David Fizdale
Robby Sabo, ESNY Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Knicks and David Fizdale are throwing zone defenses at their opponents lately. Here’s why it’s more important than you think.

Small Film Room

The New York Knicks are bad defensively. There is no sugarcoating it. If their ugly 128-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns wasn’t proof enough, they currently rank 29th in the league in defensive rating per NBA.com.

The general ineptitude on defense is forcing head coach David Fizdale to stay creative. He’s been forced to tinker with matchups, use different types of coverages on the pick-and-roll, but most recently, he’s started employing more zone defense.

Zone defense isn’t commonplace in the NBA. It’s more prevalent in youth basketball, college games, and probably your local slow-break league. But it’s not a type of defense featured heavily in the NBA. Zone defense is more like the “kitchen sink.” If nothing else is working, throw out a zone defense (hence the proverbial kitchen sink).

Fizdale has thrown out zone defenses a few times this year, most effectively in a recent comeback victory against the Charlotte Hornets. The zone completely threw off Kemba Walker and the Hornets, allowing the Knicks to complete an improbable comeback victory on the road with the likes of Luke Kornet and Emmanuel Mudiay leading the way.

“It’s been something that’s kind of working for us,” Fizdale told reporters following Sunday’s loss to the Indiana Pacers. “I think it’s familiar to this group because half of them were just playing a lot of zone about a year ago. I just kinda caved in a little bit and said let’s try something that’s a little more in their comfort zone. The mixing up of the zone has definitely helped them find some comfort.”

The Knicks are among a few teams this season who are finding success with zone defense. Coincidentally or not, Fiz’s close friend Erik Spoelstra is also using zone with his Miami Heat. It’s something both coaches are turning to when they need to wake up lackluster defenses. But it isn’t something teams can use as their main defense because teams will eventually become wise to it.

“For sure. Once you get to see it on film, you’re gonna get prepared for it,” Fizdale admitted to reporters following Sunday’s loss. “But I can’t even think about it in those terms. I’m just looking at it to where I’m just trying to give us a chance to stop people and I think mixing it up kind of helps us.”

New York Knicks

Second Half Success In Charlotte

Fizdale made the call to switch to zone in the second half. One of the main reasons for the move was the Hornets’ success from beyond the arc. Charlotte shot 12-for-20 from three-point range in the first half, helping them jump out to a 72-53 lead.

The Knicks employed a 2-3 zone (or 2-1-2 zone if you’re one of those people), which is usually not the best strategy to stop three-point shooters. So why would Fizdale make the switch to 2-3 if the Hornets were killing it from beyond the arc?

Their first-half barrage of three-pointers was the result of awful pick-and-roll defense. The Knicks, and more specifically Enes Kanter, had no answer for Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb, and Tony Parker knifing through the lane and the penetration allowed for easy kick out passes to shooters.

The sequence of plays below shows a few times in the first half when the Hornets burned the Knicks on a pick-and-roll set that ended with a kick out three-pointer. (Shout out to our Spanish-speaking readers.)

When the Knicks made the switch in the second half, Charlotte wasn’t finding it as easy to penetrate into the heart of the defense. Moreover, when they were allowing penetration, the Knicks were in much better position to recover out to shooters.

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