On Monday afternoon, it was revealed that Alec Burks would supplant Kemba Walker as the starting point guard for the New York Knicks, losers of 8 of 14 since a rollicking 5-1 start.
This could mark the end to one of the least-effective lineups we've seen in recent times. So what exactly went wrong?
Between Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, and Julius Randle, New York has four starters who have averaged at least 17 a game in their respective careers, and who all default towards "score-first." Unfortunately in this league you don't just get to throw raw PPG together into efficient offense -- just ask Isiah Thomas' 2006-07 squad. Eventually, too much ball dominance can lead to diminishing returns (i.e. the "too many cooks" problem). Per Second Spectrum, the team ranks second in average dribbles per touch, at 2.52, behind only Luka's Mavs.
A similar trend unfolded with the 2020-21 Knicks, except there was an actual hierarchy in place. Last year 74.2% of the team's threes were of the catch-and-shoot variety, this year that is down to 57.6%. (And overall they are converting on 36.9% of them, compared to 40.2% last season -- yes shooting is down for the league as a whole). This is emblematic of a bigger issue: everyone is overqualified for their role. Tom Thibodeau and the coaching staff are going to have to coax a few players into scaling down a bit. It turns out Reggie Bullock was a pretty integral piece to last year's success.
Unease about touches and shots can lead to tension bubbling beneath the surface. Nothing malicious, just guys pressing at times. Julius Randle was second team all-NBA last year, shouldn't it be his team? Kemba and Fournier were both brought in to spike the offense, so shouldn't they carry tons of usage? Barrett has the pedigree, and got off to a blazing start in 2021-22. He also might be the best facilitator of the bunch. Basketball is an interesting sport, it's an art rather than a science -- chemistry matters. Despite all of the increased talent on the roster, Randle and Fournier are both at career-lows in terms of percentage of baskets assisted at the rim.
Anxiety (n.) - a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease.
"They've[the bench] been playing better than the starting unit." - RJ Barrett, November 16, 2021
At a certain point, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy that everyone in the arena understood: the starters were going to come out flat and get bailed out by the bench mob. It was like clockwork. It's hard enough to perform at a high level in this league, and with this kind of pressure it became untenable at times -- seeping into the defensive end as well with uncharacteristic lapses like so.
Perimeter defense is kind of back in the NBA -- just look at the defensive renaissance for their rival competitors in Chicago, Miami, and Washington. Compared to these teams, the Walker/Fournier pairing sticks out like a sore thumb -- only they aren't providing the anticipated offensive punch to offset that.
As a result, R.J. Barrett has been thrust into duty as the team's de-facto wing-stopper, something that he's currently above his capabilities. He's an outstanding team defender within the scheme, but more and more RJ is finding himself on-ball -- where he isn't as impactful. Barrett's steal rate of 0.6% ranks near the bottom of the league in 2021-22 for his position.
Meanwhile, Walker is struggling mightily to execute in Thibodeau's frenzied yet precise defense. The difference between him and the embattled Elfrid Payton at playing the gaps and scrambling towards shooters is quite stark. Opponents are shooting 41.5% on threes with Walker on the court.
It's not just on the perimeter, either. Potential franchise center Mitchell Robinson has taken a step back thus far in 2021-22 -- disappointing considering that he's in a contract season, at just 23 years old.
Not only is Robinson lacking the same pop/verve from his first two seasons, but it's become tougher and tougher to squeeze him into the frontcourt with Randle. The Knicks have just never been able to score efficiently with both on the floor (107.0 Offensive Rating in 2020-21, 104.3 in 2021-22, good for the 19th and 24th percentile, respectively) -- the Hawks series brought the traditional center issue into focus. Randle is a 60% shooter at the rim during his entire tenure as a New York Knick.
To come full circle, there's a reason Kemba Walker — less than two years removed from being the best offensive player on a conference finals team — is being pulled from the rotation. Credit him for still cobbling together an efficient statistical profile, but the Bronx native looks finished as a go-to threat. He's at a career-low in free-throw rate and never gets to the rim anymore -- the burst off the dribble is just gone.
Overall, its incredible to watch the contrast between the floundering starting unit and the thriving bench. One group has an identity and the other doesn't. I'm of the belief that Evan Fournier was more of the culprit than Walker, but alas...
While Alec Burks will surely help the defense and (hopefully) establish more of a pecking order, I don't see this change as a silver bullet. There still isn't a "3&D" wing on the roster. There still isn't enough spacing. But Tom Thibodeau doesn't mess around -- we'll see how the team responds. One thing was for certain, though: the old starting lineup was broken.