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Despite the early success, Elfrid Payton doesn’t fit with the Knicks

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A statistical argument against Elf.

NBA: New York Knicks at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season, I called for Julius Randle to be bought out if he was not yet traded. Along with many other Knicks fans, I’d had more than enough after a season of watching him spinning into triple coverage. At the time, I thought, even with a presumed bounce back to Randle’s New Orleans play under a competent coach, it wouldn’t be worth it due to the negative effect on spacing and development. Randle made myself and many others look foolish through the first seven games of the season, exceeding even the most optimistic projections by far.

Elfrid Payton, the other perceived stopgap on the roster, has not. After an underwhelming start to the season with 7 points on 3-13 shooting through two games, he’s picked it up over the following five, averaging 18 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5 APG, on 50 FG% and 50 3P% as the Knicks went 4-1. So, why am I not singing his praises as well? Unfortunately for Elfrid, his impact game is measured outside those stats.

If you peer behind those percentages, it becomes clear that Payton is still not an efficient player. Unlike Randle, one of the most efficient scorers in the league in New Orleans and Los Angeles, Payton never came close to league-average efficiency throughout his career. Payton’s 50 FG% might not look all that bad if he were doing more than shooting two-pointers at an average rate.

The main issue with Payton is his reluctance to draw contact or attempt three-pointers. His hesitancy in these areas leaves him hovering around 50 TS%, which falls three percent below the league average. Even with this recent hot streak, Payton is shooting 50% from behind the arc on just ten attempts over the 5-game stretch, seven of those three point attempts coming in the first two games.

His hesitancy in these areas of his game leaves him hovering around 50TS%, which falls three percent below the league average. Even with this recent hot streak, Payton is shooting 50% from behind the arc on just ten attempts over the 5-game stretch, seven of those threes coming in the first two games. From the foul line, Payton has a career 62 FT%, and just 56% with the Knicks. During this recent stretch, he averaged 2.2 free throw attempts per game, close to his career average of 2.4 — not an ideal mark for a point guard who doesn’t contribute much in other areas. For comparison, point guard Immanuel Quickley, who certainly has a propensity for drawing fouls, has seen as many free throw attempts as Payton in only one-fourth the minutes. As a result of his foul-drawing and shooting, the inexperienced Quickley has a true shooting percentage of 80%.

Despite these poor numbers, Payton is third on the team in field goal attempts.

There are still more reasons why Payton just doesn’t fit in with the rebuilding Knicks. The organization has been quiet about its plans, instead choosing to let hard work and results do the talking. We know Head Coach Tom Thibodeau has five core values at the center of his mission for the young Knicks. Coach said, “the foundation will be the defense, the rebounding, low turnovers, and sharing the ball. Offensively, obviously, you’re trying to get as many easy baskets as you can. You’re also trying to get to the free-throw line, and you’re trying to create as many corner 3s as possible”, and on the defensive end, “obviously, you try to take those things away and get your opponent to take long twos.”

We know Thibodeau wants his team to play fast and use their youth and athleticism. After the key signings of Kenny Payne and Johnnie Bryant this past summer, it’s clear that player development is an important tenet for this organization.

The Knicks impressed in a few of these categories so far — they’re ninth in rebound percentage and defensive rating, 13th and 10th in left and right corner three attempts, 12th in assist percentage, and 14th in free throw rate. However, there is room for improvement, and a lot can be aided by simply taking Elfrid out of the equation.

Despite his best skill being distribution, Payton is, at his core, a very ball-dominant player. Last season as a starter under Mike Miller, Payton led Knicks in time of possession at 6.6 minutes per game, the 12th-highest mark in the league just behind LeBron James, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyrie Irving. Over that span, the next highest on the team was Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina at 3.5. While the Knicks were better offensively with Payton on the court, that is a lot of time for one player to hold the ball while still yielding negative results. The key problem? A player holding the ball that much means another budding player in New York doesn’t have it in his hands, and RJ Barrett has shown he’s most effective when he has the ball.

While Randle took on more responsibility this season (3.1 time of possession last season to 4.7 for this season), Payton has still been very ball-dominant. Although he plays under 30 minutes per game, Payton is 16th in time of possession, tied with max players Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, and Jayson Tatum. The starting point guard is also 11th in seconds per touch at 5.24, a mark that nearly rivals James Harden, who falls at 5.33. Additionally, Payton sits at sixth in the league for dribbles per touch, above Harden and Lillard. What does all this ball dominance yield? Just 0.224 points per touch. The Knicks still rank 24th in offensive rating, and while the team does rank 3.1 points better with Payton offensively, there is room to smooth out the offense.

One of the points of emphasis for the Knicks this season has been attempting more three-pointers — corner threes specifically. Despite ranking higher in corner threes, the team is just 30th in threes attempted. With Payton’s lack of shooting ability, you would assume he could create shooting looks off penetration. However, Payton only created 4.2 3-point field goal attempts per game. Payton assisted on just eight three-pointers in seven games, just two coming from the corner, only one coming off penetration. Randle created a whopping 10.6, and with Randle realizing Fizdale’s dream of being a proficient point forward, there is not much room to have another ball-dominant non-shooter alongside him and RJ Barrett. In Payton’s defense, the only true shooter to kick out to is Reggie Bullock most of the time, who has shot just 33% from distance over the past two seasons.

