HANG TIME NEW JERSEY BUREAU — If the New York Knicks wanted to call themselves title contenders this season, they desperately needed defensive help. So they sacrificed Chauncey Billups to acquire Tyson Chandler in a sign-and-trade deal with the Dallas Mavericks in the abbreviated offseason.
That was just Step 1. And the Knicks are still a long way from being a good defensive team.
Through three games, the Knicks are the 25th ranked defensive team in the league, allowing 104.7 points per 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size, but it’s clear that Chandler can’t make the Knicks a good defensive team by himself.
Primarily, the Knicks need more consistent effort on the defensive end from everyone on the roster. But a new game plan could help as well.
Part of the Mavericks’ success last season came from a zone defense, anchored by Chandler in the middle. The Mavs didn’t play zone all that much (11 percent of their defensive possessions in the regular season and 6 percent in the playoffs, according to Synergy Sports), but it was an effective option for them at times.
Having a zone in your repertoire gives teams a different look. It can help neutralize an opponent’s matchup advantage or keep a poor shooting team away from the basket. And if the Knicks envision themselves in a playoff series against the Miami Heat in the Spring, a zone would be a great thing to have in the playbook, especially since they have some weak individual defenders.
Going to zone can also be an effective adjustment when teams are using high screens to draw Chandler away from the basket.
“My guy is always the guy at the top or the guy involved,” Chandler said of playing man-to-man, “so that the ball is swung and I’m away from the rim.”
Here’s a perfect example from Game 4 of The Finals…
PLAY 1: Miami at Dallas, Game 4 – Man-to-man
On this play, Udonis Haslem comes high to set a screen for LeBron James, but James calls Haslem off and calls for Chris Bosh to set the screen instead. That draws Chandler away from the basket and James quickly swings the ball to Mario Chalmers, who takes advantage with a drive-and-kick to a wide-open Haslem on the baseline.
Though the following play results in a score, it’s an example of how the zone allows Chandler to stay near the rim…
PLAY 2: Dallas at Miami, Game 6 – Zone
When Haslem goes to set the high screen, Chandler stays in the paint, with the Dallas guards defending the pick-and-roll. So when Mike Miller swings the ball to James, Chandler is there to stop James’ drive. And when James kicks it to Dwyane Wade, Chandler stops his drive too. But Jason Kidd also helps on the Wade drive, and Wade finds Haslem cutting to the basket behind Chandler.
The following play from the conference semifinals has a similar start and a better result for the Mavs…
PLAY 3: L.A. Lakers at Dallas, Game 4 – Zone
Chandler stays in the paint as Andrew Bynum sets a high screen, and when the ball is swung, Chandler is in position to defend Pau Gasol in the post. Because of their size, the Lakers still have an advantage inside, but Bynum ends up missing a jump-hook over Shawn Marion.
Already this season, we’ve seen teams draw Chandler away from the basket in the Knicks’ man-to-man defense…
PLAY 4: Boston at New York – Man-to-man
Kevin Garnett sets a back-screen on Iman Shumpert and Chandler runs out to defend Ray Allen on the perimeter. Allen quickly gets the ball to Garnett, who feeds it to Jermaine O’Neal for an and-one.
Not many teams execute as well as the Celtics do. And our final example is a play where the Warriors fail to take advantage of Chandler defending a high screen.
PLAY 5: New York at Golden State – Man-to-man
Kwame Brown sets the screen for Monta Ellis. Chandler comes high and, with Amar’e Stoudemire also hedging, there’s a lane for David Lee to cut to the basket. But Lee stays on the perimeter and Ellis overpenetrates. The result is a well-contested 3-pointer that Dorell Wright misses.
Installing a zone is a lot easier said than done in the NBA, because playing it requires a lot more than just standing in an area of the floor. A lot of practice time is needed for a team to run it cohesively, mastering the proper decisions and rotations and always accounting for all five offensive players on the court.
Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said in the preseason that he’s thought about implementing a zone, but that the abbreviated training camp just didn’t allow it.
“That’s something a little bit down the road, I think,” D’Antoni said. “There’s just so much you’ve got to put in right now. If you had a whole month, maybe you’d already have it in. But we’ve got to make sure we don’t water everything down by adding too much and trying to do too many different things.”
And Chandler obviously can’t just stand under the basket in a zone. There is the defensive 3-second rule, and even in a zone, there are times (if the other perimeter players are occupied) when he does need to leave the paint and help out on a high screen.
But Chandler knows that a zone would certainly help his new team.
“I definitely think zone can be effective for us with the guys we’ve got in the back,” he said. “That’s all about us getting together and understanding the way we designed the zone, so I can kind of freelance down there and help keep my body off of guys, challenge shots and cover a lot of ground.”