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Benching Kemba Walker may not have been the answer, but playing him isn’t either

The Knicks may not have thrived after benching Kemba. That’s hardly an argument to bring him back into the rotation

New York Knicks vs Brooklyn Nets Photo by Michelle Farsi/Getty Images

The New York Knicks were an even 9-9 with Kemba Walker in the starting lineup. After benching him, they seem to have gotten worse, having lost seven of their next nine games to fall four games below .500 and sit 12th in the Eastern Conference.

This isn’t to suggest that Walker’s presence was what kept the Knicks treading water, but that his demotion hasn’t been the magical elixir to fix what ails the Knicks has many wondering if the Bronx native deserves another shot in the rotation or possibly even in the starting lineup. Even more so as the team grapples with several covid-induced absences that have had Tom Thibodeau turn to the likes of rookies Quentin Grimes and Miles McBride over the former All-Star.

I get it. Kemba is one of the most likable players in the NBA. We want him to succeed or at least be given the chance to. Especially for his hometown team. But just because he wasn't the singular problem that was keeping New York from surging, that hardly means his playing time wasn’t a hindrance to what the Knicks were trying to accomplish on a nightly basis.

Of all the current NBA players who have logged more than 400 minutes so far this season, Kemba’s total plus/minus sits as the 22nd-worst mark.

His 3-point shot has been consistent in various forms (48.3 percent on catch and shoot and 38.1 percent on pull-ups) but nothing else really was. The burst and acceleration that helped him overcome his glaring like of size had succumbed to the various issues his knee has dealt with over the last few years. He couldn’t get to the rim. On the off chance he did, he converted those looks at a paltry 42.1 percent clip, tied for the worst mark of any player taking at least 2.0 shots per game from within five feet of the rim.

And if Walker’s not producing to his perceived strengths, the defensive weaknesses that have followed him his entire career look a lot worse.

It’s also important to remember that removing Kemba from the rotation wasn’t just about removing a perceived negative from the rotation. It was also about creating more opportunities for those who had consistently proven to be making a positive impact.

Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley rank No. 1 and 2 on the Knicks in overall plus/minus. They spark every game they enter with their ballhandling, playmaking, and shooting. Aren’t those the kind of players you want to find more minutes for?

Most would, and that’s exactly what Thibs has done since making the change. Rose’s minutes have increased from 22.9 to 29.2 while Quickley’s playing time has risen from 18.9 to 27.8.

So, Thibs is playing his better-performing players more and his struggling players less. Where’s the issue there? Could he still try to find minutes for Walker in an attempt to locate a new spot for him within the rotation? Theoretically, yes. But with New York’s backcourt already plenty crowded, he’d be forcing an issue that all evidence suggests should remain dormant.

Perhaps many of us were naive in believing that benching Kemba would fix all that ails the Knicks given how many problems of theirs remain in need of solving.

Julius Randle and Evan Fournier still need to start playing up to the expectations many had for them before the season. The consistent defensive effort New York showed last season still needs to return and not just for spurts at a time. Mitchell Robinson desperately needs to deactivate his Instagram account.

That the Knicks remain searching for answers to these questions even after the lineup change doesn’t indicate that Kemba was done wrong. It simply means they have more to figure out before they can start winning the way they believe they can.