Around 24 minutes of playing time have opened up following Kemba Walker’s decision to sit out the final 23 games of the regular season. But that is still not enough to solve New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s quandary. Especially with Derrick Rose scheduled to return.
“Obviously, getting Derrick (Rose) and RJ (Barrett) back is significant for us. But we probably still have a logjam, so we got to figure that out,” Thibodeau told reporters after Wednesday practice.
Rose did contact drills for the first time on Wednesday, and Thibodeau said they would see how the veteran point guard feels Thursday, one day before they return to action against the Eastern Conference leader Miami Heat. Rose is expected to gobble up Walker’s minutes with the second unit as Alec Burks is penciled to be the starter.
“I think just looking, digging into the numbers and stuff, Alec (Burks) has been our best option so far,” Thibodeau explained.
With Walker as the starting point guard in the fourth-most used lineup in the league alongside Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson, the Knicks have been outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA’s tracking data. Take out Walker and put Burks in that lineup, and the Knicks are a much better team, outscoring their opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Thibodeau, who yanked Walker out of the rotation earlier in the season, shied away from the decision to shut down the former four-time All-Star point guard for the remainder of the season. He deferred to team president Leon Rose and Walker’s agent Jeff Schwartz, who handled the situation.
“We knew there was risk involved, and we thought it was worth it,” Thibodeau said about Walker’s signing this summer. “There were some good moments. If he’s healthy, he’s good. So, that’s about it.”
After his nine-game banishment, Walker returned with aplomb and became the high point of what appears to be his lone season with his hometown team. In December, the Bronx native had a four-game stretch where he exploded for 29, 21, and 44 points before capping it off with a triple-double on Christmas Day. But the low points exacerbated by his lingering knee issues outnumbered that one solid stretch.
Walker will go into the summer as a trade chip with an expiring contract. But even Walker’s decision to sit out, the Knicks rotation logjam still persists.
The starting five is set with Burks, Fournier, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson. Thibodeau hopes to replicate last season’s late push with Rose and Immanuel Quickley at the backcourt and their chemistry with Obi Toppin. Rookie Quentin Grimes is likely to stay in rotation. Nerlens Noel seems to be finally healthy as he participated fully in Wednesday practice. So that leaves youngsters Cam Reddish and Miles McBride, who is getting plenty of run in the G League, still on the outside, looking in.
Thibodeau defended himself from the criticisms of not buying into the player development of their young guys. Their values aren’t viewed around the league as high as other teams’ young players like the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers — two teams that built through the draft and are now on the rise.
“What people lose sight of is that they forget how young Mitchell is, how young RJ is — RJ had the best month of his career. They forget how young Obi is. Quentin Grimes is starting as a rookie. Julius is young. So the priority is everyone’s development,” Thibodeau said.
“It’s not just one particular guy. It’s easy to lock into this guy. You can’t keep adding guys to a rotation without taking guys out. Where are the minutes come from? There are a finite amount of minutes in a game.”
The Knicks tried to move some of their veterans at the trade deadline, but their disappointing first half and circumstances worked against them. Now they are stuck with a mediocre team — a mixed bag of young players who need more time to develop and veterans underperforming their contracts.
Their outlook is dire. They are 3.5 games out of the final play-in spot, with their remaining schedule the fourth toughest in the league.
Next summer couldn’t come soon enough to undo some of their miscalculations.
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