Deep dive into what's been plaguing the Knicks' defense this season

Kevin Durant driving past Julius Randle and RJ Barrett
Kevin Durant driving past Julius Randle and RJ Barrett

For the second straight season, the Knicks are off to a rough start on the defensive end. After giving up a humiliating 145 points to the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York now ranks 24th in defensive efficiency through 13 games.

When the Knicks hired Tom Thibodeau as head coach, it was undoubtedly with the expectation he’d bring back the 90s era commitment to defense as one of the league’s best minds on that end of the court. He did so in 2020-21, as the Knicks finished with a top five defense, but last year’s team stumbled out of the gate, finishing just outside the top ten.

Given this roster’s similarity and its core pieces having learned Thibodeau’s schemes over two years, why the poor showing thus far?

It could just be early-season jitters and adjustments that will lead to a comeback defensively similar to last year’s turnaround. However, it took benching point guard Kemba Walker to really turn things around. It’s unlikely Thibodeau would do the same to Jalen Brunson, who’s been an All-Star offensively.

Besides, the struggles of this Knicks team defensively can’t be boiled down to one player. The individual on/off numbers match much of what we’re seeing, which is a few key guys not doing enough on that end.

Julius Randle and RJ Barrett were clear plus defensive players two years ago, but as their offensive roles have grown, they’ve slipped on the other end. The Knicks are a baffling 16.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively with Randle on the bench this year, with Barrett not too far behind.

This shouldn’t be news, but having two of your best players be giant negatives defensively isn’t ideal. We know ability isn’t the issue, as both have previously played well over a prolonged period on that end. That leaves effort, which has been spotty, to say the very least.

Clips are already circling on social media of Randle’s awful performance against the Thunder, nodding off on half court possessions, straight up forgetting about his man and rotation numerous times. Barrett gets caught ball-watching and gets beaten backdoor on a nightly basis.

Thibodeau sat Barrett for all but two minutes of Sunday’s second half, yet Randle played on. This isn’t the first time he’s dealt unequal punishment. A coach preaching accountability and yanking guys for not defending their hardest is good in theory, but when Randle is consistently allowed to dial it back without repercussion, the principle rings hollow.

This isn’t the only knock on Thibodeau, unfortunately. As gifted a basketball mind as he is, that gift can also be a curse.

Fans that have watched this team closely during Thibodeau's tenure will know his schemes through and through by now, as they’ve remained largely unchanged, even on specific nights when things clearly aren’t working. Let’s break it down...

Thibodeau primarily has his bigs in drop coverage on pick-and-rolls, and emphasizes stopping dribble penetration with aggressive helping and switching among the perimeter guys. He cares most about negating rim scoring and free throws, which is why you’ll rarely see him experiment with smaller lineups that don’t include a traditional defensive center.

In 2021, the Knicks were first in opponents’ field goal percentage within five feet, at 58.9 percent. Last year they fell to a still-strong 6th at 61.8 percent, but this season they’re all the way down to 18th.

Tom Thibodeau
Tom Thibodeau

Why the steep decline? Their center rotation is as strong as ever, and nobody is complaining about Mitchell Robinson’s or Isaiah Hartenstein’s play.

But between Brunson, Barrett and some of the weaker perimeter defenders on the roster, there’s been quite a bit of uncontested penetration this season.

Secondly, teams are feasting on the offensive glass against the Knicks. New York had been strong on the glass the prior two seasons, but are 25th in defensive rebound rate this year.

On an individual level, Randle is down a couple rebounds year-over-year, Hartenstein hasn’t been good in this respect, and Obi Toppin is more interested in cherry picking. New York had more wing rebounders in the rotation last year with Alec Burks and a healthy Quentin Grimes.

The Knicks' leader in defensive rebounds per 36 minutes in 2022-23? Guard Immanuel Quickley.

It’s possible this is in part due to the team’s commitment to playing faster offensively and trying to get more leakouts and easy transition buckets. A slower pace and more dedication on the glass helps, but to how much of a detriment to an already-shaky Knicks offense?

Despite the core tenet of Thibodeau’s defense struggling, it’s the barrage of open threes in recent blowouts that sticks in fans’ minds, perhaps because they’re flashier plays, add up quite a bit on the scoreboard, or have plagued this Knicks team for a third straight season.

A downside of Thibodeau’s protect-the-paint scheme is it allows for a lot of open threes.

This isn’t exactly by design, but it’s the result of asking a lot out of the Knicks. They’re schemed to help one pass away off corner shooters and overload the ball side with help to stop drives, and then recover or rotate in time to leverage the defense.

It’s a finicky balance, but not impossible to maintain. The 2021 champion Milwaukee Bucks use a similar scheme under Mike Budenholzer to great success, with the only qualifiers being they try to force more above-the-break threes, and they employ three of the best defenders in the league.

New York was sixth in 2021 in opponents’ frequency of what NBA.com classifies as “wide open” threes, fourth last year, and second this season. You can’t control wide open opponent shots, so it’s telling that in their strong 2021, the Knicks got lucky with 34.7 percent shooting on easy threes, while the opposition has hit 38.4 percent and 39.6 percent of their open threes in the following two seasons.

It’s already a measured gamble when the Knicks allow for one of the most efficient shots in the game as part of their scheme, it’s downright lethal when they can’t protect the paint, either.

How can the Knicks adjust? A few small ways, perhaps to no avail, but we may never find out.

Thibodeau’s stubbornness is baked in by now, from fans begging him to bench Elfrid Payton throughout 2021 and play Toppin more for longer than that. But Sunday’s loss was maybe the perfect case study in it costing the Knicks wins.

Oklahoma City played five shooters all game, shuffling between non-traditional centers up front. That Thibodeau couldn’t try a smaller lineup that matched up better, or switched more actions to make Lu Dort try and take somebody one-on-one was confounding.

We’ve seen some on-the-fly adjustments in the past, but they could be counted on a pair of hands. Thibs had the Knicks switch in the second half of one Nets matchup that helped slow down their stars and tighten the game. He’d sometimes have them trap high pick-and-rolls, temporarily confusing offenses and creating chaos.

There’s been little to none of that this season. No lineups featuring Barrett, Grimes and Cam Reddish, their three best wing defenders. No fourth quarter benchings of Randle when he’s sleepwalking defensively.

Thibodeau was brought in for his defensive mind, but it’s failed him thus far in the most important season of his Knicks tenure. While there are many factors at play, including personnel, it’ll be him who goes first if it doesn’t turn around soon.

Will he make the changes necessary to save this Knicks season?