While the Knicks stand a couple games over .500 and squarely in the pack of East playoff teams, they’ve had trouble beating some mediocre teams and maintaining consistency on both ends. Much of the blame has rightfully fallen on the starting unit, which is hemorrhaging points and getting run off the floor in third quarters.
Of course, new additions need time to mesh and the five appear to fit well on paper, so a change may not be necessary at the moment. But if things deteriorate or even fail to improve, head coach Tom Thibodeau wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t consider shaking it up.
Will the starters turn things around, or will a change need to be made, and if so, who gets sent to the pine?
The current five with everybody healthy features Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. They’re currently getting outscored by 15.5 points per 100 possessions in 270 minutes of game time. Dig further and it’s evident that while they get off to relatively decent starts, their energy disappears re-entering the game in the second quarter or following halftime.
That we’ve seen this unit dominate certain stretches, especially early in the season, suggests this is some weird early-season funk that can be worked through. It certainly doesn’t help that three of these starters are mid-shooting slump.
Barrett is shooting 30.9% from the field and 23.1% from downtown in his last 10 games. Walker and Fournier, two additions hailed for their offense, are also down after hot starts. Walker is hitting 39.8% and 27% and Fournier 40.9% and 34% from the field and three respectively in their last 10.
This is all bound to improve. Defensively, the group looks solid in spurts. When Randle, Barrett and Robinson are locked in they are a force on that end.
Fournier and Walker are unsurprising downgrades from last year. That said, they too can be effective when in sync and engaged. Fournier showed off some high-end rotations and great scrambling fundamentals at times, while Walker draws charges and can get around quickly.
There are reasons here for optimism. The situation is so bad it’s almost unfathomable to think it can’t get better.
That said, anything is possible in this league. If the current starters can’t turn it around, who should come in and replace them?
There shouldn’t be any discussion surrounding Randle or Barrett. They’ve had their fair share of flaws this season, with Randle’s sporadic effort defensively and Barrett’s shaky offense, but are ultimately the primary drivers of the Knicks success and transcend anybody else on the roster on their worst day.
Robinson is once again being plagued by injuries and his replacement is once again Nerlens Noel. Interestingly enough, the usual starters with Noel in for Robinson are performing well in a small sample size. A similarly-sized sample of the Obi Toppin-Robinson frontcourt pairing looks good on the stat sheet and eye test.
It’s worth exploring swapping him and Noel with everybody healthy. The latter arguably has more chemistry with this unit after last year, and offers better screens and more touch outside of the restricted area. Noel’s little lefty float game and six-foot jumpers may not seem like much, but gives the starters a bit more space to work with.
The other options live in the backcourt. You can substitute one of the newcomers, Walker or Fournier, for a bench guard: Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose or Alec Burks.
Benching one of these two comes with a host of external ripple effects. It can be a blow to their morale and a tough mental transition for career starters moving to a reserve role. Fournier getting paid $20 million to come off the bench also looks iffy.
Still, if one of them had to be swapped it makes sense for it to be Walker. He’s been the worst point guard in the rotation defensively and is trending that way offensively.
Subbing him with Quickley or Rose brings equal to more shooting, creation and penetration, while improving on the defensive end. As of late, it’s Quickley making the best case.
Putting Burks in for Fournier is an idea. The former needs the ball less to make an impact and has an edge defensively.
However, Fournier is a career 18 points per game scorer that has shown he can put up more and compete on defense. He’d be a less natural fit with the bench unit than Walker as well.
Ideally, this exercise is moot a couple weeks from now when the starting five rights the ship. If not, Thibodeau will have to make some serious choices that leave a lasting impact on the image of last offseason, the direction of this year’s team and the decision making of the front office.