The Knicks are in the midst of enjoying their most successful and entertaining season since 2012-13. It has mostly been smooth sailing since the All-Star break as they have the 11th-best record in the league since then. They have wins over the Bucks, Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks, Hornets, Grizzlies and Clippers during that span, and have been praised for boasting one of the best defenses in the league while continuing to improve and impress on offense.
But one thing has stood out since their nine-game winning streak was snapped: their slow starts. It started against the Nuggets when the Knicks found themselves down 28-7 with a minute and a half left in the 1st quarter.
Now, the Nuggets are a great team, and are extremely hard to beat, especially in Denver. Also, Nerlens Noel has been a great asset to the team, but he lacks the size and physicality to match Nikola Jokic. Fans knew going into the game that it wouldn’t be easy. But the Knicks didn’t look like the team that fought every possession and always kept the game close, something they did really well during their long win streak. The Knicks got looks but just could not get anything to go. The lone bright spot was that the Knicks actually won every quarter after that but as we now know, they lost that game.
Even the greatest teams have bad starts and bad quarters. But then it happened again the very next game against Phoenix. The Knicks again found themselves down 23-12 eight minutes into the game.
Julius Randle hoisted four three-pointers in the first, which is a lot even for someone who has improved as a shooter. Add three turnovers and the offense wasn’t necessarily clean. The Knicks did battle back and actually won the end of the 1st and the 2nd quarter but ran out of gas and got blown out in the 4th quarter.
The Clippers game was a little bit different because the Knicks didn’t actually trail by that much. Part of it was due to the Knicks stifling defense, and part of that was the Clippers struggling when they did get open looks. We know they won that game and it was one of the most memorable wins of this great season. But we can’t overlook the fact that they managed only nine points in the first seven minutes.
The Nuggets, Suns and Clippers are all very good teams and having to play them all on the road during a short span so the team does get a little bit of a break. But why did the Knicks struggle so much to start off games. As unfortunate as it is to say, a lot of the fingers point to Elfrid Payton. This year, almost everyone on the team has garnered praise of fans not just in New York but all around the league. And I say almost everyone because Payton has been under fire for his play for much of the season.
Payton had a really solid run with the Knicks last season averaging 10 points 7 assists and almost 5 rebounds. While some thought that he would find some suitors, he ended up coming back on a relatively cheap deal and even started the season off in solid fashion. But as the season has gone on and Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley continue to impress, his critics have only grown louder, and rightfully so.
Payton is a -1.5 in terms of plus/minus this year. When compared to the +2.9 that Derrick Rose has, or the +2.7 the Immanuel Quickley has, it is clear that his minutes on the court do not necessarily go well compared to the other point guards on the team. He is also the only one among current starters (Payton, Bullock, Barrett, Randle, Noel) that has a negative plus/minus.
Another telling sign of his worsening play is his reduction in minutes. He is averaging 24 mpg on the season but is averaging just 18 mpg since the start of April, both are lower than the 27 mpg that Rose currently averages. Immanuel Quickley even averages more mpg during that span. Thibodeau has been very reluctant on changing up the starting lineup but more and more, we see Payton sitting early in the first quarter and it seems like for most of the rest of the game, it is up to Rose and Quickley to finish.
And Thibodeau is right to trust those two players as the Knicks have a better effective field goal percentage, steal percentage, block percentage, turnover percentage and offensive rating when he is off the floor. The opponents also have a way better offensive rating when he is on the court and have a higher turnover percentage and steal percentage when he is on the court which points out the fact that the Knicks overall tends to perform better when he is off the court and that the opposing team tends to play better when he is on the court. This obviously has to do with who is on the court with him and who he is playing against but it is not a good look for a player who has started all 60 games he has played in this season.
So now, let’s take a look at some evidence of his struggles. The first thing people will point to is the lack of spacing and scoring he provides. Quickley has proven to be someone who the defense has to stay with because he is never afraid to shoot it. Even Rose has developed into a capable shooter.
Randle ends up getting this tough fadeaway to go but you can see how little attention Chris Paul pays to him. Too many times, especially early on in games, Payton is just disregarded by the opposing team, making it harder for Barrett and Randle to get space and get into a rhythm.
This is another play here that the Knicks get to go, but you can see the Clippers can pack the paint and are more than happy giving Payton that corner 3.
In this play, you can see just how uncomfortable he is with his 3 point shooting and it leads to him putting his head down and forcing up an off-balance floater against a bigger Marcus Morris.
Even when Payton’s lack of shooting is not impacting his teammate’s ability to get good looks, it hurts him because guys defenders can just go under the screen like Campazzo does here leading to yet another contested off-balance floater.
And just 2 minutes later, he runs into the same problem.
And turnovers like this do not help when you are already struggling against one of the best teams in the league.
There are also plays like the one below that show that he really isn’t great enough defensively to rationalize sacrificing so much offense for.
Elfrid Payton is obviously not the only problem that the Knicks have and other players can definitely step up, especially at the start of games. And while many Knicks fans and analysts have been calling for Payton to get less minutes, his problems and lack of synergy with the starting lineup was on full display last week and it seems to only be getting worse and worse.
The positive is that Thibodeau seems to realize this and is getting Rose and Quickley (and the newly returned Alec Burks) on the court pretty early and also relying on those guys to be the ones to close out games. The bad news, is that Thibodeau seems to want to stay with the same starting lineup. This is a worrying trend, and in the playoffs, when the Knicks will be facing elite competition night in and night out and teams can scout even better for an opponent’s weakness, this is something that could end up coming back and biting Thibodeau and the Knicks at the worst possible moment.