I agree with Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek, who when asked repeatedly Monday night about the team's effort laughed off the idea that the team "hasn't been trying" during their five game losing streak.
Questioning effort is an attack on a team's professionalism and I don't think that's the case here. I truly believe it's a matter of teams feeling far too comfortable with what they see from the Knicks defensively and the simple understanding that if they can hone in and make shots, it will keep the Knicks out of transition where they like to get easy baskets.
In the last five games, starting with a loss at home Christmas Day against the Celtics, the Knicks have faced four teams -- Boston, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Houston -- that primarily run their offense through a PG/C pick-and-roll and surround the perimeter with three point shooters. This is the offense made famous by Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix and later in New York. This offense puts heavy pressure on the defense, with PG driving action causing defenders on the perimeter to help.
The Knicks' rotations simply aren't sound enough and when you combine that with the struggles Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings have had defending it, you have teams making a combined 69 three pointers (13.8 per game) while shooting 39 percent. To put that into perspective, the league average from teams behind the arc is 35 percent, while making nine treys per game -- with the Knicks allowing 9.9 per game over the first 34 games.
Perhaps the biggest concern heading into the season was the team's health and that issue stands at the forefront of their longest skid of the season.
While he won't say it, Carmelo Anthony has shoulder and knee issues and that is on top of Courtney Lee's wrist injury. Lee returned Monday night and was lapped early by journeyman Jodie Meeks, who finished with 23 points on 6-7 from deep.
Lee's injury comes on the heels of Rose's back spasms, which came on the heels of Joakim Noah's early issues. And Lance Thomas has been battling foot problems all year. Add Kristaps Porzinigis now dealing with Achillies soreness and you have a group that can't stay on the floor together for any real extended period of time.
Injuries aren't an excuse because, as they say, everyone has them. But they are a factor in what's happening here. Every time the Knicks look to get on an extended roll, like in the case with Rose, there's a setback. It's nearly impossible to create cohesion, especially defensively, when you don't have groups playing significant minutes.
"I have to find someone who can play some defense. We have to have better pride in that," Hornacek said after Monday night's game. "You can't give a team hope. When you come out on the road and make 3 or 4 threes in a row right to start the game all of a sudden you go, 'Ok, we can win this game.' We were scoring fine but we were content to exchange points with them and we can't do that."
A source close the situation has told me the Knicks are working on a trade and have targeted a player and you can imagine that the idea of making a deal would be to find someone who can play some defense. But the idea of that happening soon may be a bit ambitious, meaning the Knicks have to figure out a way to get together and figure out the issues defensively.
If it's not effort then it's skill. And if it's skill, that needs to change. I would rotate Anthony out early in favor of a better perimeter defender, as Anthony has had issues getting out on shooters after being forced to help stop penetrating guards. I'd also instruct him not to leave his man because teams are targeting him with penetration. In terms of "top" pick and roll, you have to go under every screen when you aren't playing against a James Harden and force the point guard to shoot.
It would also make sense to play Porzingis on centers in those situations to see if his length can bother the point guard and force more pick and pop. In fairness, the Knicks forced a lot of mid range from Serge Ibaka and Nikola Vucevic, who responded with a combined 36 points on 17-31 shooting from the field.
The answer has to come from within, and with back-to-back games against a red-hot Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, they better figure something out in a hurry.