I don’t know how most Knicks fans can’t appreciate Coach Thibodeau's ever-expanding creativeness. Thibs knows no limits, his brain has no boundaries, and he lives outside of any conceivable box you can get to imagine. Case in point: do-it-all, wing-turned-point-guard Alec Burks.
That’s a joke. No, literally. It’s a joke to put on Thibs’ mind for a minute, picture 30-year-old Burks, and think about him as a reborn professional with everything in his toolset to excel at the point guard position leading a middling squad made out of still-developing-or-otherwise-overcooked veterans. Unfathomably wild.
Or maybe Thibs is right, and we are all wrong. At the end of the day, Burks has the game-winning assist in one of the 803 buzzer-beating buckets registered to date by Basketball-Reference.com. Take that for data, Point-Burks haters.
And now, please, let’s get back to the real world for the remainder of this column.
Starting where we should, we have to concede that Woj edged us in announcing Burks’ contract extension with the Knicks back in August. We could only echo the news and run with that. As you can see in that mid-summer post, Burks was good to fill his bag with $30M to be paid over this and two more years leading up to the 2024 free agency.
Let me quote a couple of paragraphs from Miranda’s post, just so you see how we dealt with the news.
The Knicks’ first official move of free agency was re-signing bench scorer and fourth-quarter maestro Alec Burks [...]. For a team looking to strengthen at the wing [...], this is a sensible deal for a player who provides depth.
Uh, oh, right on. That was the obvious, most probable, and better-looking expectation. That also didn’t quite turn out to be what happened this season with Burks in terms of the way he ended up being used by Coach Thibodeau throughout the year.
Thibs gives you wings
You won’t believe this but Red Bull, the energy drink producer, got accused of false advertising back in 2014 because consumers believed that it actually could give them wings. As far as I know, Red Bull indeed never gave anyone wings. Do you know who gave New York Knicks fans wings in bunches? That’s correct.
The injuries might have helped, and it’d be naïve to say they didn’t impact Tom Thibodeau’s decisions in this very bad 2021-22 season for the NYC franchise. Come tip-off day against Boston on Oct. 20, 2021, the Knicks sent a unit comprised of 14 men to MSG to fight against the C’s. As many as 11 of those 14 players logged at least one second of play, with three others warming the game the whole game.
The first starting five: Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson. No Burks to find right there. No weird things happening. No dumbfounding decisions were made. 2OT victory thanks to nice off-the-pine contributions by the likes of Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, and Burks (one triple, 1-1-1 dimes/steals/blocks). Burks, who obviously, played that expected and reasonable and intelligently used second-unit-wing-heater role.
Fast-forward just a month, and Burks was starting at the point of the NYK attack. Yessir. Not Derrick Rose. Not Kemba Walker. Let alone Immanuel Quickley. But your phenomenal hoops orchestrator Alec Burks. AB started six straight, then got moved in favor of Rose in mid-December, then Rose lost his gig to a resurging Kemba in the middle of an uptick in COVID cases. Burks got back to his starting point guard role as soon as Jan. 4 when he did so against Indiana. That only lasted a couple of weeks, as Kemba regained starting duties soon enough and held onto them until the ASB when he got shut down for good.
And you know who manned the point from that weekend on.
Don’t hate the player, hate the scheme
If you think I wrote all of the above in a critical tone, you’re wrong. I love Alec Burks. Always have, always will. And I am with Miranda in visualizing his role and what Burks can and can’t do for a professional NBA basketball team. Starting at the point is more of the latter than the former if you ask me.
Thibs, of course, already managed Burks in both firsts seasons in New York, back in 2021. Back then, Burks played 49 games, starting just 5 of them, and averaged 25.6 MPG with an above-average 21.6% usage rate. Very good for what Burks can do! This season, on the other hand, Burks played 81 games, starting 44 of them, and averaged 28.6 MPG with a below-average 17.7% usage rate. Hmmm... At the end of the day, Burks finished both 2021 and 2022 posting the same WS/48 figure (.126) so maybe his usage was not a full disaster. Only, it was.
