Tom Thibodeau is in his first year with the New York Knicks and has made an immediate impact on the team. The Knicks started 5-3 with one of the best records in the Eastern Conference. Now, after a five-game losing streak a couple of weeks ago, they are 10-13 on the season, just one spot outside of the playoffs. They already have half as many wins as they did last season, in 1/3 of the games they played last year.
What changed? Defense.
Coach Tom Thibodeau is known for his authoritarian style of coaching. He demands his players to play hard and with a lot of intensity. His scheme, combined with a demand for effort, has changed the Knicks.
Here are some defensive stats that have changed drastically from the 2019-2020 season without Thibodeau.
|Statistic (NBA Rank)||2019||2020|
|Opponent points per game||112.3 (7th)||104.1 (2nd)|
|Defensive Efficiency||1.094 (23rd)||1.057 (6th)|
|Opponent points in the paint||43.9 (5th)||44.3 (6th)|
|Opponent field goal percentage||46.3% (16th)||43.1% (1st)|
|Opponent three-point percentage||38.1% (25th)||31.4% (1st)|
|Opponent three-point attempts per game||34.9 (19th)||37.6 (25th)|
Tom Thibodeau’s defensive scheme is centered around protecting the paint. The Knicks are sixth this season in opponent points in the paint. They have excellent defensive bigs in Mitchell Robinson, Julius Randle, and Nerlens Noel. Both Robinson and Noel are in the top-10 for blocks per game this season, and Randle has recorded the fourth-most defensive rebounds per game. So, it makes sense that Thibodeau would emphasize protecting the paint because of the army he has protecting it.
That being said, he is “allowing” with the three-point shot. I say “allowing” because his emphasis on the paint allows teams to get the sixth most three-point attempts per game this season. Although, through Thibodeau’s insistence of closing out and contesting shots, the Knicks have kept their opponents to the lowest three-point percentage in the NBA.
They also play smart within the scheme. Bigs like Mitchell Robinson will sag on screens when it happens behind the arc, but help out when the shot is within midrange or near the paint. They play true man-to-man with little help-defense in the paint unless someone is driving in. Their defense is poetic and entertaining to watch because it brings out the best of their opponents.
Combining Thibodeau’s scheme with the stress of physicality and effort on defense has created a large impact on the Knicks’ success. They have kept their opponents to the second-lowest point total per game and the lowest field goal percentage in the NBA. Their defensive success is inspiring, and it has translated to wins and a chance at a playoff run.
What’s next for the Knicks? Taking advantage of their defense and translating it to an offense.
There is no way around the fact that the Knicks’ roster is overloaded with defensive specialists. Guys like Nerlens Noel, Mithcell Robinson, and Reggie Bullock are guys that will have better defensive box plus/minus scores than their offensive. Offensively, Julius Randle is playing in another world, shooting 47.5% from the field, 39.7% from distance, 80.5% from the stripe, and averaging 22.6 points per game. However, the Knicks’ highest scorer after Randle is R.J Barrett, who is shooting 43.3% from the field and 27.9% from three, taking the second-most shots per game.
The Knicks’ offensive focus could use work too. For a team that’s so good defensively, it should translate to fastbreak opportunities. The Knicks have the fewest number of fast-break points per game (6.8) and the worst fast-break efficiency in the NBA (1.040). This is an area that could help them get quick buckets for a team that is inefficient at making long-range shots (25th in three-point percentage).
It’s no secret that the Knicks mean business on defense. They turned their team around from one of the worst defenses in the NBA last season to the best this year. The Knicks will have a shot at seeing playoff action this season, but they will need to improve their roster next offseason to produce a better offense. Currently, they rank last in points per game (102.4) and 25th in the NBA in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage.