The only new problem with the Knicks' defense is the Knicks' offense

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The Knicks can't stop anybody. But what else is new? (Getty Images)
The Knicks can’t stop anybody. But what else is new? (Getty Images)

The Orlando Magic beat up on the New York Knicks on Monday night. They scored 67 points in the first half, knocked down a season-high-tying 15 3-pointers, dished 35 assists on 45 made shots, and ran away in the third quarter en route to a 115-103 win. They did this despite entering Monday ranked 29th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession, 27th in team 3-point accuracy, and 26th in team field-goal percentage.

They did this despite heading into Madison Square Garden on the second night of a back-to-back on the road after getting beaten by 13 points in Indianapolis on New Year’s Day. They did this despite the Knicks having had Jan. 1 off to rest after traveling back from Houston, where they got roasted to a historic degree by James Harden. They did this, basically, because the Knicks are really, really bad at stopping anyone.

This is nothing new. With rare exceptions, the Knicks have been somewhere between bad and really bad on defense for the last decade and a half. And yet, it’s seemed particularly problematic recently, as New York has now lost five straight and eight of its last 10, turning in a string of underwhelming performances during which head coach Jeff Hornacek has seen enough to know he’s seen enough.

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From Ian Begley of ESPN.com:

“I think they’re trying,” Hornacek said of the Knicks. “We just must not be good enough defensively.” […]

“I have to find someone to play some defense,” Hornacek said. “You can’t come out beginning of the game — I think their first three or four baskets were 3-pointers. We’ve got to have better pride in that.”

Hornacek suggested after the game that coaches would try to implement some gimmicks into the Knicks’ defensive scheme or change lineups. But he reiterated that the club may not have the personnel to be an adequate defensive team.

“I don’t think our guys aren’t trying. Maybe we’re just not capable of it. I don’t know,” Hornacek said. “That’s what we’re going to have to figure out. Maybe you have to play some of these other guys. We might have to mix the lineup up somehow.”

Those are some pretty strong words from New York’s first-year head coach, and, as you might expect, they weren’t exactly met with enthusiastic agreement in the Knicks’ veteran-heavy locker room. From Al Iannazzone of Newsday:

Phil Jackson brought in defensive-minded players Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee and re-signed Lance Thomas, but the Knicks have been one of the NBA’s worst defensive teams all season.

Noah, a former Defensive Player of the Year, seemed bothered by Hornacek’s comments.

“I don’t know what to say about that,” he said. “I know I’m here, and I feel like this group can do a lot better.” […]

“Defensively, we’re not where we need to be,” Noah said. “Guys look at ourselves individually first, see what we can do better in terms of our effort, things like that. And then it’s about being on the same page. We’re all over the place right now.”

More, from Marc Berman of the New York Post:

[Carmelo] Anthony appeared taken aback when he heard Hornacek mentioned the club may not be capable of being better on defense.

“I hope he ain’t giving up — what, 33 games?’’ Anthony said. “I might as well just pack my stuff now — giving up already.’’

Anthony declined further comment.

“I’d rather talk to Jeff about that — see where he’s coming from,’’ he said.

As part of its coverage of the Magic’s win, MSG Network offered a suggestion for where Hornacek might’ve been coming from … and Anthony might not like it all that much:

Open shots like the ones conceded in the clip above came too early and too often on Monday. Orlando took nearly as many uncontested attempts (43) as defended looks (48), according to NBA.com’s SportVU player tracking data — an unacceptable result, as Hornacek sees it, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News:

“We’ve got to have better pride in that,” Hornacek added. “You can’t give the team hope. When you come out there on the road and you make three or four threes right to start the game all of the sudden you’re going, ‘Yeah, we can win this game.’ Not knowing the importance of getting off to that type of start, we were scoring fine, but we were content to exchange points with them. You can’t do that.

“They only average 98 points a game. They were making some shots. Again, not enough fight to not allow them to even take the shots.”

Hornacek can wax bombastic about failings in the Knicks’ effort and execution, and his players can bristle at the intimation that they’re incapable of doing a better job of preventing points. Here’s the dirty little secret of the Knicks’ recent slide, though: they haven’t been demonstrably worse on the defensive end over the last 10 games than they were over their first 24.

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As of Dec. 11, 2016, after they’d wrapped up a 118-112 win over the Los Angeles Lakers to improve to 14-10 and earn a tie for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks had allowed opponents to score 107.9 points per 100 possessions, 26th among 30 NBA teams in defensive efficiency.

