24 Jan

The Knicks are dominating defensively, and OG Anunoby is not the only reason why

Everyone loved the OG Anunoby trade for the Knicks, but nobody could’ve seen this coming. Over 11 games since the deal, in which the Knicks are 9-2, New York has outscored opponents by a preposterous 190 points during Anunoby’s minutes.

Through a point-differential prism, no player in NBA history has had a greater impact through his first 11 games with a team. Anunoby has been incredible. No question about it.

But he’s not the only reason for this defensive run the Knicks are on. In fact, I wouldn’t even call him the biggest reason. For my money, that distinction goes to Isaiah Hartenstein, followed closely by the super-soft offensive schedule the Knicks have faced over this stretch.

Other than the 76ers, the Knicks haven’t beaten a team in January that ranked higher than 17th (Raptors) in offensive rating entering play on Monday. Minnesota was 19th. Houston, Orlando, Washington and Chicago all rank in the bottom 10. Portland and Memphis are the two worst offensive teams in the league. New York is feasting on some pretty weak prey.

That’s not to diminish what the Knicks have done in registering as the league’s second-best defense since Anunoby arrived. That’s just proper perspective. They are likely not the second-best defense in the league. That said, they are a potentially elite defense if this kind of multi-level effort continues.

It starts with Anunoby and New York’s gang of perimeter defenders — Josh Hart, Donte DiVincenzo, Miles McBride, Quentin Grimes, even Jalen Brunson — who are consistently committed to fighting over screens, containing penetration and flying around in rotation. It finishes with Hartenstein protecting the rim, where teams are converting just 58.2% of their shots against the Knicks since the Anunoby trade, per Cleaning the Glass, and 61.3% dating back to December 9 when Mitchell Robinson went down.

Those are the second and third stingiest marks in the league, respectively.

And Hartenstein deserves much of the credit.

Consider that through the first seven weeks of the season, the Knicks, despite Robinson by most accounts being on his way to an All-Defense nod, ranked 26th in rim protection, per Cleaning the Glass, surrendering more than a 68% rim conversion rate. To lose Robinson and jump almost seven percentage points into the top three over a pretty large sample? That’ll raise some antennas.

And it should. Hartenstein doesn’t get any of the ink, but his numbers are right in line with a who’s who of rim protectors. Rudy Gobert. Victorm Wembanyama. Joel Embiid. Chet Holmgren. Look up any defensive contest number you want over any span of time, and Hartenstein is right there on all of them.

For the season, scorers are converting 45.7% of their shots when defended by Hartenstein, the sixth-best mark in the league among centers who’ve defended at least 500 shots. Since Robinson’s injury, that make rate is 46.9%, fifth-best in the league and notably better than the likes of Gobert, Anthony Davis and Brook Lopez. Hartenstein’s 1.6 blocks per game since December 9 are tied with Gobert.

And Hartenstein isn’t just a rim protector. He’s a monster rebounder, nearly as impactful as Robinson. New York is rebounding a league-best 73.9% of its opponents’ misses this season — which leaves room for just 12.2 second-chance points per game, the second-lowest mark in the league. They commit the fifth fewest fouls per game.

Washington Wizards v New York Knicks
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Hartenstein, in particular, has lowered his foul rate from 5.6 per 36 minutes prior to Mitchell’s injury to 3.4 after. To protect the paint like he has while also dropping your fouls by two per 36 minutes is unbelievable. You can see him being more calculated knowing the center depth behind him is thin. He keeps his hands high and moves his feet well. He doesn’t take wild swings for blocks. He plays vertical, and when he has the choice between over-contesting what is already going to be a tough shot and laying back, often as a lob deterrent, he is forcing guys to make the difficult floaters rather than bailing them out with a foul.

The percentages are playing out in his and the Knicks’ favor. If Robinson can make it back by the playoffs, New York will have the best defensive-center rotation going. Throw in Anunoby, who is able to defend the best scorers in the world straight up and is a monster helper, too, and this cohort of committed perimeter harassers the Knicks have put together, and this is a defense that can cause serious problems come the playoffs.

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