Last season, the Knicks’ dramatic turnaround was built on them being one of the best defensive teams in the league. They ended the shortened 72-game regular season schedule ranked No.1 in the 30-team NBA in opponents’ points allowed at 104.7. Tom Thibodeau, who took over as the Knicks’ head coach July 30, 2020, bolstered his already laudable reputation as one of the top defensive minds in basketball by compelling his roster to play intensely and smartly on the defensive end of the floor.
The Knicks’ slow pace was also a factor. They were second to last in possessions per game at 99.6 and were 26th overall in points scored per game at 107. So team president Leon Rose looked to address the Knicks’ offensive deficiencies by signing free agents Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, a point guard and shooting guard respectively, to free-agent contracts.
Heading into last night’s game (Wednesday, Nov. 10) at Madison Square Garden versus the Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks, who were 7-4, had risen to third in scoring from a year ago, posting 111.7 points per outing.
Conversely, they had fallen to 22nd in points surrendered, giving up an average of 109.4 in 11 games played.
Sunday’s 126-109 defeat to the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Garden underscored a potential dilemma for Thibodeau. Cavs’ guard Rickey Rubio torched them for a career-high 37 points, and the 2020-’21 NBA Coach of the Year was unable to put a combination on the floor that could provide an effective balance of offense and defense. Before facing the Bucks, four of the Knicks six previous opponents had put up at least 110 points.
“It’s hard to judge,” said Thibodeau on Sunday after the loss when asked to explain his team’s defensive shortcomings. “I always say whatever your game plan is, there’s two things you look at: one, are you executing this scheme correctly? And two, are you doing it hard enough? Sometimes the answer to that is ‘you are,’ so that’s when you change.
“But if you’re lacking in execution of the scheme or the intensity, and it just takes one person to miss and we’re all tied together, so we have to fix it, we have to look, we have to learn.”
Walker, who sat out on Sunday to rest as the Knicks had back-to-back games—they topped the 76ers 103-96 in Philadelphia on Monday—and Fournier are highly skilled offensive players but not strong defenders. However, they are not the primary reason the Knicks’ defense has slipped from a season ago. Collectively, they haven’t been as stout at slowing opponents at the point of attack and consistently executing their rotations.
They have superior athletes such as second-year forward Obi Toppin, and centers Mitch Robinson and Nerlens Noel that can erase mistakes in the paint, but a larger sample size is needed, 20 to 25 games, to make a more definitive assessment of whether or not the Knicks’ objective to increase their scoring this season results in them having sacrificed defense for offense.