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Sunday, February 27, 2011
What separates the Heat from the Knicks

By Tom Haberstroh

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
The Knicks boast their own star duo, but LeBron James and Dwyane Wade show why they’re a step ahead.

For the Knicks, the hard part appears to be over: get a second star to New York.

By trading for Carmelo Anthony, a Brooklyn native and four-time All-Star, the Knicks have assembled a rock-solid foundation upon which to build their championship aspirations. Anthony and Amare Stoudemire now make up a 1-2 scoring punch that few teams can rival.

One of those teams is their opponent on Sunday, the Heat. With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in the fold, the Heat have two of the game's best, if not the best, perimeter scorers in the game. But what separates the Heat’s superstars and the Knicks’ superstars is what also separates the contenders and the pretenders: attention to defense.

Even though the qualification of a superstar largely hinges on one dimension (can he score?), championship teams demand more of their franchise players. To win the big one, you have to own both ends of the court -- not just the one that brings in the cash.

James and Wade are two-way players, bringing immense value to both sides of the floor. Not only has James won the last two MVP awards, but he’s also been selected first-team All-Defense each of the last two seasons. Wade himself has earned a spot on the second-team All-Defense team three out of the last five seasons.

No, the annual coach’s vote shouldn’t mean everything, but you won’t find Anthony or Stoudemire anywhere near those lists -- and that’s telling. You don’t have to completely trust the votes, you can just watch them with your own eyes. And you can check the numbers as well. Synergy Sports Technology, a data provider for NBA teams, charts each and every possession in the NBA and objectively tracks how well individuals score and defend. James and Wade each grade in the top third of the NBA in overall defensive effectiveness. Anthony and Stoudemire? Both in the bottom third of the league.

For all the praise that’s been showered over Anthony and Stoudemire, the Knicks will shell out nearly $200 million over the next four seasons to two players who don’t play defense. And when building a championship-caliber roster within the confines of a tight budget -- which will almost surely grow more constricting in the next CBA -- that’s an enormous pill to swallow.

Under coach Mike D’Antoni, the Knicks are not designed to play tough defense and the truth is that without an elite defense, championships are hard to come by. The last nine teams to bring home the Larry O’Brien Trophy were ranked in the top 10 in defensive rating (estimated points per possession allowed) according to Basketball-Reference.com.

And the Knicks? They’re currently ranked 21st in defensive rating, allowing 109.4 points every 100 possessions, more than two points more than your typical NBA team. This is the norm for D’Antoni’s teams. In his nine seasons in the league, every team he’s coached has ranked in the bottom half of the league, with the exception of the 2006-07 Suns, who ranked 13th. In New York, D’Antoni has yet to oversee a team that wasn’t among the league’s worst defenses.

And judging from the last two games with Anthony and Stoudemire in the fold, it’s not going to get any better. As a team, the Knicks relinquished 108 points to the historically terrible Bucks offense on Wednesday, and followed up that performance by hemorrhaging another 115 points to the lowly Cavaliers on Friday.

Let’s not pull any punches here: The Knicks defense has been terrible kicking off the Anthony era, in no small part because of New York's superstars. During the Cleveland game, when Stoudemire couldn’t stop Antawn Jamison (28 points), the Knicks handed the assignment to Anthony in crunch time. Over the next four possessions, Jamison shredded Anthony when the Knicks needed stops. Anthony watched Jamison as he backed him down for an easy layup, then Anthony fouled Jamison away from the ball the next two times down the court, and to top things off, Anthony saw Jamison blow by him for another lay-in at the rim. Jamison scored seven points on those four possessions and pushed the Cavaliers' lead to eight. The Knicks never closed the gap thereafter.

The ending in Cleveland was a fitting representation of the challenges the Knicks face ahead, even though they boast two of the highest-scoring players in the league. As high-powered as the offense is, it means little if the defense can’t stop anyone.

Now, the Heat also possess two of the highest-scoring players in the league in James and Wade. But unlike the Knicks, the 43-16 Heat stake claim to the fourth-best defense in the NBA -- and they’ve done it without an authority in the paint like Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard. Ever since training camp opened, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has emphasized that the identity of the star-studded team will come from the defensive end of the floor. Spoelstra understands that the fabric of championship teams is a heightened focus on the less-glamorous side of the floor.

If the Knicks want to compete for a title, the team will have to shore up their porous defense either through a shift in philosophy or by surrounding Anthony and Stoudemire with defensive-minded rotation players in the long run. But that will be tough with the little cap space they’ll have to spend.

For now, the Knicks hope that outscoring the opponent -- in the most literal sense of the phrase -- will be enough. However, the Heat, with all their offensive fireworks, can outdefend their opponents as well, thanks much to James and Wade.