Knicks Defense Improving

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about how poor the Knicks defense is and how Coach D’Antoni is not equipped to coach defense.  However, as two well-written (and timely) posts have pointed out, the Knicks defense has improved since the trade.

First up is Sebastian Pruiti of Basketball Prospectus (subscription required for the full article):

Despite running into some bumps in the road, (the two Cleveland games) New York’s defense has been better since the Anthony trade. How much better? The Knicks were giving up 112.4 points per 100 possessions before the trade, but since the trade, the Knicks have been giving up 109.7 points per 100 possessions.

So how has the Knicks defense gotten better despite adding a poor individual defender in Carmelo Anthony? Well, so far, the team’s total effort on the defensive end has been much better. This effort has lead to more close-outs and contested jumpers, resulting in more misses for Knicks’ opponents, who have been held to a True Shooting Percentage (TS%) of 54.7 percent. Before the Anthony trade, Knicks’ opponents were posting a TS% of 55.7 percent.

The number crunching seems to indicate positive progress on the defensive side of the ball.  However, anyone familiar with statistical analysis knows that small sample sizes can be misleading. So what are the chances that this progress is sustainable? Let’s turn to Danny Chau of Plantar Fascitis for his take on Jared Jeffries’ intangibles:

Jeffries’ calling card was always defense, and really, what’s left to be said about it? He’s a great help defender mainly because he’s willing. He’s tall and long, and will always take the charge… While I thought Jeffries could’ve helped other elite teams in need of a versatile defender to round out the bench, there really isn’t another place where Jeffries would have as much of an impact.

In the first 58 games without Jeffries, the Knicks gave up an average of 105.8 points a game. In the four games with Jeffries, the Knicks have allowed 98.8. Small sample sizes are usually a huge deterrent in any realistic projections, but considering how Jeffries on-court presence positively affected the Knicks last year, this can probably be seen as more of the same. For a terrible team like last year’s, it’s easy to scoff at Jeffries’ impact. But with a playoff-bound team paying him a fraction of what he was owed last year, his worth has magnified.

So far we have an apparent increase in effort on the defensive end plus the addition of a more than willing defender in Jeffries. I can see how you may not be totally convinced that this improvement on the defensive side is real, or sustainable, so I will take part in a Humblebrag and quote myself:

Finally, I believe there is a huge aspect to acquiring Carmelo Anthony that I haven’t seen discussed enough (if at all.)acquiring Melo serves as way to protect the Knicks investment in Amar’e because it will allow Coach D’Antoni to rest Amar’e more often. Up until the team acquired Melo, once Amar’e left the lineup, the offense went in the tank. It became a lot more difficult for the Knicks to score and D’Antoni was forced to play Amar’e too many minutes. Now that the Knicks have Melo, Amar’e can do what he did in the Cleveland game: sit out for a long stretch while the offense runs through Melo. Additionally, once they learn to play together, it should be a lot easier for both players to get their points when they’re on the floor at the same time. In theory, with playing less minutes and having to expend less energy on offense should translate into more energy and focus on defense (perhaps wishful thinking, but I digress.)

Both Amar’e with the Knicks prior to the trade and Melo with the Nuggets for the majority of his career have been forced to shoulder an incredible offensive burden. Most nights those guys were their respective team’s offense. The presence of another star player should make scoring easier for Amar’e and Melo,  and it also gives D’Antoni, as he has noted a few times, the luxury of resting Amar’e and Melo separately. Thus, this affords each star player more rest which, combined with not having to shoulder so much of the scoring load, should provide Amar’e and Melo with more energy to expend on defense. Additionally, this also allows D’Antoni to surround the star that remains on the court with sound defensive players (or, in the Knicks case, players who at least try hard on defense) without seeing the offense become inept since the team can still run its offense through Amar’e or Melo, depending on which star player remains on the floor.

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