The New York Knicks are now 5-0 and remain the last unbeaten team in the NBA. Without two important rotational players, how has this team been performing so well? Simply put, they are playing defense. The Mike D’Antoni experiment that ended abruptly late last season was unsuccessful for one reason: the Knicks were not playing defense. The coaching change that led to former Atlanta Hawks Coach Mike Woodson taking over in New York for the last 24 games of the season was a direct step towards eliminating the subpar effort defensively, which was ultimately limiting the team’s success in the post-season.
With a new head coach, came a new philosophy of basketball with an emphasis on the defensive end. The only difference between now and last season has been the personnel. Mike Woodson now has the players that are willing to play defense; all as a single unit, the entire team is now buying into what Coach Woodson is selling. It is no longer solely Tyson Chandler looking to put in work defensively.
The Perimeter defense has improved substantially. Mike Bibby, Baron Davis, Toney Douglas and Jeremy Lin have been replaced by Raymond Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni. All of the new editions are veteran players who are better defenders and also very smart players. Together, these new guards take care of the ball and commit a limited amount of mistakes. When Iman Shumpert returns to the lineup he will contribute even more defense to this team, as well as some size and athleticism at the shooting guard spot. He was the starting guard because of his effective defense last year before he was injured in the playoffs. He will likely come off the bench once he is healthy, but either way he will add that much more depth and energy to the Knicks roster and his style of play will fit perfectly with the new team.
J.R Smith has been the first man off the bench for New York and is an early candidate for sixth-man of the year. He is second on the team in scoring (18.2) behind Anthony and even seems to be embracing the defensive philosophy that may soon characterize this team. For years Smith has been a gamble due to his tendency to make the home-run plays as well as some alarming mental errors. But after five games he has managed his turnovers well, bringing his average down to one turnover a game and appearing to be at an all-time level of control. Remaining consistent will be the test for Smith if he wants to continue to see a substantial amount of minutes when Shumpert returns.
With the exception of Steve Novak, whose role is to provide scoring and stretch the defense with his three-point shooting ability, the rest of the New York roster is filled with guys who can play defense. Ronnie Brewer was brought to the Knicks to be a tough lockdown defender and has been impressive in his role as a starter. No matter which veteran post Coach Woodson decides to backup Tyson Chandler, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas, and Marcus Camby can all step in and play strong defense while taking care of the glass inside. Right now Wallace is seeing the most time of the three and also has the most talent to bring to the offensive end.
We saw what Carmelo Anthony was able to do last year when he was moved to the power forward spot while Amare’ Stoudemire was sidelined. The Knicks seemed to get better and many began to think that Stoudemire should come off the bench. New season, same scenario: Melo’ to the 4, and the Knicks are winning. When Stoudemire comes back it will be very interesting to see what Mike Woodson plans to do. How can he make such a change in the rotation when the Knicks are playing the best ball in the league?
Stoudemire is not traditionally known as a good defender. So will Coach Woodson be hesitant to insert him into the lineup of a team that is ranked #1 in the league defensively? If the Knicks can continue winning and stay at the top of the East then I would assume Stoudemire will have to see a similar role to J.R. Smith off the bench. At least until he has proven to Mike Woodson that he is ready and willing to play defense with an effort we have not seen from him before. Either way, Stoudemire will have to make sacrifices in order for this team to build on their success and carry themselves to the next level.
When it is all said and done, the defense of this team will determine how far they are going to go. They have the depth. They have the experience. They have the size inside that can cause problems for opposing teams (Miami). And now the only obstacle is for the rest of the pieces to fall into place without disrupting the great start they have put together. Once again, it is time for Knicks to prove they are contenders. After all it’s just New York, no extra pressure right?