The Knicks’ defensive struggles have been well-documented this season, with a league seventh-worst 108.9 points allowed per game. But their woes on that end of the ball may stem from the unusual number of screens they have to face on a nightly basis.
Entering Wednesday, New York had seen 1,007 defensive possessions facing an attacking pick-and-roll ball-handler, according to NBA.com stats. Only four teams had defended more ball-handlers in screen situations: Brooklyn, Portland, Miami and Utah.
The Knicks had also seen more possessions than most teams defending a roll or pop man. New York’s 401 possessions defending rollers or poppers fall shy of only Boston, Indiana and Oklahoma City, according to NBA stats.
Combined, only the Nets have been faced with more defensive possessions guarding the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop than the Knicks.
“It’s a constant fight. The pick-and-roll is the toughest thing to guard in this league,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek told reporters ahead of New York’s Wednesday matchup against Brooklyn. “There’s a variety of ways you can do it. You can try switching, keep guys in front of you and shoot those contested twos. If you have guards that have the ability to keep fighting over and really try to get back in front or rear view challenge, that’s great to do. Sometimes, it’s based on your personnel.”
Surprisingly, the Knicks defend pick-and-roll situations better than they’re given credit for, at least at the point of attack.
New York holds opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers to just 39.9 percent shooting on those possessions, the fourth-lowest field goal percentage in the NBA. When defending the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop, the screener has just a 47.1 percent effective field goal percentage — a shooting statistic that accounts for the value of the three-point shot.
That’s the third-best defensive effective field goal percentage in those possessions in the league. In a Tuesday 117-101 loss to the Wizards, New York held John Wall — a 46 percent shooter — to just 6-for-18 shooting from the field.
“At times, I thought the other night, we did a decent job on John Wall making him take contested twos,” Hornacek said. “Unfortunately, John still made passes and we weren’t able to box guys like (Marcin Gortat) and (Markieff Morris) off the boards when we did switch. So some of that is the size that we deal with.”
Knicks guard Courtney Lee credits the coaching staff’s pre-game planning for their effort in defending screens.
“We usually come up with a game plan, the coaches do,” Lee told Posting and Toasting. “If they want us to switch, that’ll be the game plan. If they want us to get over. Other than that, there’s always emergency switches, emergency going under or over. You just gotta make the read on the fly.”
The Knicks are giving up just 0.96 points per possession when the pick-and-roll ball-handler attacks, the fourth-fewest among teams in the NBA. The issue? The defense contracts when the ball-handler gets into the paint, leaving a man open most times on the three-point line.
New York gives up a middle-of-the-road 9.6 three-point makes per game. Many of those triples are a result of pick-and-roll ball-handlers splicing the lane and making the right kick-out pass, like Wall when he recorded 13 assists and Dennis Schroder, who nabbed 15 assists in a 4OT win over the Knicks.
New York has many issues to deal with, health being one. But their pick-and-roll defense may just be a scapegoat for a larger issue — team chemistry that is still developing 51 games into the season and, quite frankly, an effort level failing to live up to the expectations set by high-profile free agency acquisitions.
“I think these guys really are trying but defense is tough,” Hornacek told reporters at a morning practice in early January. “It’s all-out running into guys, hustling, not stopping. It’s a lot harder than offense.
“So the effort they are giving I think is good but we got to get it to be great. ... Even if you do it wrong, if you have effort — not what you think is an effort, what the coaches think is an effort — you can fix a lot of things and help each other out”
And if the Knicks (22-29) want to make a last ditch playoff push, building chemistry and giving the second and third efforts defensively is where it will start.