In the 10 games the Knicks have played since Dec. 12, during which they’ve gone 2-8 and fallen to 10th in the East, they’ve allowed … 108 points per 100 possessions. Just one-tenth of a point-per-100 worse. (Which, weirdly enough, ranks 16th among the 30 NBA teams in that span.)

Yes, the Knicks have stunk defensively over the past three weeks, but they stunk defensively during the season’s first six weeks, too. The Knicks ranked among the league’s 10 worst teams at clearing the defensive glass, preventing second-chance points, limiting opponents on the fast break, shutting down the paint, keeping opponents off the foul line, forcing turnovers, and letting opponents shoot from inside the restricted area when they were winning more often than they lost. The only real differences of late:

• They’ve allowed about five more field-goal and 3-point attempts per game over the last 10 contests than they did over the first 24, which you can mostly chalk up to the Rockets game, which saw Houston fire 92 shots, including 55 3s, in a fast-paced affair; and

• Opponents have shot 60.8 percent at the basket against New York over the last 10 games, as opposed to 56.4 percent inside the restricted area through Dec. 11.

By and large, though, the defensive statistical profile has been pretty consistent. It’s just seemed more glaring because New York has gone from scoring at a near-top-10 rate — putting up an average of 105.1 points-per-100 through 24 games, 11th-best in the NBA — to ranking among the league’s least effective offenses of late, scoring an average of 102.1 points-per-100, fourth-worst in the NBA over this 10-game span.

Carmelo Anthony is shooting under 40 percent during the Knicks' recent slide. (Getty Images)
Carmelo Anthony is shooting under 40 percent during the Knicks’ recent slide. (Getty Images)

Without a high-octane attack to cover up the team’s sins of commission and omission on the other end, the flaws of an imbalanced roster constructed by team president Phil Jackson that’s heavy on defensive liabilities — Anthony out-of-position at small forward, a steps-slow Noah largely unable to muster his DPoY form after years of injuries, a pair of permissive on-ball point guards in Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings — tilted more toward old-school frontcourt heft than the kind of multipositional wing players who can switch defensive assignments, and light on capable perimeter defenders go from troublesome to tragic.

Some of the Knicks’ offensive woes can be attributed to running up against top-flight defenses; three of their last eight losses have come at the hands of the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks and New Orleans Pelicans, all of whom rank in the top 10 in points allowed per possession. Most of it, though, has owed to poor shot-making, with Anthony misfiring to the tune of 38.2 percent shooting over his last 10 games and Rose and Jennings both shooting under 30 percent from 3-point range of late, and the kind of offensive stagnation that can come when everybody’s standing around wondering when somebody else is going to make something happen.

Wunderkind sophomore Kristaps Porzingis missing time battling a sore Achilles tendon likely won’t help matters; Anthony, Rose and Hornacek finding ways to kickstart their flagging offense is as significant an issue as the search for defensive answers the head coach signaled Monday night. There’s a reason I called for more Porzingis-at-center/Anthony-at-power-forward lineups when we gave our NBA New Year’s resolutions last week; given the evident-to-anyone-paying-attention limitations of the Knicks’ defense, their best chance of maximizing the talent on this roster is probably damning the torpedoes and trying to score as much as humanly possible as often as humanly possible.

In the cold light of morning, with Porzingis on the shelf and the Knicks about to start a home-and-home set against a Milwaukee Bucks team led by emerging superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, Hornacek sounded Tuesday like he wasn’t looking to shuffle things too much in the short term, according to ESPN’s Begley:

“We’re always taking a look at things,” Jeff Hornacek said when asked about lineup changes. “But we’ve got some dynamic offensive players out there and we’ve got some guys that are strictly defense to help us out. We just all have to get better. I think that first group is able to do that. They really put the effort in today. That’s very promising to see, so we’ll see.”

The good news for Hornacek and company, as relayed by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann: New York’s “first seven January games are against teams currently at or below .500, they don’t play in the Mountain or Pacific time zones again until March 20, and only two of the 17 games are against top-10 offenses.” The bad news: the first of those games came Monday, and the Knicks got torched. It’s not a bad idea to look for more players who can play defense — maybe give Justin Holiday a longer leash, Coach? — but if Hornacek can’t figure out how to get back to matching fire with fire, New York’s hopes of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2013 might go up in smoke.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!