How Phil Jackson set up the Knicks defense to fail

Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek appeared at his wit’s end after the Knicks fell on Monday night to the Orlando Magic, saying he was unsure what to do about his team’s defense and even questioning: “Maybe we’re just not capable of it. I don’t know…”

Hornacek appeared exasperated, saying: “I have to find someone to play some defense. You can’t come out beginning of the game — I think their first three or four baskets were 3-pointers. We’ve got to have better pride in that.”

The Knicks are currently 26th in the NBA in adjusted defensive rating, per Basketball Reference. They’re giving up 108.5 points per game, 25th best in the league. Monday night bore it out: The Magic entered the game averaging 99 points a game on offense. The team dropped 115 on New York on Monday night.

The Knicks defense appears broken, and with the way this team was set up by team president Phil Jackson, there aren’t a lot of options to fix it.


That’s not to say that Jackson didn’t try. The Knicks did take some measures to improve their defense this offseason, with Jackson bringing in Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee to help out on that end. You could sorta see the thinking: With Kristaps Porzingis developing into a plus-defender, the Knicks would protect the paint and make teams work for buckets.

It hasn’t worked. Noah looks a step slow, Lee has struggled to keep up with younger guards, and the Knicks have so little wing depth they can’t defend anyone effectively over the course of 48 minutes.

The team’s makeup is ill-suited for the modern NBA. While their size can cause some teams problems in the paint, they struggle to defend the perimeter, especially without Porzingis’ range (he missed the game Monday night) to provide cover.

A big reason for that is that opponents are chucking up a ton of 3s against them (nearly 28 per game) and making 35% of them. The Knicks just don’t have the wing defenders to stop them. Lee, Lance Thomas and Justin Holiday are doing their best, but these aren’t elite talents, and they’re playing more minutes than they should.

Hornacek has to play them, too — Carmelo Anthony isn’t going to chase guys around the perimeter, Porzingis and Noah are more comfortable in the paint, and Derrick Rose doesn’t really “play defense” anymore. Rose’s defensive real plus-minus rating this year has him at 71st in the league for point guards, which is somehow slightly worse than the other Knicks guard, Brandon Jennings, who comes in at 67th.

Basically: This team isn’t built to defend modern NBA teams. Jackson has provided them with no wing depth at all, and without that, every night Hornacek is forced to plug and play different ill-fitting parts to try and get something to work. Watching Willy Hernangomez and Kyle O’Quinn try to close out shots on Monday night, I wondered how the team’s defensive rating isn’t somehow worse.

So while it’s tempting to chuckle at Hornacek’s exasperated words, he might be right. The way Jackson set this team up, I’m not sure this team will ever be able to defend either.