Derrick Rose talks a lot about defense.
“That was the entire game,” he said of the latest loss. “Lack of defense.”
Defense isn’t a skill, it’s a choice. A decision. A determination. Rose, who once played for one of the game’s best defensive-minded coaches in Tom Thibodeau, knows this better than anyone.
“It’s hard to play guys in this league one-on-one,” he said. “You’ve got to funnel them or send them to a place.”
The suggestion there is, you don’t actually stop someone like a 5’9″ Pierre Jackson, a D-League player on his second 10-day contract, with straight-up defense. You have to angle him into the help from big men, like 7’3″ Kristaps Porzingis with a sore Achilles, or 6’11” Joakim Noah with sore ankles, and that’s how it works.
“We didn’t have any presence,” Rose said of the defense. “It shouldn’t be like that.”
Jeff Hornacek watched from the sidelines, shook his head and probably thought the same exact thing.
It shouldn’t be like this.
Before we single out Rose, let’s try to be reasonable with his logic that the bigs aren’t doing their job being a “presence” as help defenders in pick-and-roll coverage. Dribble penetration is essential in today’s NBA offense. It unlocks everything. So we begin by identifying the Knicks as a team that gives up a great deal of dribble penetration by virtue of the fact that they allow the second-most shots in the league from within 5 feet or Less at 32.9 per game.
But despite the high rate of opportunities to score in the paint — the Knicks allow 44.9 Points in the Paint, which is 8th-most in the NBA — the reality is opponents face resistance thanks to the bigs. Not only is it from the 5.7 blocks per game, which is third-best in the league, but in those 32.9 shots per game from 5 Feet or Less, Knicks opponents are shooting 57.1%, which is the 7th-lowest percentage in the NBA. So there’s evidence that a presence is certainly there.
Which suggests the issue remains at the point of attack.
The trade speculation involving Carmelo Anthony is dominating the headlines and, though no one will admit it, the situation is a distraction within the locker room. Melo has a no-trade clause and has maintained he wants to stay in New York, but has publicly said he would reconsider if the team said it wanted to go into rebuild mode. Rose, who came in from Chicago hoping to sign a long-term deal to stay in New York, has his future weighing on his mind, too. It is showing in his play at both ends of the floor, but most notably on the defensive end.
The defense has been a topic of conversation for the Knicks since training camp, but the Knicks managed to overcome their troubles early in the season with a 12-9 start, which left hope a few adjustments would help it improve as the season went on. But instead, the issues only got worse.
Over the first 21 games, the Knicks were allowing 106.3 points per game, which was in the bottom half of the league. Over the last 26 games, however, that number has ballooned to 109.5 points per game. That’s the 6th highest Opponent Points Per Game average in that span.
Yeah, I was amazed too. There are five teams allowing more than that?
Since Dec. 7:
Nets — 115.0 (25 games)
Nuggets — 112.7 (23 games)
Lakers — 111.3 (26 games)
Magic — 111.0 (25 games)
Suns — 110.0 (24 games)
KNICKS — 109.5 (26 games)
Now Rose was a revelation in the first quarter of the season for how good he looked physically and how selflessly he played. Rose averaged 16.7 points and 4.8 assists in 31.9 minutes over the first 21 games. He attempted just 14.7 shots per game and had some strong fourth-quarter performances to help the Knicks to a 12-9 start. Then he started experiencing back spasms and he missed four games over a six-game span.
Around that time, talk of what the Knicks should do with Rose, whose contract expires after this season, became a topic of debate.
In the 26 games since, Rose appeared in 21 games — remember, he missed one game due to an unexcused absence — and he hasn’t been the same player. Here’s the catch: his numbers actually improved. He is scoring 19.3 points per game while shooting at a similar clip of 45%, but it’s his FGAs that have increased (17.2) while his assists have decreased (4.1). He’s looking more for his offense and the Knicks have looked erratic, especially late in games, and in desperate need of some organization.
Most importantly, when earlier in the season Rose was credited for solid defensive efforts against Paul George, Dennis Schroder and Kemba Walker, Rose is now being chewed up in the blender of pick-and-roll coverage on a nightly basis. In Dallas, Rose stopped fighting through screens and opted to switch every time on the screens and wound up guarding 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki, who easily shot over him.
And then after the game, Rose spoke about the issues on defense.
“It takes everybody being on the same page, everybody putting in the work and dedicating themselves to the team,” he said.
With Walker, Schroder and John Wall awaiting over the next three Eastern Conference games, the pick-and-roll blender will be on liquefy with Rose being dropped right into the blades. While a contract for next season and beyond may be weighing on his mind, the most important thing for the team right now is the next game.
The Knicks are back home Friday against the Hornets. We’ll have the pregame coverage on MSG Network at 7 p.m.