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Mathematics vs. the Knicks' three-point defense


Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday afternoon, the New York Knicks defeated the Denver Nuggets in a duel of teams who often seem as if they have no idea how the sport of basketball is to be played. But the boys in orange and blue rarely give their fans a moment of comfort, and they wasted no time raising concern among the New York faithful with some post-game comments regarding their team philosophy on three-point defense:

OK, there's a lot to digest here. J.R. Smith is apparently basing his perimeter defensive strategies on the idea that NBA shooters can't hit 60 percent on wide-open three-point looks, while also giving himself over to the will of the Almighty. It's like the old saying: "Shoot all the open threes and let God sort 'em out."

If J.R. needs help with the mathematical implications of his "God bless 'em" strategy, he need look no further than the first quarter of Sunday's game. His Knicks shot a blistering 70 percent from the field, held the Nuggets to 48.8 percent shooting, and outscored them from the free-throw line...yet they ended the quarter tied at 31 apiece.

Denver took advantage of the Knicks' perimeter largesse to the tune of 6-9 shooting from downtown. That's 18 points on nine shots -- the equivalent of hitting 100 percent of your shots from inside the arc. This is what three-point efficiency can ruin an otherwise fine quarter:

And while opponents can't bank on hitting 66.7 percent of their threes every quarter, the Knicks can't count on hitting 70 percent of their field goals either. The entire logic behind the three-point shot is that you don't have to hit them all; you just have to hit them at a rate better than 50 percent of what you're hitting from two-point range.

Fisher's comments certainly seem more pragmatic. In theory, it does make sense to force your opponent to shoot farther from the basket. Also, he has been willing to go into more detail about why he believes the team's pick-and-roll defense is responsible for the open threes:

The problem comes in the application of this theory -- New York perimeter defenders wandering aimlessly near the paint while their men stand unguarded in the corner, again and again. To acknowledge the fact that the team is giving up so many open threes, yet continuing to stress the need to concentrate their defense more on the interior ignores a clear trend in this league toward more focus on three-point shooting.

Opponents don't appear to be looking to beat the Knicks exclusively in the paint (55.4 opponent field-goal percentage from within five feet, ninth in the NBA); instead, they are looking to exploit New York's league-worst three-point defense (42.0 percent).

Opp. FGA per game NBA rank
Less than 5 ft. 25.1 2nd fewest
3P 22.3 10th most

This team is indeed defending the interior pretty well...and more power to them. But most of the league is more than happy to move that ball outside for easy looks, and the result is the league's 24th-ranked defense (in terms of opponent points per 100 possessions). Do the ends justify the means?

What disturbs me about these comments is that they show the same strategic disregard for three-point defense that has plagued the team for years. The coaches don't stress guarding the perimeter, and the players follow suit. The only folks who seem to be paying any attention play for the other 29 clubs in the NBA.

New York has a great deal to fix on defense. They don't guard the pick-and-roll well, they foul too much. This isn't all going to get fixed overnight. But they need to adjust their priorities and focus on what is hurting them the most -- the fatal flaw that opponents love to exploit. And that is their three-point defense. Fisher must teach his players to stay home on dangerous three-point shooters.

It's true, ladies and gentlemen -- 3>2. I'm not suggesting the Knicks base their entire defensive philosophy around that, but the least they could do is acknowledge it before the next dead-eye shooter comes to town.