The Knicks Defense Has Been Mediocre And Why It Needs To Improve

The Knicks are having their best season in 15 years getting out to a 31-16 start and leading their division, largely due to having an insanely efficient offense currently ranked third in the league and scoring a blistering 109 points per 100 possessions. However the defense has been awful in stretches and currently ranks only 15th and contrary to the narrative has been mediocre basically all year spare the first five games or so. Below is a table illustrating the Knicks rank in Offensive and Defensive Rating (points scored/allowed per 100 possessions respectively) in ten game increments throughout the year.

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The offense has been consistently great all year, never ranking below tenth. For a team that from the beginning of the year had a group of players that lacked shooting and didn’t seem to fit, Mike Woodson has done a great job putting it all together, and even making the Amare-Tyson-Carmelo trio excel. The defense on the other hand has been mediocre all year save for the first ten games, making it seem more and more likely as the sample size increases, that those games were an outlier. On the defensive end, the Knicks are hampered by bad perimeter defense and at times very questionable game planning. Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal went more into more details about the teams defensive struggles here. The hope is as Shumpert and other vital defensive players (Shees and Campy) get healthy, the Knicks can get closer to the 10-12 range, at least, than the 15-17 range they are in.

Now a lot of people say that “defense wins championships.” We often hear the narrative that you have to have a good defense to make it deep in the playoffs regardless of how good or bad your offense may be. This would seem bad for the Knicks, but in my opinion when you have an offense as good as the Knicks have been, a slight defensive improvement should be enough to make it as far as the Conference Finals.

I looked at the at the last five seasons’ conference finalists to see where they ranked on offense and defense respectively and what that means for the Knicks hopes of contending.


Team Ortg Rank Drtg Rank
12 Heat 8 4
12 Celtics 27 1
12 Thunder 2 11
12 Spurs 1 10
11 Heat 3 5
11 Bulls 11 1
11 Mavs 8 8
11 Thunder 5 15
10 Celtics 15 5
10 Magic 4 3
10 Lakers 11 4
10 Suns 1 23
09 Magic 11 1
09 Cavs 4 3
09 Lakers 3 6
09 Nuggets 7 8
08 Celtics 10 1
08 Pistons 6 4
08 Lakers 3 5
08 Spurs 15 3

The average Ortg rank of the last twenty teams to make the conference finals is 7.75. The average Drtg rank of the last twenty teams to make the conference finals is 6.05. Maybe there is something to “defense wins championships”.

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If the Knicks finish the season ranked where they are today on defense, 15th, I would not like their chances of making the conference finals seeing how only two out of the last twenty teams to make the conference finals were ranked 15th or worse on that end. However, the Thunder and Spurs from last year’s Western Conference Finals are proof that a defense in the 10-12 range is enough to win at least two rounds in the playoffs when you have an elite offense like the Knicks currently do.

I began this post thinking that an elite offense would be able to make the conference finals with an average to slightly above defense, but looking at the numbers it only happened four times in the last five years (total of twenty teams). It’s apparent the Knicks need to improve on the defensive end over the second half of the year, as history shows having a mediocre defense doesn’t bode well towards making a deep playoff push, even if your offense is elite. In the sample I viewed, seven teams ranked tenth or lower on offense made the conference finals whereas only four teams ranked tenth or lower on defense did the same.

With the return of Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, and refinement of the defense by Mike Woodson, I hope and expect the Knicks to be much better on defense over the second half of the year. Additionally with a veteran heavy team like the Knicks, it is quite possible that some of their defensive issue may just be due to effort which it is safe to assume would pick up in the playoffs. I actually think that this is a huge possibility and the team we see in the playoffs might be much better on defense. One reason, I think this is the case is that in the fourth quarter the Knicks are ranked fifth in defense, 8 spots higher than any other quarter. Additionally, the pace of the game slows down in the playoffs, which should benefit the Knicks given their age.

Given history, the Knicks have to improve as only two out of the last twenty teams to make the playoffs were ranked 15th or lower, the Knicks ranking as of today, on defense. If the Knicks are to win at least two rounds in the playoffs, Woodson needs to get his team to improve on defense because, as silly as it might sound, “defense wins championships”. I have a decent amount of trust given how good Woodson has been in every other area, see especially: making Amare-Tyson-Melo work, that he will accomplish this.




Statistics used from and

One comment

  1. Dan L


    If the Knicks really want to contend for a title they have to significantly improve their D. As folks are quick to point out, even the humming offensive powerhouses that were the D’Antoni Suns couldn’t reach the finals with a middle of the pack defense* (no, they were not a bad defense – they were always right around the middle, like the Knicks are now). The worst D to win a title over the last decade or so is the Mavs and even they were top ten.

    I do agree with Azaz that the Knicks may be able to turn it on in the playoffs – that’s what veterans do. I also think the Knicks have shown from time to time, especially in the beginning of the year, that they can play serious D. However, all teams increases their intensity come playoff time. Unless you’re the polyannic kind of fan, it’s best to manage expectations until we have a basis to think that the Knicks can sustain a championship caliber defense.


    *Of course, I think those MDA teams were good enough to win a title, but that they were the victims of bad luck in a couple of instances such as Joe Johnson’s injury and Amar’e’s suspension.

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