A few weeks ago, while catching up on some Big Apple sports news, I came upon this incredible sentence:
Even at age 32, [Joakim] Noah probably is their most effective defensive center, but he will miss the first 12 regular-season games because of a performance-enhancing drugs suspension.
This sentence is amazing ... it’s a bleak landscape in miniature, a blown-out ruin inside of a snow globe. It is also, for all its ugliness, probably true. The old broken suspended player is still the best the team can manage despite boasting a roster of some 37 big men—and assuming the Knicks cave to Kristaps Porzingis’s complaints and play him down a slot—Joakim Noah, age 32, serving a suspension, beneficiary of maybe the league’s worst contract, an offensive cipher, might be closest thing the Knicks have to a defensive anchor. This is especially fun to think about when also considering the huge holes the Knicks present at every other position, too. Maybe removing known brain genius Kurt Rambis from his informal role as defensive coordinator was a start, but the raw materials aren’t much to work with. Early indicators from the 0-5 preseason confirm:
Somehow I can’t help but feel that the offensive kinks will work themselves out, and the Knicks will fall proudly somewhere in the lower third but not at absolute rock bottom on that end. But it feels wholly possible that the Knicks, ranked 26th in defensive rating last year, become a historically bad defensive team this year. Madison Square Garden will hopefully host of some of the great scoring displays of the year. It’s like Monopoly, where you pass GO and automatically collect $200; you pass through Manhattan and automatically drop a career-high. It could be amazing to watch!
Unless you are a Knicks fan or some other subset of sad unwell person, you probably haven’t been keeping close tabs on Noah’s status. For one, he’s a little hurt, recovering from a torn rotator cuff with a roughly five-month rehab window. In the 46 games he did play last season, he logged a solid 22 minutes a game, revealing (surprise!) a very different Noah than the one that a deeply stoned Phil Jackson might have deluded himself into thinking he was acquiring. The DPOY Noah was a twitchy spidery troll who kept all four limbs splayed wide, capable of switching nearly anything, even wrapping up Bron when needed. A pleasant memory, but a totally obsolete one: Age and wear have changed his body—an extra left knee injury late last season couldn’t have helped any—and the Noah of now is visibly slower to rotate or offer help defense, let alone keep up one-on-one with shifty wings.
Even if he’ll never again be the guy who could keep wings frustrated on the perimeter, maybe in his diminished, gimpy state, he could compensate by contesting shots at the rim? Overall, Noah allowed 56.1 percent of field goals, or 57th among the 61 players who contested more than five shots a game, per NBA.com stats. And when contesting shots within 6 feet of the rim, Noah permitted a field goal percentage of 62.8 percent, which put him at 65th among 77 NBA centers per NBA.com. Any transition to a slower, paint-bound enforcer seems highly unlikely.
It’s not as if there were many bright spots. Per Synergy Sports, Noah was 37th percentile when defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers. He was in the 32nd percentile for defending post-ups. He was in the 10th percentile for defending spot-up shots. These three situations account for 80 percent of the defensive plays Noah was involved in.
But probably you did not need much convincing that Joakim Noah is not very good. He is several years removed from shoring up a defense singlehandedly. But how about the other options? It’s an almost impressive feat of roster management: how can a roster so lousy with bigs still feel like the softest, shallowest frontcourt in the NBA?
For an overall assessment of Noah’s worth on this end of the floor, he posted a defensive real plus-minus was 1.17, or 31st among all centers; by this metric, 20 teams had at least one better defensive center than the Knicks best center, and several had two. Right below Noah on that list is fellow Knick Kyle O’Quinn, 32nd among centers with a 1.16 DRPM. He’s an interesting case. He let up just 44.2 percent of shots taken within six feet of the rim, which is good for sixth in the league. I fondly remember the the Kyle O’Quinn Game. I am not at all convinced yet that Kyle O’Quinn is bad. Perhaps he will answer this definitively this season. More likely this is a mystery best answered when he no longer is employed by the New York Knicks.
It’s not as though he’ll be facing stiff competition while he’s here. Scanning the depth chart, there’s offensively slick Willy Hernangomez, who posted a DRPM of 0.40, good for 50th among all 61 centers listed. Shiny new addition Enes Kanter posted a DRPM of -1..24, placing him 59th among the 61 centers listed. One of the critiques made of Kanter is that he’s a Willy who costs 12 times as much only to be even worse at defense. Kanter, for all his canny intuition and footwork when rebounding and scoring on one side of the floor, might be the most defensively demented center in the NBA. So severe is the liability, Kanter saw his minutes halved once the Thunder hit the postseason last year, dropping from 21.3 minutes a game to 9.0 minutes a game. In fairness, “This guy’s unplayable in the playoffs” isn’t much of problem on this Knicks squad, but still.
