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Evan Fournier isn’t the problem, but maybe he’d be better on the second unit

He could be the Knicks’ Jordan Clarkson.

New York Knicks v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This season, many New York Knicks fans have either supported Evan Fournier or wanted him sent to the guillotine. The team (30-41) has been disappointing, and though Fournier has shot well, his Swiss cheese defense is often a source of agita. While the complaint has merit, let’s not dispense with Mr. Don’t-Google just yet. In fact, full Fournier bliss might be unlocked with a simple lineup change.

The 2020-21 Knicks ranked 25th in three-point attempts and when retooling for the upcoming season, New York’s decision-makers decided to prioritize perimeter shooting to modernize the club. Therefore, last August, via a sign-and-trade with Boston, they inked Fournier to a 4-year, $73M contract. Per the deal, his annual average salary is $18.25M, and 2024-25 is a team option.

Generally, the contract is considered an overpay but not immovable. Plus, those generous numbers will help the Knicks match money if they elect to bundle Fournier in a blockbuster trade. So far, no complaints.

The 29-year old has played in the league for a decade, primarily as a starter since his fourth season. While wearing the blue and orange, he has started every game for which he was available and performed as expected. In 69 games, Evan has averaged 14.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 29.7 minutes. Those numbers are close to his career averages.

As for long-range shooting, Fournier has attempted a career-high 7.7 three-pointers per game for New York and made about 40% of them. That efficiency puts him at 19th among main guys (25+ mpg) who have played at least 30 games and average at least four three-point tries. Since January 1, 2022, Evan has shot 42.5% on 8.6 attempts (including Sunday’s game).

What’s more, he is on track to break the Knicks’ single-season record for three-pointers, previously held by my beloved John Starks (217 makes, 1994-95). So, the Knicks wanted more long balls, and Evan obliged.

The court has two ends, of course. Before the season began, we expected that the addition of Fournier and Kemba Walker would weaken the Knicks’ defense, which had carried New York to the fourth seed last year. The optimists among us had hoped that Tom Thibodeau would coach up the new acquisitions, or that fellow starters Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Mitchell Robinson could pick up the slack on D. Neither has been the case.

This season, Thibodeau’s preferred starting lineup of Walker, Fournier, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson was the fourth most used in the NBA at 428 minutes. They had a net rating of -13.8. No bueno.

Swapping Alec Burks for Walker results in a zero rating. Better, sort of.

If you replace RJ with Quentin Grimes in that first lineup, the rating jumps to 17.9 for 80 minutes. My rudimentary conclusion: When paired with a tough utility defender like Grimes, Evan’s sins are less grievous. (For comparison, the Suns lead the league with an 8.4 net rating, albeit with a much, much larger sample size.)

But, what might a first five without Fournier look like?

For curiosity’s sake, I checked a lineup of Immanuel Quickley, Grimes, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson. That group has shared the floor for only 20 minutes this season and has a 39.5 net rating.

This particular bunch delivers a mix of defense and scoring potential that warms my cockles. Imagine a reality in which that lineup starts and Fournier joins the second unit as a microwave scorer who torches the league’s benches. Kind of like Utah’s Jordan Clarkson, who scored 23 points against New York last night. Intriguing, no?

You can anticipate the obstacles to such a switcheroo. First, the front office might be embarrassed to have their second-highest-paid guy riding with the subs. Then there is Thibodeau’s tunnel vision, and he sees Evan as strictly a starter. Finally, Fournier himself might disapprove and gum up the works.

However, in the final stretch of the season, once the playoffs are officially out of reach, perhaps Thibs will dare to experiment with his starting squad. (Those of you snickering, keep it down.) What’s the risk? It would be informative to see more of that Quickley, Grimes, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson combination and let Fournier run with Deuce McBride, Burks, Obi Toppin, and Jericho Sims.* If Leon Rose & Co roll this roster back next year, either by choice or failure to execute deals, wouldn’t they want to know what assortment of players is most potent?

Despite having denigrated Evan at times, I admit that he doesn’t deserve the firing squad. With New York, he has played just as he had for his entire career: occasional great shooting and meager defensive effort. To expect anything else is silly. That’s like getting into a relationship with someone who doesn’t wash dishes, then complaining later about how she doesn’t wash dishes. Be satisfied, Knicks fans: we got that trusty Fournier product, but now with more threes!

Ideally, Leon will find a D-minded point guard so Evan can hoop to his heart’s delight. In the meantime, as the campaign winds down, why not see if Fournier feasts with the second unit, where his defense would be less troublesome? It might be a real revelation, one that leads to him becoming the 2022-23 Sixth Man of the Year. Sounds farcical, maybe, but wouldn’t that be some bliss?

* In my fantasy scenario, New York sensibly shuts down Derrick Rose for its remaining games, and Nerlens Noel isn’t disturbed from his crocheting.