Thursday, January 12, 2012

Who is the Real Key to the Knicks' Defensive Turnaround?

(Photo courtesy of

When Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert returned last Wednesday against the Bobcats, the Knicks thought their early-season problems on both offense and defense would be solved. After all, Stoudemire was sixth in the NBA in scoring last season and Shumpert's 6-10 wingspan makes him a defensive nightmare.

A home loss and 118 points allowed later, Knicks fans were left wondering how good their team really was on the defensive end. Shumpert and Stoudemire helped the Knicks score 110 points on offense but after allowing one of the lowest-scoring teams in the league to easily top 100 points, there were questions galore.

The Knicks were 2-4 and coming off consecutive home losses to Toronto and Charlotte. They have since turned the young season around with four straight victories including an impressive 85-79 victory last night against Philadelphia, the best team in the NBA so far according to power rankings from ESPN's John Hollinger.

While nobody believes the 76ers are THAT good or the Knicks are THAT bad (24th in those rankings before Wednesday, 19th after), it was still a good sign to see New York shut down one of the league's best two-way teams with a great mix of veterans like Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand and youth like Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner.

Skeptics will say that Philadelphia was playing their final game of a back-to-back-to-back and was tired, but the 76ers were playing with great energy down the stretch and seemed to have their legs. The one thing they didn't have was starting center Spencer Hawes, which likely contributed more to the loss than the third game in a row.

The Knicks allowed 99.2 points per game in their first six games compared to just 85.5 in their past four. Tyson Chandler was brought in to help this team's defense but he has played in every game this season and the team has had mixed results. The real key to this team's defensive success is Shumpert.

Since the rookie guard was elevated to the starting lineup in place of Toney Douglas, the Knicks have allowed just 82 points per game in three wins. While Chandler is great at protecting the basket, Douglas' struggles containing opposing point guards early led to serious issues with help defense and rotations, something Chandler himself can't overcome as one player.

With Shumpert now defending the point, opposing point guards haven't been able to penetrate the interior of the Knicks' defense anywhere near as well. Chandler hasn't been forced to help as often and as a result, New York's defensive rotations have been much smoother and teams have had less success around the basket.

The Knicks still switch on a few too many screens which can lead to serious mismatches, but Shumpert's height and length allows him to get a hand in the face of taller shooters and hold his own in post defense when forced to switch. His lightning-quick hands present a mismatch of their own against taller players less accustomed to handling the ball.

The combination of Shumpert's perimeter defense and and Chandler's ability to protect the paint has been the biggest boon to the Knicks defensively and with both now starting, the Knicks are tougher defensively from the outset. Shumpert would ranked third in the NBA with 2.2 steals per game if he hadn't missed four games and Chandler is 13th in blocked shots.

For all the heat the Knicks' brass took for taking the relatively unknown Shumpert in the draft and signing Chandler at the expense of Chauncey Billups (and potentially Chris Paul), these two have infused defensive life into a team that previously had none.

With two new defensive stalwarts, a weak Atlantic Division and two of the league's best scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire, the Knicks all of a sudden look like a legitimate threat for the third seed in the Eastern Conference after many speculated they could struggle to make the playoffs after starting 2-4. What a difference a week makes.

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