Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau has long been known for his resistance to change, especially in the way he uses his starters. He has often been criticized for playing them for too many minutes, rain or shine, whether performing or not.
So it was surprising this week, a quarter into the season, when Thibodeau said he was ending Kemba Walker as a starting point guard in favor of Alec Burks, a reserve for most of his career and not a traditional playmaker. And it wasn’t just that Walker, a four-time All-Star who signed with the Knicks this summer, was out of the lineup. Thibodeau told reporters Walker will be completely out of the rotation.
Changing a starter so early in the season is important, especially when it comes to Walker’s resume. At 31, Walker, in theory, should still be in his athletic heyday.
But Thibodeau was trying to correct an urgent and frequent problem: the Knicks starters putting the team in a hole for the bench to dig. If playoff teams are constantly injured by part of their roster, it’s usually a thin bench. But for the Knicks, starters – even beyond Walker – are the reason they’re a marginal team in the playoffs instead of near the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
Tuesday night’s game against the Nets was illustrative. Dropping one point at halftime, the Nets came out of the break with a meteoric 14-0 run against Knicks starters minus goalie RJ Barrett, who missed the second half due to an unspecified disease. The starters returned to the game and briefly took the lead. But the Knicks lost the thriller 112-110 to Brooklyn – in part because coming out flat at halftime left the team playing the Nets (15-6) from behind for most of the second. half time.
It was no exception. In a Nov. 10 loss to the defending champions Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks fell to double digits in the first quarter. Even against the Houston Rockets, one of the worst teams in the NBA, the Knicks fell 18-11 in the first quarter before leveling the game at halftime and winning. The next night, Nov. 21, against Chicago, the Bulls started off 20-8 en route to victory.
The starting lineup the Knicks (11-10) played for much of the season – Walker, Barrett, Evan Fournier, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson – hasn’t just struggled. His net rating – a measure of how good a team or group is compared to its opponents – is negative at 15.7, according to league tracking numbers. This places this unit among the worst starting or bench lineups in the NBA.
The evidence was becoming undeniable. Thibodeau needed to try something else.
Walker wasn’t the only problem, but he was a big part of the problem. He averages 11.7 points per game with 42.9% shots from the field and an excellent 41.3% at 3 points. But Walker’s game took a nosedive in November after a hot start. In 12 games last month, Walker only shot 29.6% from depths. If his 3s don’t fall, he doesn’t do much else on the court.
Due to chronic knee problems in recent years, Walker lost his explosive first step, so he is not able to reach the rim as effectively. And because of his size – Walker is listed at 6 feet tall – and slower foot speed, Walker was targeted on defense. The only way to justify keeping him on the pitch would be if he extended the ground with his shots, and he doesn’t anymore.
The inclusion of Burks in Walker’s starting lineup makes some things easier for the Knicks. He’s bigger – listed at 6ft 6in – which makes him a more versatile defender. On Tuesday night, he was just as likely to keep 6-foot-5 James Harden as fast rookie Cameron Thomas, who is 6-foot-3. Early in the third quarter, Burks blocked a Patty Mills 3-point pointer – easier for him than for Walker.
“You can go from 1 to 4,” Knicks reserve goaltender Derrick Rose said of Burks’ inclusion in the roster. “You are more versatile. I mean, AB is a hell of a gamer. A playmaker. An excellent shooter.
But Burks didn’t completely resolve a starting lineup issue that led Thibodeau to lean more and more on the bench late in the game. The Knicks don’t have a lot of fast attacking and often rely on isolations to get their points – which would be nice if their shooters worked more on their own to open up rather than stand still. The team is near the top of the league in contested shots and down in the wide open.
Fournier’s stats plummeted in November like Walker’s, leading Thibodeau to barely use him in key late-game moments. Thibodeau called his number on Tuesday night against the Nets, and Fournier rewarded him with a score equal to 3 points with 18 seconds remaining. But overall, Fournier shot 5 for 12 for 13 points in 22 minutes, with no rebounds or assists. As with Walker, if Fournier isn’t consistently a 3-point threat, there is little reason for him to be on the pitch.
Randle, the team’s top player, faced an onslaught of doubles teams with no reliable shooting around him, and he struggled. Randle is shooting just 41.7% from the field and 32.5% from 3, all below his career average. All of Barrett’s numbers are also down from a year ago. Barrett improved his finish around the rim, but his shot has always been his biggest question mark, which he seemed to answer last year when he shot 40.1% from depth. Now it is at 32.1 percent. (For his part, Barrett also started slow last year, only to pick it up in the second half of the season.)
Thibodeau was in no mood to discuss the roster change following Tuesday’s loss. Asked about it, Thibodeau expressed his anger at the match refereeing and then left the press conference after just one question.
The saving grace for the Knicks has been their bench trio of Rose, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley. The team is third in the NBA in bench scoring. Toppin is a much-needed threat on the edge and in transition and does something the Knicks typically don’t do well: cut. Quickley and Rose provided some quality shots, especially late in the game, and Rose was one of the few efficient Knicks to reach the edge.
Walker’s swap for Burks has already paid off. He’s scored 25 and 23 points in the last two games, his only two starts of the season. And the Knicks may need to make more adjustments. More roster changes mean increased injury potential for veteran players, but as Thibodeau said ahead of Tuesday’s game: “You have to put victory first.”