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November 24, 2012
How Sustainable is the Defense?

by Bradford Doolittle


At this point, even Clyde Frazier has to be running out of rhyming superlatives. The Knicks have been dishing and swishing, wheeling and dealing, bounding and astounding and, most importantly, winning and grinning. After Thursday's rousing comeback at San Antonio, everyone aside from Charles Barkley has to agree that New York's start is indeed prodigious.

Coming into the season, we at Basketball Prospectus were pretty high on the Knicks' veteran roster for this season, but not so much beyond that. The reasoning was simple. Even if New York improved to the 48-50 win level at which we had them forecast, that still left them on a tier well below that of the Miami Heat. And given the age of the roster and the lack of financial flexibility to improve it, this year is as good as it's going to get for this version of the Knicks. If a championship is the end goal, then New York was not on a path to get there.

Now, who knows? A 6-0 start doesn't guarantee anything, but it sure doesn't hurt. The Hawks have had two 6-0 starts in recent years and the Hornets had one as well; none of those teams reached 48 wins. However, those teams haven't matched New York's dominance. Just 19 teams have won their first six games and matched the Knicks overall point differential of plus-82. Seven of those teams won championships and the average eventual win total for the fast-starters was 57.1. There is no other way to paint the Knicks' start as anything but universally positive.

New York has been so dominant that it's hard to zero in on one end of the floor. The Knicks lead the NBA in offensive efficiency and rank second on the defensive end. The latter has gotten the most attention because with Mike Woodson relying on a small lineup, it would seemingly leave the Knicks vulnerable in the paint, as we've seen happen in Miami so far. That hasn't happened. With Carmelo Anthony playing more power forward than ever before and Ronnie Brewer playing an undersized small forward, the Knicks have been airtight on defense. Let's look at why they've been so good, and speculate if they can sustain it.

Tyson Chandler

Amazingly enough, some Knicks fans have wondered whether the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year seems a step slow on that end of the floor. If he is, then he must have really been something last season. To be fair to those concerned, Chandler's percentages in defensive rebounding and shot-blocking are at career-low levels.

My theory is that Chandler is carrying such a heavy defensive workload that his measurables are suffering. Everything New York does on defense is tethered to Chandler's ability to defend the pick-and-roll, whether he blitzes, hedges or switches. He doesn't have the luxury to lie in wait on the weak side to block shots and he's often out of position to rebound. His offensive rebound rate is higher than it's been in four years, so it's doubtful the 30-year-old is suffering from a sudden loss of athleticism.

The proof is in the pudding, as they say. Not only does New York rank second on defense at the league level, but according to NBA.com/stats, the Knicks are six points per 100 possessions worse defensively when Chandler sits. (His overall plus-minus is a ridiculous +24.7) As Marcus Camby, Rasheed Wallace and Kurt Thomas round into shape, hopefully Chandler will have more help on the interior going forward. Of course the combined age of that trio is high enough that a center that old could have helped James Naismith hang the peach baskets, so availability and health is going to be an ongoing concern.

Jason Kidd

Kidd is a defensive wizard despite have the lateral quickness of the Statue of Liberty at this point in his career. His ability to anticipate on switches and rotations and read the passing lanes makes him invaluable on that end. Like Chandler, Kidd has a stupidly-high plus-minus (+11.8) and the bulk of that impact has come on defense.

The Knicks have been 7.6 points better on defense for every 100 possessions Kidd has been on the court, and he leads the team in steal percentage. Will that change? As with most of the Knicks, age, minutes and injuries are a concern. However, since he's shifted away from being a full-time point guard, Kidd has been an excellent off-ball defender.

That said, Kidd and several of his teammates can be had if you can isolate him in space. According to mySynergysports.com, the Knicks rank 29th by allowing .98 points per play against isolations. Kidd is allowing 1.25 points per iso but according to the charting data, has only been put in that position four times this season. If that's due to Woodson's defensive design, New York is in great shape. That said, don't be surprised if opponents try to start isolating the Knicks more on the offensive end.

The Rotation & Chemistry

A couple of weeks ago, when I recommended that Woodson roll out the very lineup he's using, I noted that if that lineup were to account for all of New York's minutes this season, the Knicks would project to be the best defensive team in the league -- by the numbers. That's why New York's start is much more of a surprise on the offensive end. On paper, the pieces were already there of an elite defense.

Ronnie Brewer has been terrific at small forward, where his ball-hawking abilities have manifested in both his steal percentage and on the defensive glass. In fact, Brewer has the highest defensive rebound percentage of the Knicks' starters, including Chandler. Anthony has more than held his own defensively at four, though his presence there may put extra strain on Chandler and the Knicks have been better defensively with him on the bench.

Perhaps most importantly of all, New York's defense has actually picked up steam when J.R. Smith enters the game. His streak shooting has come and gone, as such a thing tends to do, but the lineup of Smith, Kidd, Chandler, Anthony and Felton has not just been New York's best defensive lineup, it's been one of the 20 best defensive groups in the league in the early going.

It won't be long before Woodson faces the considerable task of integrating Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert into this mix. It will be fascinating to see because as we see time and again in basketball, two plus two doesn't necessarily equal four. He would be well-served to leave his starting unit alone.

The Offense

Don't underestimate the efficiency of New York's offense as a contributing factor to the defensive success. As mentioned, New York leads the league in offensive efficiency, 0.8 points per 100 possessions better than second-place Miami and a whopping 6.1 points better than the third place Los Angeles Clippers.

There are a few ways that efficient offense benefits a defense. First, one of the pillars of the New York offense has been ball protection. According to NBA.com/stats, the Knicks have turned the ball over on 11 percent of their plays, a rate that is 2.5 percent better than any other team it the league. Play-by-play analysis has shown that steals improve a team's offensive efficiency by about 18 percent because they lead to breakaway baskets. The avoidance of them is a boon to a defense.

For that matter, so are made buckets, which reduce the other team's offensive efficiency by about 1.7 points per 100 possessions. As Doc Rivers loves to say, it all ties together. Finally, the Knicks are 29th in offensive rebound percentage as Woodson has become another coach to forgo that aspect of the game in order to get his defense set up on the other end. According to mySynergySports.com, the Knicks have been the third-best team in the league in limiting points off transition.

That of course is a matter of philosophy, and there is no reason to expect it to change. In fact, most of the Knicks' defensive performance seems sustainable given the health of the old guys. When reality meets expectation, as it does in this case, sustainability is the result. If an injury-free Knicks squad regresses, it's unlikely going to be due to defensive slippage.

Check out our Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 homepage for more details and to order our annual guide to the NBA, available now in both PDF and paperback format.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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