What is ailing Knicks starting unit? Evan Fournier has a theory

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The New York Knicks‘ uneven performances had been perplexing.

There were nights when they looked every inch a deep playoff team, beating quality teams such as the Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, Chicago Bulls, and defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. But there are also nights when they look like a lottery-bound team in their five disappointing losses.

On the surface, you can quickly notice the night and day difference between the Knicks’ starters and the second unit’s play. That came to the fore against the Bucks for their third straight loss at home. Tom Thibodeau yanked the starters one by one towards the end of the third quarter and did not return. They helplessly watched on the bench as the second unit completed a 24-point comeback that fell short in the end.



“The (bench) guys were playing well,” Fournier said. “You obviously want to be on the floor. But we had no business being on the court.’’

Their poor play led to Thibodeau losing his cool when the constant question of how many more games the starting unit needs to build chemistry together was asked.

“You know what they say — when it’s 10 games, you say we need 20. When you get to 20, you say 30. When we get to 30, you say 40, and then before you know it, the season’s over,” said Thibodeau referring to how much time do his starters need to jell. “So, that’s a bunch of bull—t.”

Evan Fournier contributed to the Knicks starting unit’s uninspiring play with a season-low two points on 1 of 5 shooting. He was sympathetic to Thibodeau as he was disappointed too with their embarrassing performance.

“Sh–t, I would be too,” said Fournier after their Friday morning shootaround in Charlotte. “I mean we don’t need Tom to get mad at us like we know we did not play well.”

“We’re all veterans. We all know what we’re capable of doing and it doesn’t feel good when we don’t play well. We all feel responsible for it because the bench did a great job.”

Despite the addition of Kemba Walker and Fournier and the return of Mitchell Robinson, the starting unit has regressed compared to last season’s starters.

Last season, the most used Knicks starting lineup of Elfrid Payton, Reggie Bullock, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Nerlens Noel are a much better team on both ends of the floor than this new iteration in their first 12 games together.

Despite the knocks on Payton being an offensive liability and Bullock’s problems creating off the dribble, their metrics with the staring unit last season trump the new Walker-Fournier backcourt so far.

Knicks Starting LineupNet RTGOff RTGeFG%Def RTG
Payton, Bullock, Barrett, Randle, Noel
(percentile)
-4.4 (33rd)109.8 (36th)54.4%
(43rd)
114.2 (40th)
Walker, Fournier, Barrett, Randle, Robinson
(percentile)
-15.6 (8th)106.2 (45th)51.9% (48th)121.7
(0)
All stats from Cleaning The Glass

The Knicks have been heavily relying on the best bench in the league when it comes to offensive rating, generating 70.6 points per 100 possessions. Their second unit also has the current second-best net rating (6.9) behind the league-leading Golden State Warriors (9.0).

Fournier believes that the starting unit has to get back to what has worked in their hot 5-1 start.

“The main difference between the first and second units is really ball movement, body movement. It feels likes at times, we’re very stagnant. We have to find that rhythm that we had early on in those first five games of the season,” Fournier said.

The Knicks starters are playing at the slowest pace among the most used five-man lineups that have played at least 100 minutes together. They are only generating an estimated 96.55 possessions per 48 minutes. The Warriors’ starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, and Kevin Looney currently tops the league in pace with 104.40.

Fournier has cooled down after a hot start in October, where he averaged 3.8 3s per game on a staggering 45.1 percent. The Frenchman gunner is only averaging 1.2 3s per game in the last six games on a cold 21.9 percent shooting.

Fournier said his current poor form is a perfect reflection of the starting unit.

“We started really well, shooting the ball well, sharing the ball well. Now it’s not as good. Are we not playing well because we’re missing shots or are we missing shots because we’re not sharing the ball? It’s always that question that you’re gonna ask yourself. In my opinion, because we aren’t getting good shots,” Fournier said.

Fournier’s field goal attempts dropped from 14.3 in the first six games to just 9.7 in the last six.

In the same span, Randle only had a slight uptick in field goal attempts from 17.5 to 18.2, while Barrett also only had a minimal increase from 13.2 to 15.8.



“When you look at the Milwaukee game, we were really stagnant but you can’t really look at one game and say, ‘okay, here’s the problem’ like every night is different,” Fournier explained before anyone pin the blame on Randle’s isolation-heavy plays or Barrett’s recent explosion before the regression.

“It depends on the matchups, it depends on who’s hot or what we’re doing but just like I said we have to make sure we’re sharing the ball, make sure we run, make sure we have a good pace, and execute well.”

Fournier sounded like a broken clock, but the main key moving forward, he said, is sharing the ball.

“Sometimes you just pass the ball and the rhythm is gonna come back, Fournier said. “Once we all touch the ball, you get a good rhythm, you get better shots, then we’re all feeling good.”

Like Thibodeau, Fournier correlated their shooting woes to their energy on defense. But he also pointed out their defensive schemes under Thibodeau require them to spend a lot of energy which in theory also impacts their offensive burst.

When you don’t score, it usually affects your defense. More and more players and teams are seeking threes on transition. And at halfcourt, we’re a team that’s known for protecting the paint. We do that pretty well,” Fournier said. “The thing that’s a little bit hard is to protect the paint and get out. We have to make sure we have multiple efforts that we really go out there and contest the shots.”

The Knicks are giving up nearly 48 points from downtown every game, with their opponents averaging a league-most 15.7 three-pointers made. They also have the 11th lousiest transition defense in the league, allowing 13.2 fastbreak points per game.

While Fournier admitted that their chemistry is still a work in progress, he’s encouraged with their earlier play to start the season.

“We haven’t been playing well together lately. The good thing is we did it early. So, you know we’re capable of playing very well together. That’s the positive thing. We just have to come back to that. Hopefully tonight,” Fournier said. “Hopefully tonight.”

The Hornets, who are coming off a feel-good 118-110 overtime win against the Memphis Grizzlies that snapped a five-game losing streak, will be a good test for the Knicks.

Charlotte has one of the best three-point shooting teams in the league in terms of percentage. They are shooting 39.7 three-point percent, tied with the Brooklyn Nets, and average 13.6 3s made.

Led by the exciting open floor tandem of LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges, the Hornets are also averaging a league’s sixth-best 15.2 fastbreak points per game.

But the thing is, the Hornets do not have a dominant force inside the paint. Will the Knicks still pack the paint? Which Knicks team will show up tonight?

The fans, and even Fournier, hope it would be the Knicks that went off to a hot 5-1 start.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

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