The Defense Rests

My cousin Vinny2

This will be my last post for a little while related to how bad the Knicks are. It’s a depressing topic, but useful as a way to talk about the nature of sports analysis, which is one reason I keep harping on it.

When the Spurs, minus most of their starters, hammered the Knicks a couple of weeks ago, Harvey Araton wrote: “the Spurs could have played their assistant coach Becky Hammon, the retired franchise icon George Gervin and a couple of dudes from a downtown playground and still dropped 100 on the defensively inept Knicks.”

This was a funny line and also a common trope – that the Knicks suck on defense.

That is true, of course. The Knicks do suck on defense. There are thirty teams in the NBA. New York is 26th in the league in defensive field goal percentage. They’re 27th in points allowed per 100 possessions (that is, they allow the fourth most points per 100 possessions). They have the worst defensive rebounding rate in the NBA (gee, I wonder why that might be). In short, they stink. Badly.

Do you know what else the Knicks suck at? Offense.

They’ve scored the second fewest points in the NBA, only ahead of the putrid 76ers. They are 22nd in points per 100 possessions. Only four teams turn the ball over more per game than the Knicks, and since the Knicks play at the second slowest offensive pace in the league, that figure is even worse than it looks.

It’s true that their offense isn’t *quite* as bad as their defense. But it’s still piss-poor. And that high turnover offense probably isn’t helping the defense any.

When you’re 5-25, you’re just bad. At everything. The defense-is-bad narrative is part of a familiar mistake in analyzing team play. Defense is supposed to be about heart, and hustle and smarts and attitude. But defense, though more complicated in some ways to measure at the individual level than offense is still a skills-based endeavor. The Knicks traded their best defense player in the off-season. They had a dearth of skilled players last year. They have have a greater dearth this year.

When you’re 5-25, everybody has the hang-dog look. It’s a bummer. Sucking as badly as the Knicks do probably does drain away motivation. But that’s an effect of the losing, not the cause.

In a recent post, KD (as in Kevin Draper, the great basketball analyst, not that other KD), expressed in simple but powerful statistical terms this basic truth:

One of the NBA’s most foundational qualities is how frequently the better team wins. While most American sports leagues—including the NBA to a lesser extent than the others—have chased parity as a way to keep fans of all teams engaged (and spending money), it isn’t all that possible to achieve in the NBA. With only five players on the court, who have to play both offense and defense, a single player can have a much greater impact on the result of the game than they can in any other team sport. Over the course of the 100 possessions an average game has, the team with the better players usually wins.

A different coach, a better esprit de corps might – and I emphasize *might* – result in a couple of extra wins. But as I’ve said before, that’s not the problem (and maybe Derek Fisher is a great coach).

The Knicks are bad because they don’t have enough good players to be competitive.

(and, oh man, just wait til Bargs returns to the lineup).