As the eye roves to other positions, you soon realize that even an average defender would be an absolute boon to the roster. Kanter’s OKC buddy, Doug McDermott, is a sweet-shooting 6-foot-8 with all the lateral smoothness of an enthusiastic giraffe, and he will get deeply embarrassed by any wing worth a shit. McBuckets came in dead-last among 70 small forwards in DRPM last year. Just a bit higher up, at 51st, is Mike Beasley, who has by now ascended to a higher plane where actually, the best defense is just piercing eye contact and resonant humming.
Then in the backcourt there’s Courtney Lee and Ron Baker, who, occasional humiliation notwithstanding—
—are both basically fine. Alongside them is the very expensively re-acquired Tim Hardaway Jr., who was a defensive wreck before Mike Budenholzer exiled him to the D-League to atone for his sins. On the Hawks he worked his way up to mediocrity—54th among 93 shooting guards, in DPRM last season—but whether he can sustain that effort is yet to be seen. Historically, the Knicks have not exactly inspired people to honor their commitments to defense. (The Knicks have languished in the bottom 10 defensive teams for 11 of the last 15 seasons.)
Veteran point guards Ramon Sessions and Jarrett Jack are both north of 30; either would be the worst starting point guard in the NBA, and neither has much of a shot staying in front of their marks.
You’ll notice that some important names have been omitted so far, perhaps the only two names that inspire hope. On the point guard front, there’s fresh draft pick Frank Ntilikina, 6-foot-5, with a a 7-foot wingspan and a tentacular, refreshingly NBA-ready perimeter defense. And there is of course Kristaps Porzingis, the one true hope, a talent so pure that even the Knicks couldn’t spoil it. (Right? Right??? Please God someone answer me.)
The lingering question is whether Kristaps’s gifts will be cultivated intelligently. The whole selling point of the big hydrated boy is that he’s a versatile offensive weapon—way too smooth a handle and too sweet a shot for an opposing center to cope with—and a monstrous rim protector, all in one package. On the defensive end he continues to show great promise: Last season he let up 44.2 field goal percentage on opponents’ field goals, good for sixth in the league. He was also ninth in the league in protecting shots within six feet of the basket. Encouragingly, he seems to relish this role. During a misguided attempt to explain why he should play down a position, Porzingis said as much: “If it’s a non-shooter at power forward, then I can be under the rim on defense and protecting the rim and that’s what I love.” A smart team would probably encourage this enthusiasm, help him flesh out his wraith-like frame, round out his thin arsenal of post moves, and otherwise intelligently design him as the five of the future. And yet all early evidence makes it sounds as if Porzingis will be playing down a position, which is sure to drag him away from the hoop, in a league where the term “stretch-four” is basically redundant.
There are other causes for mild concern. Amid a sophomore season that must have been distracting in every conceivable way, Porzingis’s rebounding backslid—rebounding rate slipped from 14.0 percent to 11.8 percent—and judging by recent quotes, he doesn’t seem to have much of an appetite for contact. “When I’m playing against the 5, I’m fighting with the big a lot of times and I’m wasting a lot of energy,” he said. But what was the point of getting swole all summer, if not to use that muscle in the paint, Kristaps? You’ve gotta get good at this eventually. I know everything seems pointless right now, and the bruises can’t be very fun, but this is sort of what you signed up for—or, at least, what being 7-foot-3 signed you up for by default.
Maybe the Knicks will experiment with their lineups once Kanter and Hernangomez and O’Quinn and Noah are totally exposed. Maybe, for Kristaps, the short-term unpleasantness of banging around for a futile team will be offset by the longterm joys of developing a generationally unique two-way game. For all the Knicks’ deficiencies on the level of individual players, what’s even more amazing is how structurally rotten the team is, all the way through. On Saturday Hornacek conceded that the defensive scheme mystified his players throughout last season. “It was confusing guys and it was confusing me. It didn’t help at all,” said Porzingis. So what did Hornacek do? He took the keys away from Rambis, simplified the scheme and introduced a change, which the New York Daily News describes thus:
Another change is the use of a tracking system that charts player movement on defense. The goal is to be in the right spot at least 90 percent of the time during a game.
I hope Carmelo Anthony drops 76 points on them in his home opener.