It was because of the problem that using Burks (or Taj Gibson, or Kemba Walker, or any other washed veteran in the squad) brought to the table: not opening minutes for the actual, important, foundational building pieces of the future New York Knicks. It was frustrating to see Burks getting start after start after the All-Star break when he got most of those (22 of his 44, in fact) while IQ was thriving in his minutes with the season already being lost.
This season marked the first one in Burks’ 11-year career in which he topped a 30% of minutes played at the point guard position, with a 35% share. His prior high was 30% and happened all the way back in 2016. For the 2022 campaign, Thibs opted to reinvent Burks as a PG/SG/SF small point-wing giving him virtually the same minutes at all of those three positions. And it wasn’t that bad, honestly.
The Knicks had a +6.6 net rating with Burks on compared to the minutes he spent on the bench. That’s a fantastic mark that ranked as the 35th-highest among players with 1,000+ minutes played this season. In fact, that +6.6 ranked as the 10th-best mark among players in that same group who spent at least 30% of their minutes playing at the point guard position!
Bad news: Alec Burks is not a point guard. Immanuel Quickley is a point guard. IQ’s on/off rating? Twice Burks’ at +13.8, second-best only behind Jrue Holiday’s +14.0 for the Bucks. Burks never risked a thing, went creative, or did anything a bona fide point is expected to flash in the NBA. Thus the low (that is good) 0.9 bad passes and lost balls per 36 minutes, but also the minuscule (that is bad) 9.0 points generated by his assists per 36 minutes. Just for context, that mark ranked higher than just three other “true PG” with 1,000+ minutes, and we’re talking about Coby White, Patty Mills, and Tre Mann... Just saying.
So, what is next?
Burks will enter his 12th season of pro basketball in 2022-23 which will be his age-31 campaign. He’s not shown any sign of decline to date and that shouldn’t change next year unless Thibs decides to double his minutes, games played, etc. for the second year in a row. The production suffered a little bump, but that’s most probably because of the change in his role rather than an actual regression toward mediocrity with the passage of time.
The average per-game line sat at 11-5-3-1, which is similar enough to those Burks put up in the prior two seasons (12-4-2 in 2020, 15-4-3-1 in 2019). Burks is surely past his peak, but he’s a phenomenal role player at this point in his career—if properly used, that is. This man had a few strong games this year, all things considered.
- vs. DET (Dec. 29): 34 points (including 5 triples) to go with 4 rebounds, a couple of assists, and three steals while shooting 70% from the field and going 5-for-5 from the charity stripe on 27 minutes off the pine.
- vs. HOU (Nov. 20): 20 points (6 treys) with 5 boards, 3 dimes, and 5 thefts on 75% shooting (6-of-8 from the field) and a top-3 game of the season for Burks even though he could only get a 16.1% usage rate. 26 minutes off the pine.
- vs. CHA (Nov. 12): 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 1 block for a stuffed stat line in just 26 minutes off the bench going 6-of-12 from the field and hitting three triples against the Hornets.
Now, if you read paying the slightest amount of attention, you realized all of those games 1) took place before the flipping of the calendar page and 2) happened with Burks playing off the bench as part of the second unit. See what I’m saying? That’s where Burks dominates and where he’s at his highest value and levels of production without hurting others.
Burks can still get moved if the return is good enough. There is pretty much a consensus opinion about the value of Burks’ current deal with the Knicks and how it might be the only one that New York could easily move down the road, come draft day or later this summer/next season.
The Knicks are not close to contending yet so they’d be better off focusing on development and (re)building. That doesn’t mean the FO should send everybody packing and start over. There are interesting pieces around and already in place. Deals involving vets can get done. The draft and one more influx of youth are still ahead (salute the Pels for helping NYK get those 11th-best lottery odds!). And veterans, such as Alec Burks, are always needed to keep things together and provide guidance for the Young Mob, but that should be it.
Here’s hoping Thibs comes to his senses and allows Burks to thrive how he knows best: eating popcorn on the bench at the start, then bringing the flames with the second unit.