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The Dallas Palace of Analysis: Mike Miller’s defense

The many and varied benefits of simplifying the defense

Indiana Pacers v New York Knicks Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

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Since Mike Miller has taken over as coach, the Knicks have greatly simplified their defensive scheme. When Fizdale was coach, the Knicks used a variety of coverages EVERY game — they’d trap/drop/switch/play different zones/etc. — and rarely used the same primary coverage two games in a row. These days, the Knicks are exclusively playing drop coverage. The benefits are immense.

The value of simplicity

NBA offenses are varied. Teams have different strengths, different schemes, and different focuses. As a result, there’s a temptation for coaches to adjust their defenses to better match up with opposing offenses. For example, one might want to hedge or trap screens against Damian Lillard and the Blazers because of his ability to pull threes off the bounce, and play softer drop coverages against a team like the Knicks. In some cases, varying one’s defensive scheme works to great effect. For example, the Raptors have used just about every conceivable (and maybe some inconceivable) defensive scheme this season, and they’ve ridden that variety to the second-best defensive rating in the NBA.

Two factors have allowed the Raptors to reach this point: (1) they started very simply (last season), and slowly but surely added new wrinkles and new schemes and (2) they have a collection of incredibly smart, experienced, hard-working and talented defenders. Here’s Nick Nurse discussing how they started simple and built towards something more complicated.

One thing that you’ll immediately notice about the Knicks under Fizdale — neither factor (1) or (2) was true of them.

Most importantly, (1) was false. The Knicks started this season with seven new rotation players — Morris, Barrett, Randle, Payton, Ellington, Gibson and Portis — and a bunch of guys who were new to the NBA — Barrett, Knox, Ntilikina, Robinson, and Trier. Fizdale threw defensive schemes at them like they were Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleeet, and OG Anunoby.

There are a number of reasons why this is bad. First, the Knicks didn’t master any of the schemes they used. Instead of being good at one scheme, they were bad at many.

Second, changing schemes resulted in confusion. Often times players were unsure what rotations they were supposed to make, and we saw way too many plays like this one where Randle and Morris chased the same guy, and Frank is left to guard two players by himself.

Third, changing schemes too frequently can result in stunted development. The best thing you can do for young defenders with questionable feel is to start simple. Let them make the same rotations over and over and over and over in the same situations until they’re engrained in their mind — nay, on their very soul. “Knox, every time you’re on the weak side of a PnR, you do two things: (a) slide down and bump the roll man and (b) recover to your man on balance.” Keeping things simple like this makes teaching easier. Mistakes and progress are obvious — “good bump Knox, but see how you you didn’t recover to your man? Let’s work on that.” That way, the student isn’t so overloaded that they have to think too much on the court.

Perhaps the person that this is most important for is young Mitchell Robinson. While he has immense talent, his feel is at times questionable. Forcing him to make different decisions every night is not a recipe for steady growth. He needs to learn to crawl before he’s asked to try this:

It’s also worth noting that not all good defenses are complicated. In fact, the only defense that’s been better than the Raptors this year in terms of defensive rating are the Milwaukee Bucks, and they use basic drop coverage against just about every team they face.

Designing a defense that maximizes your talent

The centerpiece of the Knicks’ defense for the foreseeable future is Mitchell Robinson, and he is not optimized in a scheme that switches frequently. Why? Because it’s too easy for opposing teams to get him switched out onto the perimeter where the defense can then swing the ball and attack the rim without him there to offer rim protection. Instead, Mitch needs to be planted in the paint. Using drop coverage on PnRs accomplishes that.

The idea in drop is for the on-ball defender to trail his man around the screen and — by staying connected to his hip — prevent a 3-point shot. The screener’s defender typically starts by positioning themselves somewhere around the free-throw line. Their job is to backpedal towards the hoop, keeping both the ball handler AND the roll man in front of them, until the trail defender has time to recover. The ultimate goal of this defense is to force a low-efficiency midrange jumper or a floater, or to cause the offense to reset.

Here’s a few impact plays he’s made in the last few games since the Knicks have started exclusively playing drop:

I’m especially encouraged by that last pay. One of Mitch’s weaknesses has been over aggression, but that’s not a problem in this play. His timing is exquisite; the very millisecond that it’s clear that Frank will recover to Murray and that Murray isn’t a scoring threat, Mitch recovers to Jokić. As he gets more reps in this defense, we should see him make reads like this more frequently.

Drop coverage will also be beneficial for our young guards. Frank is an elite point-of-attack defender, and is excellent in rear view pursuit. Not only does he ALWAYS hustle to get back in front of his man, but his long arms allow him to disrupt passing lanes while in rearview pursuit. Here he forces a turnover:

But he also can blow PnRs up before they get started by getting around screens more quickly than guys expect and using those pesky go-go-gadget arms:

RJ and Elfrid are both average to above average at getting over screens, and should also do well in this scheme.

Focusing more on the offense

One of the biggest benefits of simplifying the defense is that it allows Miller to add complexity to the offense. With Fiz, the Knicks ran the same baseline out of bounds play... like an infinite number of times. And they rarely drew up creative after time out plays. Here’s the Fizzy BLOB:

Now here are all of the ATOs and BLOBs from the Denver game alone.

(1) A stagger screen followed by a screen the screener action:

(2) A cross screen for Randle post up, followed by a middle pin-down for the screener (Knox). Also, this play was cool, because it was drawn up when Miller recognized that Knox was being guarded by Michael Porter Jr., who is about as bad as Knox on defense. Miller went back to Knox like 10 times on off-screen actions with MPJ on him.

(3) A pin-down on both sides of the court clears out the paint. Again, targeting MPJ:

(4) And, finally what was perhaps my favorite of the bunch:


Simplifying the defense is going to help development, maximize the talents of our best young defenders and allow Miller to be more creative on the offensive side of the ball. Miller’s coaching has been a breath of fresh air, distinctively attractive... you might even say it has a certain...

This has been The Dallas Palace of Analysis. You may now put your shoes back on