At the start of training camp, the players gathered in a circle around center court for their first official meeting. The new coaching staff assembled around them on the surface of the perimeter. Their collective achievements were promoted thusly:
Meet Joshua Longstaff, the least accomplished member of the staff. He’s only been part of a conference championship team.
In other words, you, players, are surrounded by people who know winning. Every single coach has been to an NBA Finals. All but one has been part of an NBA champion.
So it doesn’t have to be just Phil Jackson — he of 11 rings — or Derek Fisher
— he of five — to raise his voice in demand of a higher standard of play. There is a delegation of accountability in place.
On one particular afternoon, just as the media was filing in to watch the last few minutes of practice, it was Brian Keefe, an assistant who was part of Gregg Popovich’s staff in San Antonio and then Scott Brook’s in Oklahoma City, who turned up the volume when the Knicks were reverting again to habits of the past.
Keefe’s message was delivered with a demand, as if to emphasize the end of a way that has existed for too long. On the surface, the coach was merely pointing out the importance of communication between teammates on defense.
But it might as well represent a new standard that is attempting to be installed here in New York.
“We don’t do anything alone ANYMORE on this team,” the assistant coach yelled.
Fisher nodded with approval. Several players came suddenly to attention.
After the first 13 games, this effort to establish a winning culture has resembled staking a tent in a heavy wind and rain. There is so much force working against them, but Fisher and his staff can’t give in. The tent must be staked.
“Success and winning at an elite level requires a very high degree of sacrifice,” Fisher said after Wednesday’s loss in Minnesota. “It requires you to lay your basketball life on the line for those around you. You have to give some things up in order to get something back.
“We’re still trying to break through that as a group.”
For most of the preseason, the Knicks found security in the mysticism of the Triangle Offense. The anticipated learning curve was used as convenient handicap for their uneven performance in the preseason. “For a while,” Fisher admitted, “that was our out.”
The loss of Jose Calderon and Andrea Bargnani, both to injury, were other crutches. Two-fifths of the anticipated starting lineup is missing. Shane Larkin, essentially a redshirt rookie, was forced into a lead role he developmentally isn’t ready for yet.
But the numbers show that offense isn’t an issue. One of the most singularly-minded, chuck-and-duck teams in the NBA last season quickly morphed into willing passers with hoops that came with high assist percentages and three-pointers shot at a conservative rate.
The Triangle isn’t complicated and it doesn’t take great effort. But it’s only half the game. And the anticipated returns of Calderon and Bargnani aren’t expected to have a major impact on the other side of the ball, where the real problem lies.
If the Knicks defense could be described in a geometric shape, it would be a Trapezium. There are no equal sides, no parallel lines and it has no symmetry.
Wally Szczerbiak was never mistaken as a top one-on-one defender during his career, but he was excellent in team defense. In fact, former Cavs coach Mike Brown once told me that Wally didn’t get enough credit for his skill as a heady positional defender. So there’s credibility in his words when, during Wednesday’s postgame show
, he said the issue with the Knicks defense is “the simple things. It’s not scheme things. It’s logic.”
For instance: Don’t leave a known shooter wide open. Seems logical, right? But then we show you this matrix of shooters from three-point range vs. the Knicks this season:
Kyle Korver 9-for-18 (two games)
Kevin Martin 7-for-11
Arron Afflalo 5-for-7
Joe Johnson 4-for-6
Mirza Teletovic 4-for-6
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope 4-for-7
Garrett Temple 4-for-7
Paul Pierce 3-for-5
Khris Middleton 3-for-5
Ersan Ilyasova 3-for-4
It is here we should recall Phil Jackson’s search for, as he put it, “learners” as he assesses his roster. He wasn’t just talking about players who understand the Triangle.
The Knicks allow a league-high 43.3% shooting from beyond the arc this season. The 9.5 3PTM per game is the third-highest in the league. Fisher has indicated that he would prefer the Knicks pack in the paint and allow teams to, as they say, live-and-die by the three.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t hustle to close out on a shooter or get around a screen.
Despite back-to-back games allowing 40-plus points in the paint to the Bucks (48) and the Timberwolves (42), the Knicks, overall, have had success defending the paint and the rim this season. Opponents average 36.0 Points in the Paint per game against the Knicks, which is the second-lowest in the league behind the Dallas Mavericks (35.0). According to SportVu, Knicks’ opponents are shooting just 49.8% “At the Rim,” which is the fourth-lowest in the league.
But dribble penetration and pick-and-roll plays remain the team’s biggest issues. And defending both requires lateral quickness, communication and effort.
J.R. Smith has, on two occasions, pointed to that last critical element as a problem on defense.
If that’s the case, this should be correctable. Tom Thibodeau, the best defensive coach in the game, will tell you that defense is 10 percent system and 90 percent effort. It doesn’t matter what you have installed, it doesn’t matter how much you put together a scouting report or how much film you watch if the effort — the will — is lacking on the court.
And that goes back to the point Keefe attempted to hammer home at that practice, as well as how Fisher described a requirement of winning to be “a very high degree of sacrifice” and to “give some things up in order to get some things back.”
This demand excuses no one. Carmelo Anthony has had his lapses in coverage and effort on the defensive end. He was asked if his balky knee was a reason and he quickly replied, “Is that a trick question? No, not at all.”
Melo grumbled after the loss in Minnesota about “games we should be winning.” When pressed about the defensive breakdowns — which became alarming after the Knicks allowed 115 points to a Timberwolves team that played a roster of neophytes — Melo replied, “We have to figure out a way how we’re going to play defense as a team, as a unit. That’s where it starts at.”
There can be no finger pointing here. The issues, as Wally said, aren’t in the schemes. They are in the commitment.