading. It is the team’s collective inept defense that is the issue.