Much ado has been made about Malcolm Gladwell's article regarding underdogs and subsequent exchange with Bill Simmons on ESPN's Page 2. Amongst NBA folk, a lot of the talk stems from Gladwell's comments regarding the full-court press: the sling with which lowly Davids might slay Goliaths of the hardwood. Now, putting aside the threads of psychology, strategy, and morality that come into play in the underdog discussion (for that, here's Ziller), I'd like to focus on that notorious home run defense and how it might work for our Knicks. Gladwell's primary example of successful pressing comes from a team of 12-year old girls with a wily coach:
"What that defense did for us is that we could hide our weaknesses," Rometra Craig said. She helped out once Redwood City advanced to the regional championships. "We could hide the fact that we didn’t have good outside shooters. We could hide the fact that we didn’t have the tallest lineup, because as long as we played hard on defense we were getting steals and getting easy layups. I was honest with the girls. I told them, ‘We’re not the best basketball team out there.’ But they understood their roles." A twelve-year-old girl would go to war for Rometra. "They were awesome," she said.
Well, let's get one thing out of the way. All jokes aside, both the Knicks and their opponents are mostly capable pro basketball folk. (Mostly.) An opposing player should have the fortitude to find a teammate amidst a press more reliably than, say, a pubescent girl. Similarly, New York's capable of hitting an outside shot, and has a legitimate chance at winning each game (about 39%, it appears) without bum-rushing every inbounds pass. A full-court press could never work as well as it does against amateur competition. Fine.
But, the Knicks did show some serious weaknesses this past season, the biggest of which was protecting the rim. New York was near-last in opponent field goal percentage and dead last in blocked shots. Anyone who was watching knows why: because of a lack of size, skill, and effort, the Knicks did not stop shots. The guards could rarely be bothered to get a hand up, while center-by-necessity David Lee contested slashers in much the same way pitchers receive home runs- he'd turn and watch 'em sail by.
There are a couple possible solutions to the defensive ineptitude. One is to bring in some good stoppers or teach the big men to swat. If that's at all doable, then let's end this discussion and start pre-gaming the block party. If not, a change of philosophy might be the best bet. What if Mike D'Antoni threw caution to the wind, cut his losses on shot defense, and went for the press? The Knicks have battle-tested ballhawks in Nate Robinson and Larry Hughes. Both are pert players that can pester people, pick off passes, and pickle peppers with ease. I'm sure each of the other guys could run down a cutter or intercept a feed in a pinch and halt opposing possessions before shots take flight. For all their defensive pitfalls, the Knicks could wreak havoc if so inclined. Moreover, if full-court D were to yield a turnover, then there you have an ideal starting point for D'Antoni's beloved "organized chaos" offense.
While I don't necessarily buy the grander messages of the article, I could see Malcolm Gladwell's full-court fantasy paying off for the undersized Knicks. The field goal defense can't fall much lower, so they might as well capitalize on what defensive edge they do have: off-the-ball pressure. At least some of the time, a full-court press could serve as shot contraception (assuming that blocks=condoms, forced turnovers must be good, old-fashioned blue balls), and kick-start the fast break offense. It's probably not a 48-minute strategy, but I could see alternating between press and halfcourt D every possession, or timeout, or quarter, or whatever.
Does anybody buy it? Do the personnel fit the bill? Is D'Antoni zany enough to try something like that? Is it feasible, even for parts of games? Speak up in the comments.