After starting the season 2-4, how will the New York Knicks fix their defence and bench?
Regardless of your personal definition of the word, "super-teams" generally don't start off the season winning two out of a potential six games. The New York Knicks, who once referred to themselves as such, are not a super-team. What they are though, is a pretty good team that have some issues with defence and bench play. All starters play well together in offensive sets, and without getting too excited, certain newer players are already proving to be huge upgrades over who they were replacing (I blink both eyes simultaneously to reveal COURTNEY LEE tattooed on my eyelids). Even with what has to be categorised as a disappointing start, it seems kinda ridiculous to entertain thoughts of blowing up the team this early into the season. I mean, when was the last time the Knicks were at least this watchable? 2013? Surely it's not time to throw in the towel just yet.
Let's take a look at the issues one by one. Defensively, along with the Celtics and Pacers, the Knicks are one of the worst teams in the NBA, allowing 114.5 points per 100 possessions across six games so far. Part of this can certainly be explained by the significant roster turnover the Knicks went through this off-season; defensive consistency and team chemistry are basically married to each other, and so it's doubly difficult to retain situational awareness and call out opposing plays when 10 players out of a 15-man roster are new blood. Defensive communication will absolutely improve as the team gets used to playing with one another.
Part of the Knicks defensive woes can also be explained by their over-emphasis on switching. I could explain the benefits and downsides of switching here, but the truth is fellow HB writer Zach DiLuzio already did a great job of it here in his analysis of the recent game against the Bulls. Long story short, switching works well against a team like Chicago because of the limited amount of players they have that can create well off the dribble, and they can straight up sag off players like Robin Lopez (who can't put the ball on the floor) and Rajon Rondo (who can't shoot). This tactic is far less effective against a team like the Utah Jazz, who will play competent off-ball players and shooters like Joe Johnson, Gordon Hayward and George Hill on the court.
(Side note: as of November 8th, Kurt Rambis has been placed in charge of the Knicks team defence, as per Marc Stein of ESPN. Rambis' time as a head coach in New York was.... not great, so him being returned to any position of authority is probably.... not great. Though it is worth pointing out that when Rambis was defensive co-ordinator for the Lakers from '08 to '10, they were ranked 5th and 6th respectively in defensive efficiency and also won back-to-back titles. Rambis could certainly have a knack for defensive schemes while falling down horribly when faced with additional coaching duties. Guess we'll find out.)
The next issue is the bench. The only consistent two-way player we have on there currently is Justin Holiday. He's not amazing, but he provides stable effort on defence and hits shots at a pretty decent clip, which sad to say makes him our most valuable player coming off the bench. Brandon Jennings and Kyle O'Quinn both epitomise inconsistency, equally capable of extending a lead or blowing it while the starters rest up. Their shot selection at times is nothing short of baffling (I'm talking pull-up three's with 18 seconds left on the shot clock-level ridiculous), though in fairness to him Jennings has appeared to have reined it in a little bit since his trigger-happy start to the season, focusing more on his role as a distributor; in the past two games the Knicks have played, Jennings has taken less than five shots each game.
On the topic of passing, that's one thing that Kyle O'Quinn does surprisingly well. For whatever reason it's never been something that sets him apart from other backup centres (low assist numbers in general most likely to blame), but his passing from the post has always been pretty good. In addition to the usual slam dunks and swats that make up a highlights package, his post dishes make up a decent amount of his most recent season in review:
So where do we go from here? It was almost too predictable that the "BLOW IT UP" rhetoric would flow as soon as this team hit a bump in the road, it's basically a hallmark of being a Knick to have your every move scrutinised. Yet it was mere months ago that the Internet was singing Phil Jackson's praises for his off-season signings. Which are STILL all good signings, by the way. Jennings and Rose's contracts are very low risk if they don't pan out, Courtney Lee is a two-way upgrade over Arron Afflalo who (under the new cap) costs the same amount as him, and Joakim Noah has obvious value in both his Swiss Army Knife skill set and in his mentor role to Kristaps Porzingis. We can't call for Phil's head without at least giving the guys he brought in, and we approved of, a proper chance to perform.
We'll have to see what Rambis can change about the Knicks defence in upcoming games, but at least something has been done about fixing that open sore. Now, what to do about the bench? Realistically, aside from 'Melo and Porzingis, the Knicks have no real assets that they could dangle as trade bait to potentially strengthen their bench. It doesn't really go with Jackson's idea of wanting to build a 'culture' around the Knicks, either. It certainly makes it harder for a team to gel on defence if they're constantly in fear of being shipped elsewhere. One solution could be to stagger the minutes of the starters so at least one starter is playing with the bench unit at all times. Hornacek seems to be recognising this and has often pulled Rose and Noah from the game first to give Jennings and Lance Thomas a run with the starters.
It's not a concrete solution, especially if Thomas continues to struggle offensively (shooting 36% so far). But if trades are out of the question, the only other option is to see how our rookies develop. Ron Baker, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Willy Hernangomez have all shown enough potential to be serviceable NBA players, but currently they're all too green to get significant minutes without getting absolutely murdered on defence. They'll need some work, for sure, but at the same time, it sure would be nice to see a rookie develop in New York.