It's still early, but the Knicks nevertheless have good standing in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. There's optimism in the air, but still vast room for improvement. New York has lost four of its last six contests, and their inability to keep up with the Celtics on Christmas Day exposed many weaknesses.
As the Knicks look to contend, they'll need to take care of business against the stronger teams of the league. Here are three of the other more pressing issues the team has faced as of late...
Their defensive woes:
Despite acquiring players in the offseason like Joakim Noah and Courtney Lee, who are known for their defense, New York has continued to struggle on this end of the floor. With Noah failing to assert himself this season, the Knicks have lacked that necessary leader. They need an anchor -- someone who reads opposing offenses and communicates well to his teammates. The big man hasn't consistently served well in that capacity.
The Knicks have also had difficulty maintaining coverage and intensity in the zone defense. More often than not, if an opposing team keeps moving the ball, they'll find the open man. The Knicks haven't been quick enough on switches and have failed to defend the pick and roll well. An overall failure to communicate is likely the problem.
Having said that, Derrick Rose's lack of quickness was exploited against an explosive Isaiah Thomas on Christmas Day. He simply isn't fast enough and Brandon Jennings doesn't have the necessary level of discipline, so the Knicks were clearly left vulnerable. A strong defensive effort should start with a mature point guard defending an opposing floor general, and end with a big man ensuring everyone else backs him up down low.
Can Joakim Noah be depended on?
Noah has struggled to make a consistent impact this season. Though his minutes have wavered a bit, his role has not. Head coach Jeff Hornacek has stuck with the veteran as the team's starting center despite his underwhelming play.
As noted above, Noah's value to this team doesn't come down to numbers alone. The Knicks need energy from him and should be able to depend on him to anchor their defense. He needs to rally the troops and get things in order on that end of the floor. Kyle O'Quinn has seemingly brought more energy and intensity this season, but he's not the vocal player Noah has proven to be over the course of his career. The Knicks are paying him to lead.
Over the last three games, Noah has played well in extended minutes. However, his 8.3 points and 10 rebounds per game over this recent 2-1 stretch is more indicative of a strong offensive effort, as opposed to the defensive end. Noah has looked more comfortable as of late and his rebounding efforts have been better. He's been strong on the offensive end, tipping missed shots back to his teammates instead of simply jabbing at the ball under the basket.
Will the Knicks get more out of Lance Thomas?
There's a lot of pressure on Noah to perform because he's the $72 million man. With all of that attention, one would think Thomas would be receiving his fair share of criticism as well. After being loyal and serving as a consistent performer over the last two seasons, the Knicks allowed Thomas to cash in this past summer. Unfortunately, he hasn't rewarded them. The forward has been battling a nagging injury this season, but his shot looks broken and he hasn't been moving as gracefully on the floor. Simply put, Thomas hasn't served as the necessary long range threat the Knicks need off the bench.
Other reserves have stepped up to fill the void, but that doesn't mean New York won't need Thomas to pull his own weight as well. He even received a DNP-Coach's Decision last week, which is unacceptable for a player with his potential and salary. The Knicks need more out of him sooner than later. As they look to contend as the season continues, Thomas may be on the trading block closer to the deadline should his struggles continue. His ability to serve as a 3 and D player is sorely needed.