Breaking down Knicks' early season defensive struggles during 2021-22 NBA season

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Tom Thibodeau arms folded looking P.O'd in Charlotte
Tom Thibodeau arms folded looking P.O'd in Charlotte

When the Knicks shocked the basketball world with their fourth-seed finish last season, it was driven in large part by an elite defense. They ranked fourth in defensive efficiency, first in opponent points per game and first in opponent field goal percentage.

It was this defense that felt like New York’s bedrock coming into this season with two new starters joining the fold and young stars having to follow up breakout years. But nearly a quarter of the way in, the Knicks are struggling on that end to an unexpected degree, and it’s losing them games.

There’s cause for concern, not panic. Prior to their last two home games against the Pacers and Magic, the Knicks ranked 25th in defensive efficiency, allowing 109.7 points per 100 possessions. They’ve since leaped to 19th, allowing 108.4 points, perhaps signaling the worst of it was an early-season statistical blip that’s now over.

Still, it’s worth examining what the issues are and if they have potential to linger.

In what’s becoming a familiar tune this year, the fault lies with the starting unit. The five of Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson played an NBA-leading 257 minutes this year, allowing 119.2 points per 100 possessions, which would be the worst defensive rating of all-time.

For comparison, the bench unit of Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson are a top-25 lineup in the league in minutes played with 89, and in that time have allowed 84.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a 35-point differential from the starters, and as of recent games includes minutes against crunch-time units.

Quickley has become a much smarter and peskier defender, leveraging some added strength. Toppin was a pleasant surprise defensively but was mostly unplayable on that end in meaningful minutes.

Now he’s not only surviving those minutes, but thriving with his effort and athleticism. He’s nearly eclipsed his rookie year block count already, and is showing major signs of being a winning defensive player thanks to his ability to cover ground and leap with the best of them.

Burks and Rose are providing their usual level of reliable veteran defense. Nerlens Noel was hugely impactful but in very limited gametime due to various injuries, leaving Gibson as New York’s effective second-string center.

That is some luxury. Gibson continues to prove himself timeless, constantly being in the right position and battling hard at the rim and on the boards.

So what’s keeping the starters from performing up to par on this end? They were largely dependable last season, after all.

Oct 13, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Taj Gibson (67) passes the ball as Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart (28) and forward Jamorko Pickett (24) defend during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 13, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Taj Gibson (67) passes the ball as Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart (28) and forward Jamorko Pickett (24) defend during the first half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The rim protection is still outstanding, with the Knicks holding their opponents to 57.5% shooting in the restricted area, the lowest clip in the league. Two major areas of regression are defending the three and defending transition.

The former was a big topic of conversation last season, when the Knicks gave up a bunch of open threes but were able to adjust before opponents began really hitting them. New York is facing a similar challenge this year, only opponents are scorching them.

The Knicks are second in the league in percentage of shots allowed from three, and percentage of shots allowed that are wide open from three. Opponents are hitting 40.6% of their attempts in the latter category, fourth-highest in the NBA.

That number should come down a little, but the Knicks can ill afford to keep allowing so many open looks. Especially since they’ve lost their edge guarding in transition as well. Last year’s team ranked second in opponents’ points per play in transition, while this season’s ranks 14th.

What’s changed? Tom Thibodeau’s schemes are largely untouched and so is the roster.

There appears to be some newfound gap in effort and or focus, which mostly rears its head as the game progresses. The starting five defends poorly (but generally better) in the first and second quarters, but completely falls off a cliff in the second half.

It starts from your best player, and Randle has not been sharp defensively this season. In this latest home loss to the Magic, he checked in late in the second quarter as usual, and immediately fell asleep on his man on a low-movement possession, giving up a three. The next possession he blew a closeout leading to a swing open three.

There have been too many stretches like that from Randle in 2021-22, in which he seemingly disconnects from his defensive role and effort for minutes at a time. He often follows up by trying to make up for it on the other end with a pace-killing isolation.

Randle isn’t the only one making these puzzling mistakes. Robinson has his good games and bad.

Nov 1, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) controls the ball against Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) and guard Malachi Flynn (22) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 1, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) controls the ball against Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby (3) and guard Malachi Flynn (22) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Barrett, who cited an All-Defensive Team nomination as his goal for the year, only showed up for the on-ball portion of the job. He’s been caught ball watching or getting flummoxed by screens once his man is away from the rock.

Then there are the two noted defensive downgrades in the backcourt. Walker and Fournier replacing Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock is proving a bit more difficult to adjust to defensively than advertised.

New York lost quite a bit of point-of-attack stoppage and ferocity when scrambling or rotating with these signings. When the two are locked in, they’re actually pretty capable, but we only see it in stretches. Even when they’re in the right position, Walker’s contests do little to scorers and Fournier is often treated as a turnstile.

These individual deficiencies are compounded by team-wide lapses in communication and energy. This starting unit is quickly sapped of its intensity and when it’s depleted, the defense looks uninspired, to say the least.

It’s unclear what the main driver of these issues is. Perhaps conditioning isn’t as strong following a normal offseason compared to 2020’s pandemic-elongated break for the Knicks. Chemistry is certainly still building from the ground up.

If things don’t improve, it’s possible Thibodeau tries to shake up the lineups and get a more even attack out of his roster. Given their recent outings and how much numbers are still moving after single games, it can still be considered plenty early to consider.

But the Knicks will have to figure out their defense if they hope to compete for anything real this season. Their offense is already coming back down to earth, leaving their winning foundation from 2020-21 as their support going forward.

If they don’t click on that end, it’s going to be a long season.