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NBA Analysis: Role of Defense in Past and Future New York Knicks Success

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Everyone knows the Knicks’ offense is poor this year (paging Baron Davis) but there are some internet denizens who still refuse to acknowledge that the Knicks are playing, at the very least, playoff caliber defense under (gasp) Mike D’Antoni. (We get it. You hate him. Good job.)

One could take things a step further and argue that it would not be unprecedented for a team playing the quality of defense the Knicks are displaying to win a championship. Yes, a championship.

This, at least, according to the DRtg (Defensive Rating) metric. DRtg offers an approximation of points allowed per 100 possessions. This metric is considered to be superior to merely examining opponent’s FG% or opponent’s PPG because it reflects factors for which those statistics do not account. For example, while the Knicks allow a middling .449 opponent’s FG%, their opponents have fewer opportunities to take advantage of that shooting percentage since the Knicks rank 3rd in turnovers forced (both overall and as a percentage of total possessions).

Similarly, opponent’s PPG is an inferior metric because it does not account for the fact that the Knicks play at the second highest pace in the NBA and therefore opponents have greater opportunities to score (that they do not take advantage of, because the Knicks create so many turnovers). The fact that the Knicks allow what on first glance appears to be a mediocre 95.1 PPG (good for 17th in the NBA) despite boasting the league’s second fastest pace is all the more impressive. By way of comparison, the Nuggets (who play at the fastest pace), are 28th in opponent’s PPG at 99.2; the Heat (3rd fastest pace), are 19th at 96.2; the Wizards (4th), are 25th, at 98.2; and the Kings (5th) are 30th, at 101.9.

As of January 31, the Knicks are 9th in DRtg. Last year’s champion Dallas Mavericks were 8th in the metric. Some other teams in the last ten years hovered around the stratosphere the Knicks are occupying as well:

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But since the Knicks are currently 8-13, let’s dial things back a bit, as I don’t want to suggest that this is a championship level team. Let’s just say that while it’s possible to win a title with a top 10 DRtg, it’s better to be top 5 (the average champion’s DRtg in the last ten years is 4.4).

But what about the playoffs at least? I’ve sensed some fan anxiety manifesting from the fear that the Knicks have looked so bad, they might not even make the playoffs. This is where things get interesting. The Knicks’ DRtg is currently 100.1 which, as mentioned, is good for 9th overall. In the last ten years, just 7.8% of teams ranked in the top nine in DRtg have missed the playoffs.

Seven out of ninety teams. Less than one out of your ten fingers. Indeed the last time the Knicks had a top 10 DRtg, the much vaunted Jeff Van Gundy was their coach. (By the way, those seven teams are last year’s Milwaukee Bucks, the 2006/7 Indiana Pacers, the 2005/6 Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves, the 2003/4 Toronto Raptors, the 2002/3 Denver Nuggets, and the 2001/02 Miami Heat.)

What this tells me is that if the Knicks continue to rank in around the top 10 defensively, for them to miss the playoffs, their offense is going to have to continue to struggle at this historically poor level. If Baron Davis comes back I think that to be unlikely. And as bad as the offense has been, the Knicks find themselves just 1 1/2 game out of the playoff picture.

Get more great New York Knicks analysis over at KnicksFan.


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