Sunday, January 23, 2022

Knicks removing Kemba Walker from rotation: A hard pill to swallow, but the right move for New York

The New York Knicks have had an elephant in the room all season: Their starters are worse than their backups. The starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson, which has logged the third-most non-garbage-time possessions of any five-man unit in the league, has gotten spit-roasted by 15.9 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, entering play on Monday. 

Meanwhile, the all-bench mob of Derrick Rose, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson, New York’s second-most voluminous lineup, is thrashing opponents by over 30 points per 100, per CTG. 

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The stink is coming from the heretofore starting backcourt of Walker and Fournier. As long as those two are off the court, no matter who else is playing, the Knicks are plus-15.6 per 100. It can be narrowed down further to Walker. As long as he’s not playing, Knicks lineups are plus-14 per 100. 

So it seems like a simple answer on paper: Don’t play Walker, who is coming dangerously close to the “he’s finished” portion of his career. In real life, that’s not an easy decision to make. Walker is loved by everyone. It’s hard for a coach to pull the plug on a fading star, but on Monday, Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters he will indeed bite the bullet and remove Walker from the rotation.

That doesn’t mean Walker won’t be starting anymore (that job now belongs to Burks). That means he won’t be playing anymore. 

The “tough to play three small guards together” part of this statement is at once true and a euphemistic spin on the harsh reality of Walker’s decline. If Walker was still the star scorer/creator he used to be, or even anywhere close, you’d find a way to work around the size. But he unfortunately just isn’t a good player anymore, or really, even a replacement-level one. 

The season numbers don’t look “glue him to the bench” bad. He’s shooting 41 percent on five 3-pointers a game. But you have to watch him. He can’t defend his shadow. Once nearly impossible to stay in front of, he’s no longer any sort of downhill threat, which bogs down New York’s half-court offense, already short on collective burst, into a parking-lot traffic jam, and they basically never get out on the break with Walker on the floor. 

Over his last 11 games, Walker is averaging under 10 points on 27 percent 3-point shooting. During that stretch he’s failed to score in double digits eight times, and the Knicks have been outscored by a total of 101 points in his minutes. Something had to give. It’s a hard pill to swallow, again, because Walker is one of the league’s true good guys. But the game just isn’t there anymore for him, and this is the NBA. It doesn’t matter what you used to be. Or at least it shouldn’t. Right now, this is the right move for the Knicks. 

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