I’m generally a big proponent of making quick changes when it’s clear lineups aren’t working. I called for Elfrid Payton to be benched entirely after just eight games, directly after he averaged just 18.3 points and 6 assists over a 6 game span in which the team lost just once. Two weeks ago, I advocated for Walker to be benched in favor of Rose or Alec Burks.
With that said, you would expect me to be elated over the news that Walker will be benched in favor of Alec Burks. Instead, I’m unsure if I’m fully content with the state of the lineup. Walker is not only out of the rotation, he didn’t even get the ‘situational’ denotation that Frank Ntilikina was given.
In his big rotation announcement, Coach Tom Thibodeau eulogized Walker, saying “I have great respect for who Kemba is as a person number one and all that he’s accomplished in this league, but I have to do what I think is best for the team.” Walker’s not dead, but based off his comments, it appears his playing career as a Knick might be.
I don’t think I’m a fan of that.
Similar to my benching Elfrid Payton crusade, the reasons for the Walker benching are endless and have been spouted off endlessly as well. The same gaudy league-worst plus-minus stats have been touted in hundreds of ways, most prominently with how the team performs when 2021 All-NBA member Julius Randle and the rest of the starters are on the court without Walker—much, much better.
You probably have not seen how 2020 All-Star Kemba Walker has played without Julius Randle, and the reason for that is simple—he hasn’t. Walker has played just eight minutes, 19 possessions, all season without Randle. There’s a reason for that—it’s hard to break up the bench unit or Rose/Quickley/Burks/Toppin/Gibson when it’s been the antithesis of the Walker lineups with one of the best net ratings in the league at an unbelievable +28.
It is being broken up now though, yet Walker will not be appearing in the new lineups either as it would be “difficult to play three small guards together,” which is fair.
What rubs me the wrong way is that for eighteen games, we’ve watched an abysmal fit continue to be an abysmal fit with little improvement—two players who have had prolonged awful stretches on the defensive end this year and cold stretches offensively.
Similar to Elfrid Payton, a fit that was shown not to work, was continued to be played albeit for a much shorter amount of games this time. While moving on from a dysfunctional unit faster is not a bad thing, any form of other unit using Walker seemingly won’t even be looked at because it could also be?
Thibodeau may have come to an ultimately correct conclusion on the rotation, but this does seem somewhat unfair to Walker (the player, not the man who will make 30 million dollars to watch basketball games), as he will not even get the chance to find his footing off the bench, although it is worth noting that the longtime starter and star could balk at the prospect of doing so.
Walker coming off the bench would have many benefits, some likely overemphasized like the difference in talent or mentality, but some are very real in the fact that Walker would likely get the ball in his hands more often without figuring out how to balance deferring to and scoring around Randle.
While Walker has had hideous impact stats, there is reason to believe there is certainly still a good talent and likely impactful NBA player if used right.
The New York native is scoring at one of the worst marks of his career, but his 17 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.6 steals per 36 minutes on 43-41-80 shooting (56 TS%) don’t scream “washed up.” That clearly has not been enough to make up for his dreadful defense and fit, but a change of lineup scenery could likely boost him on both ends to make him go from league-worst impact to decent.
When you have a talent like Walker with a not-nothing price tag of $8 million a year for the next two seasons, it is literally worth a try, if not at least to boost his value for a potential trade.
Walker straight up taking Burks’ spot would likely not be fruitful, but pairing Walker with Rose or Quickley alone could perhaps have similar dynamics to the elite bench units they have now.
While Burks will likely continue to make a good starter as well, it is hard to believe that Quickley and Rose would not also do a job in that role instead while freeing up more manageable minutes for Walker off the bench.
Walker has also been quietly improving, at least on the offensive front, showing he can still do the things that made him an All-NBA talent. He started shooting 5-15 in the restricted area over his first eight games, before attacking and finishing at the rim at a higher rate with 11-23 shooting over his last ten games, which has also helped him feed teammates better looks.
While misleading to his overall performance, he also did just lead the team in scoring with 17 points on 5-11 shooting in what could be his final game on the Knicks in just 23 minutes.
If anyone is to take his spot in the rotation, it will likely be rookie Quentin Grimes, who has looked solid in small sample sizes/ But Grimes has also made just five field goal attempts all year, and is unlikely to be incredibly impactful as a rookie.
Especially with Rose still battling injuries, it seems like it would be premature to permanently boot Walker from ever returning to the squad entirely. Of course, my assumption that Walker is likely to never be reintroduced into the rotation may be jumping the gun as well.
Regardless, the current decision to remove Walker entirely in order to start Burks is far from a bad one—it just may not be the only one.