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What does RJ Barrett’s benching against the Lakers mean?

The Knicks forward checked out with 6:51 left in the fourth quarter and never returned.

NBA: New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s set the scene from the start of the fourth quarter:

It’s the start of the fourth quarter, and the New York Knicks are down 86-83 to the Los Angeles Lakers. The Knicks start the fourth with a lineup of Immanuel Quickley-Miles McBride-RJ Barrett-Julius Randle-Isaiah Hartenstein. It’s not unusual as Brunson and Quentin Grimes usually take a rest to start the fourth. Randle typically rests to start the fourth, but coach Tom Thibodeau opted to have him out there.

RJ & Randle check out:

Those five play together until Jalen Brunson checks in at 7:13 for McBride. Obi Toppin and Quentin Grimes then check into the game for Julius Randle and RJ Barrett with 6:51 left and the Knicks down 103-98. A bit of a weird move to take your best players out with seven minutes, yes, but it’s the system they have used all season. Randle would return to the court one minute later at 5:53.

Following theme:

Barrett remained on the bench, which isn’t uncommon in these situations. For example, Barrett started the fourth quarter against the Brooklyn Nets and played until he was taken out with 6:52 left. He didn’t check back in until there was 1:43 left.

In the 105-103 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on January 24th, it was a similar story. Barrett started the fourth, got taken out with 7:12 left, and didn’t return until there was only 1:31 left.

Same development in the overtime win over the Boston Celtics on January 26th. RJ played from the start of the fourth to five minutes left, got taken out, and came back with 1:57 left. The Boston game went to overtime, but it still highlighted the fourth-quarter commonalities.

A theme that has gone on for a while took a big twist in the Knicks’ loss to the Lakers.

Where is RJ?

As mentioned before, Barrett checked out with 6:51 left and was replaced by Quentin Grimes. Again, not super strange as Barrett finds himself checking back into these games before it ends. What was eye-opening is that substitution never came. RJ would watch the final seven minutes and overtime from the bench. His night was over, only seeing 27 minutes of action, well below the 34.5 minutes he’s averaged this season. It wasn’t the best game for him, as he was a minus six from the floor and scored 13 points on 5-13 shooting. It should be noted he only had one turnover, so it’s not like he was throwing the ball away all game. Despite the poor performance, he almost always checks back into games.

Coach Thibodeau opted to stick with guard Immanuel Quickley instead of bringing Barrett back into the game.

Clearly frustrated, as anyone would be, he declined to talk to the media after the game:

Is this a story?

The benching definitely came as a surprise. Barrett was coming off a Nets loss that saw him finish with a -19 in 31 minutes. Offensively, he played well against Brooklyn, scoring 24 points on 9-16 shooting. In January, he saw 36.1 minutes per game, making last night’s 27-minute performance noteworthy. New York was also losing in overtime, so one would think Barrett could’ve been useful and effective in that situation.

Systematically, it would make sense for the Knicks and Raptors to discuss an RJ Barrett for OG Anunoby swap. The Knicks would pick up the coveted 3&D wing from the Raptors, and RJ Barrett would return to his home country to play for the Raptors.

As part of the extension Barrett signed last offseason, he has a poison pill in his contract that makes it difficult to trade him. Though it is not impossible to move the Knicks forward, the clause makes it unlikely. (I’m not ruling it out though as the trade deadline approaches)

Let me know in the comments:

Does RJ’s benching mean anything and will it happen again? Does Thibodeau believe the Knicks have a better chance in crunch time with RJ sitting? Should the Knicks move on from Tom Thibodeau? Would trading RJ Barrett make sense, or is he a long-term fit next to Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle?

Barrett’s minutes and the Knicks’ closing lineups will definitely be something to keep an eye on going forward.