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Knicks Film School: Getting to the bottom of the Knicks’ poor pick-and-roll defense

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There’s a lot to it.

NBA: New York Knicks at Utah Jazz Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Posting and Toasting is joined by a very special guest today — Jeffrey Bellone, AKA Knicks Film School on Twitter, AKA the founder of the fantastic new site of the same name. JB stopped by today to break down the Knicks’ recent pick-and-roll defense (or lack thereof). Enjoy!

When David Fizdale announced that Luke Kornet would be replacing Enes Kanter in the starting lineup against Utah, Knicks fans, or the ones who care about defense, rejoiced. While Kornet isn’t going to make an All-Defensive team anytime soon, he at least knows how to use his long arms to cover space, and he knows where he needs to be on the floor. Surely, we would see an immediate improvement over the turnstile defense provided by moKanter, right?

And then we didn’t…

Utah attacked Kornet in the pick-and-roll as if he was Kanter himself dressed in a No. 2 jersey. In fact, this might have been the worst game the Knicks have played this season in defending the most patented play in basketball.

So what gives?

It turns out that defense is a team effort. Hard to believe, I know. While Kornet is an improvement over Kanter, asking him to defend Rudy Gobert and an attacking guard at the same time is too much to ask. The Knicks started the game with Kornet in drop coverage, and the Jazz attacked…and attacked…and attacked.

But a strategy is only as effective as its execution. While putting Kornet in situations where he needs to backpedal and make an athletic play is not ideal for his skill set, even with a more nimble big — like Noah Vonleh — drop coverage is doomed to fail when the weak side help doesn’t do its job in tagging the roll man.

Watch in the play below as Vonleh looks to contain the ball-handler coming off the screen, while Mudiay offers little resistance against the roll (something he seems frustrated about after the play):

Meanwhile, opponents don’t even need an initial screen to create difficulties for the Knicks’ defense. New York has allowed the fourth-most drives this season, and opponents are converting those drives into points at the highest field goal percentage of any team in the NBA.

We saw this in the Utah game when their guards were able to simply beat the Knicks’ guards off the dribble. At this point, Kornet, or any Knicks big, is in a helping position; once again, being asked to guard his man (Gobert) and close off the penetration, usually ending in a lob to Gobert for a dunk. As you can see in the second half of the video featured above, both the perimeter defense and help side bump is lacking. Kornet is left on an island.

So what did the Knicks do to try to slow the ball-handler?

Fizdale decided to trap the ball-handler off the screen as a means to prevent penetration, hoping they could either deny the pass to the roller or tag the roller to slow him down so the big engaged in the trap could have time to recover.

On most possessions, they accomplished neither of these objectives. Utah was able to pass out of the trap, and the weak side help was, once again, late in tagging the roll man. New York struggled with this against both Utah and Denver.

We saw glimpses of progress in possessions when Kornet was able to show hard and recover to his man. On the play highlighted below, notice how the Knicks are able to prevent the ball-handler from making a pass before the rest of the defense adjusts. They have an extra defender shadowing the roll man, and when the ball-handler is forced to reset by passing out of the double coverage, Kornet has time to recover.

Again, team defense. While the naked eye might see the players involved in the pick-and-roll and think it’s the primary defenders who are solely responsible for stopping the action, it is often the players who are being asked to help, and in the case of defending against the pick-and-roll, slowing down the roll man is critical. In fact, the Knicks rank a respectable 10th in defending the ball-handler out of pick-and-rolls, but find themselves ranked 19th in trying to stop the roll man, according to Synergy Sports.

This is a long-winded way of saying, “there is more to the Knicks defensive struggles than switching out Kanter with a serviceable big.” Of course, replacing a terrible defender with a less terrible defender helps, but it takes a team effort to make sure the work done by an individual player is ultimately rewarded with a stop.

Watch the full breakdown in the video below:

Be sure to check out JB’s work on Twitter @KnickFilmSchool and on KnicksFilmSchool.com.