Can Knicks’ defense in 2021-22 be as good as it was last season?

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Tom Thibodeau treated art looks very serious
Tom Thibodeau treated art looks very serious

One of the primary reasons the Knicks had such a surprisingly strong 2020-21 was their defense.

Hiring Tom Thibodeau as head coach paid dividends immediately, with New York finishing the season as the league’s stingiest defense in opponent’s points per game and fourth in defensive efficiency.

Unfortunately, their tenacity on that end couldn’t propel them past the first round and their shaky postseason offense, leading to two major offseason acquisitions in Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier. While the two will undoubtedly turn around the team’s scoring woes, both are below average defenders replacing above average ones in the lineup.

How much will these downgrades affect the Knicks' stellar D, and can they still win relying on it?

First, let’s compare the defenders individually. Walker replaces Elfrid Payton at the one position, and Fournier steps in for Reggie Bullock.

Payton has three inches and 11 pounds on Walker, who suffers due to his diminutive size. The former wasn’t the major impact defender that necessitated he play 20 minutes per game, but was reliable and has been throughout his career.

Payton fought over screens and knew the system well enough to make correct rotations. He’d sometimes lose focus, mostly away from the ball, but guarded one-on-one solidly. His defense was conservative, partly due to Thibs’ system, with few steals or blocks but sound positioning in exchange.

Walker struggles on the ball with little impact on opponents’ shots. What he lacks in size, strength, and verticality, he somewhat makes up for it with his zippiness and hustle.

Oct 5, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Kemba Walker (8) takes the floor before a game against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden
Oct 5, 2021; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Kemba Walker (8) takes the floor before a game against the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden

He’ll scurry around screens (when not too badly bodied by one) and get low in his stance to pester ball handlers. One big boon: He’s an elite charge-taker, among league leaders in drawing offensive fouls.

Over to the wing, Bullock was New York’s lead perimeter defender, taking on whatever swing superstar came to town. He fared well, about all you can expect from a non-elite stopper against guys of that echelon. There wasn’t much to complain about him on this end.

Fournier is a considerable downgrade. He doesn’t have the instinct or lateral quickness Bullock does, and has already made a few blunders this preseason that we rarely saw from his predecessor.

Both are similarly sized, but Bullock was far less ground bound than Fournier. Luckily for the Frenchman, he won’t be taking on Bullock’s role.

Since day one in the league, RJ Barrett stood among the top of his peer group defensively. He boasts great fundamentals and effort, really blossoming on that end under Thibs.

Now his development and commitment on that side of the ball faces its true test, as he’ll need to be the shutdown man when the Knicks face a stud wing. What Walker and Fournier take away from the defense, RJ’s development can potentially make up for.

He’s already had some shining moments, especially against bigger wings such as Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard last season. His high-level strength at his size and position along with his 6'10" wingspan supply a nice edge.

Another way to make up ground could come via Mitchell Robinson, who missed most of last season due to injury. Nerlens Noel was more than viable filling in, but Robinson fully locked in is even better.

Few bigs can match the sheer scope of Robinson’s defensive coverage, with his seven-foot build, seven-four wingspan and terrific leaping ability. In his limited time on the floor last season, his defensive reads and decision-making looked much sharpened.

Walker and Fournier also get the benefit of being somewhat covered by the team’s scheme and other defensive talents. The Knicks' defense held strong throughout last season, even with subpar individual stoppers like their two rookies out on the court. What the two new additions bring offensively could also let Julius Randle expend slightly less energy on that end and give more defensively.

We won’t know until well into the regular season how well this new lineup stacks up, but any regression should be minor. Thibodeau coached some stellar defenses that featured weaker perimeter defenders, including Derrick Rose.

Smart money would be on the Knicks maintaining a top ten defense, barring major injuries. Walker and Fournier may not be world-beaters on that end, but they won’t be turnstiles, and are joining the right culture to bring the most out of them while covering for their deficiencies.