To say the New York Knicks and defense in the same sentence without a negation involved usually evokes memories of the ’90s, when the Patrick Ewing era team either coached by Pat Riley or Jeff Van Gundy, obsessively and often violently attacked opposing offenses. A customary mid third quarter score might be 38-33, and that was after a 10-2 Knick run.
The current Knicks will absolutely not evoke that era, but their Defensive Rating, 101.5 points allowed per 100 possessions ranks 12th in the Association; it’s their best work protecting the rim since the ’00-’01 team, which was the last one coached by Van Gundy for a full season. Mike D’Antoni’s teams are not often known for their defensive prowess; last season they ranked 28th. What accounts for the change?
The obvious answer is that free agent signing Tyson Chandler has been everything as advertised. Chandler is a premier defensive pivotman who has anchored the paint for solid defensive teams in Chicago and New Orleans as well as last year’s World Champion, Dallas. But he’s not alone. Looking at the Four Factors that contribute to Defensive Rating, the Knicks excel in holding opponents to one shot, they rank sixth in the percentage of opponent’s shots that they rebound. It should be noted that Carmelo Anthony contributes to this too. He ranks sixth among starting small forwards in Rebound Rate. Rookie guard Iman Shumpert has also played a disruptive role with his length and active hands. The Knicks rank third in percentage of opponents possessions that result in a turnover.
Is this level of play sustainable? On the one hand as John Hollinger pointed out yesterday, Knicks opponents are sinking 40.7% of their three point shots, which feels like a fluke. But the team has also played an easy schedule so far and thirteen games is a small sample size even in a 66 game schedule. Still this is clearly the best D the Knicks have played in a decade. Thus those chants of D-FENSE at the Garden are finally more than an echo of a previous and long gone era.