On the other hand, Austin Rivers and Immanuel Quickley create 4.7 and 2.3 looks from the three-point range, respectively. Against Atlanta, we saw a clear difference in three-point creation — the Knicks had shot just 1-10 from three with Payton at the mantle for most of the game. Once Quickley and Rivers checked in, the team made 6-of-11 three-point attempts in the final 15 minutes. While that level of shooting may not be sustainable, the pair makes the offense much more dynamic with both the threat of their three-point shot and how they get other shooters involved. They both can get into the paint with relative ease and look to make the best possible play for the team. Quickley’s ability to draw fouls is the exact trait Thibodeau valued in Jimmy Butler and a skill that Payton doesn’t possess. In a small sample, we’ve seen some of Knox’s best play from working alongside Quickley and Rivers as they actively look to feed him the ball in the corner. Alec Burks, who hasn’t gotten to play much yet, was incredibly efficient when he shared the floor with them, putting up 62 points in 83 minutes while making 10 of 15 threes. Despite being a shooting guard, he looks to get others involved and is averaging 2.9 assists to 1.4 turnovers going back to last year. It’s hard to make a case that you need Elfrid Payton when you have so many other willing shooting and passing guards working around Randle as the fulcrum.

The ball just moves better without Payton in the game. As Tom Piccolo pointed out for Daily Knicks, the Knicks assisted on 77% of their shots with Quickley, as opposed to just 50% with Payton. Payton is averaging a mere 0.1 secondary assists per game, a lackluster number for someone who holds the ball so much. Randle and Barrett have a mark of 0.6 and 0.3. Here’s another good clip from Piccolo showing incredible ball movement, which does not exist with Payton, even with Randle’s newfound elite passing ability.

Another Thibodeau point of emphasis is pushing the pace, though the Knicks have been underwhelming in this category. The team ranks 30th in points off turnovers, 30th in fast break points, and 26th in pace. Ultimately, this boils down to the point guard play. Payton rarely looks to push the ball in transition, unlike we’ve seen from the other young Knicks.

Rarely does Payton look to speed up the offense, even off a turnover, and you’ll never see him pick up the pace off a miss, which likely contributes to such a high time of possession and dribble account, another reason why the Knicks rank so low in these categories.

With Payton as the floor general, Barrett and Robinson’s scoring efficiencies haven’t seen much improvement from last year. This stagnation can’t fall completely on Payton, but constructively, three non-shooting, ball-dominant players sharing the floor is a problem. While Barrett isn’t a better passer or much more efficient than Payton at the moment, his development is crucial and should be a priority. Sharing the floor with Payton is not helping Barrett, especially when Payton contributes to the bad spacing with weird cuts, such as this one that cramped up the lane.

If Payton slows down the offense, keeps the ball from Barrett, and doesn’t space the floor, then there is not much upside to having him run the offense. The issue is, Payton does not bring much on the defensive end either.

While he’s no sieve, Payton is a bit worse than his reputation would lend you to believe. His teams have never defensively performed better with him on the court since the 16-17 season by a marginal mark of 0.7 points per 100 better. This year the Knicks have been 11 points per 100 worse with him defensively. In their last game against the Indiana Pacers, Malcolm Brogdon scored 25 of his 33 against Elf, including 5-7 on three-pointers. Payton tends to die on screens, and this game was no exception. Brogdon routinely torched him without much of a fight from Payton.

When you have a guard with so many shortcomings on both ends of the floor, there isn’t a reason to prioritize his playing time over the defensive-minded Frank Ntilikina either, who is still 22 and coming off a solid year as a backup point guard. While Ntilikina no doubt has his offensive struggles, also being shy of initiating contact at times despite being a good free-throw shooter, the Knicks were still better with him offensively on the floor than off last season. So far this season, Ntilikina’s shot looks improved, and there is no reason to stop seeing if he can keep it up instead of going with Payton.

The very slight improvement on offense with Elfrid Payton is not worth passing up the chance of developing a solid backup point guard. With a threat of a three-point shot and pull-up jumper, Ntilikina can help the Knicks space the floor and is already more dynamic than Payton on offense.

Ultimately, the Knicks are eight points worse with Elfrid Payton on the floor, Reggie Bullock being the only other rotation player with a lower mark. While that number may overestimate Payton’s faults, I think it’s safe to say the Knicks could afford to sit him and give other guys looks.

In a small sample size, Quickley leads the team in on/off at plus-26, Burks in second at plus-17.4, Rivers in fourth at plus-5.6, and Frank with his fourth straight year holding a positive mark. While these numbers may not last, it has been three years of looking at Elfrid Payton and Julius Randle going back to New Orleans, and they had a negative net rating and record then as well. Randle earned a prominent role so far, but there is nothing beneficial that Elfrid brings to the table at this point. Once everyone is healthy, it’s time to give the keys to Immanuel Quickley, Austin Rivers, Frank Ntilikina, and Alec Burks. These guards will likely complement Randle and the supporting pieces better as well. Let the kids run the show — they’re ready for it.