When the New York Knicks got out to a 5-1 start in the face of pressure from last year’s surprise success story, everything was humming – or bing-bonging – right along.
Since then, the Knicks have dropped five of their last seven games, and it seems like the sky is falling in New York.
Friday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets marked the Knicks’ second-consecutive loss, and while they only allowed 104 points, their defense has been far from the brick wall we saw all last year.
Entering the contest, the Knicks owned a defensive rating of 111.0, the third-worst in the entire NBA. It has been a bizarre turn of events from their 2020-21 team, whose calling card was tough and gritty defense, playing with the energy and physicality that felt like a 90s flashback.
While poor defense is an uncharacteristic trait of any Tom Thibodeau-coached team, it’s even more shocking considering the Knicks returned the majority of their rotation from a season ago. With that being said, there is one aspect of the rotation that has changed significantly – the starting lineup.
With the offseason signings of Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, coach Thibodeau has slotted those two veterans into the starting unit. They join last year’s starters Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, while Mitchell Robinson retained his spot in the starting five now that he is healthy again.
That starting five has given the Knicks a significant boost on the offensive end – as a team, they own an offensive rating of 110.0, which is sixth-best in the league compared to last year’s team, which owned the fourth-worst offense in the NBA – but not so much on the other side of the ball.
And that’s putting it generously.
According to StatMuse, the Knicks starting lineup of Walker, Fournier, Barrett, Randle and Robinson own the worst defensive rating (119.3) by a five-man unit in NBA history. Yes, you read that correctly. The worst defensive unit in NBA history.
The Knicks starting five (Kemba/Fournier/Barrett/Randle/Robinson) have played the most minutes this season.
They are -78 in those minutes, the worst by any 5-man lineup.
That lineup currently has the worst defensive rating in NBA history. pic.twitter.com/28F8DAZGjC
— StatMuse (@statmuse) November 13, 2021
And while 13 games is a small sample size, the fact that the lineup has played more minutes together than any other five-man combination in the league makes it much more significant.
There have long been defensive concerns about Walker, and Fournier isn’t exactly a lockdown defender, either. But benching one of the two players you signed to start in the offseason isn’t the easiest task.
Should coach Thibodeau elect to start Derrick Rose in Walker’s place, relegating the four-time All-Star to a role as a bench scorer? Or would it make more sense to start Alec Burks, who is a much better defender than Fournier? The Frenchman’s four-year, $78 million deal is likely too large for the latter to be the answer.
It doesn’t help that the Knicks have been without one of their best defenders in Nerlens Noel, who missed the first seven games of the season with a back injury, then returned for four games before suffering a knee injury, causing his latest absence.
Even with Noel healthy, it’s unlikely he would surpass the 23-year-old Robinson in the starting lineup, but he would make a significant impact off the bench as we saw during last year’s campaign where he was the only player in the league to average over 2.0 blocks and 1.0 steals per game.
There’s still plenty of time, but the Knicks need to get back to their roots on the defensive end because if the well runs dry on the offensive end, they’ll be in trouble.