Why the Knicks should add to the bench but reject changes to the starting lineup

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New York Knicks
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Trade rumors are swirling about the New York Knicks, who want to add a shot-creator to help the bench unit generate offense. While trying and finding someone to insert into the starting lineup is popular, New York’s starting five has been excellent since adding OG Anunoby.

The phrase ‘don’t mess with success’ may ring true when it pertains to who the Knicks open a game with, especially given the fact that superstars are often not traded at the deadline, and it’s unlikely the front office finds a team with a superstar they’re willing to move before February 8th.

With their starting five-clicking, if the Knicks are going to make any additions at the deadline, it should strictly pertain to their bench, as on paper, they currently boast one of the best starting lineups in the NBA.

Just How Good Has the Knicks’ Starting Lineup Been?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New York Knicks
Jan 25, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Jalen Brunson (11) looks back after a dunk against the Denver Nuggets during the third quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In a 356-minute sample size, the Knicks’ starting lineup has a +20.3 point differential in terms of points per possession, and they’ve been one of the most effective units in the NBA. When looking at the leaders in plus-minus for January, four of their five starters are in the top 10 in all of basketball, with OG Anunoby (+239) having by far the best mark. This new unit has defense, shooting, playmaking, and shot creation that has synergized into one of the most devastating groups in basketball.

On the offensive side of the ball, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle are the engines that run the offense, and both have found more space to operate within this new-look lineup. Both scorers have increased not only their output but their efficiency as well, and this has come in a stretch where they’ve run into some difficult opponents such as Denver, Philadelphia, and Minnesota, who were all top three seeds when they took on the Knicks.

Swapping RJ Barrett for OG Anunoby wasn’t expected to be a massive swing, but the numbers suggested that the uptick in performance isn’t entirely unexpected. When on the court, Barrett’s Net Plus-Minus was -9.3, whereas Anunoby was at +7.1, which is a 16.4-point swing in favor of the two-way wing. The change in performance is night and day for the Knicks, who have become unstoppable on both sides of the ball.

Another change that has since been overshadowed was the decision to swap out Quentin Grimes for Donte DiVincenzo, which was a huge blow to the defense at the time but galvanized their scoring. With OG Anunoby on the team, the defensive drop from Grimes to DiVincenzo isn’t as dramatic since the former Villanova guard isn’t tasked with taking on the opposing team’s best scorer.

The sharpshooter has meshed extremely well in the starting lineup since his addition as well, and the high-volume shooting, coupled with the efficiency from downtown, makes him a massive threat to opposing defenses. Spacing has long been an issue for the Knicks, who still finished in the bottom half of the league (35.4%) in three-point percentage last year. DiVincenzo and Brunson are high-volume shooters who can create points in a hurry, and it seems to have been the right call for New York.

Donte DiVincenzo creates plenty of space for scorers in the offense to operate, and teams have to be wary of his ability to just go off and torch an opposing defense. Anunoby is a solid shooter in his own right who can utilize his wing span on drives to the basket, shooting 37.8% from three this season on 6.1 attempts a game. He’s known for his defense, which should get him votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race, but the 27-year-old wing has always been a solid contributor on offense.

If the Knicks were to add someone to the lineup, it would have to come at the expense of benching DiVincenzo, but sitting your best shooter could come with dire consequences. Spacing is important and creates looks for other players on the court, so even landing someone like Dejoute Murray, you’re seeing a roughly 5% decrease in three-point efficiency from your shooting guard, which could negatively affect guys like Brunson or Randle, who have generated plenty of points on drives to the rim.

Barring an opportunity to land one of the NBA’s best players, the synergy of the Knicks’ lineup is too good to try to change things up, but the bench unit still remains a massive issue. The solution? Identifying what the bench fails to do and why they fail to do it.

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How Do the Knicks Fix Their Bench?

Portland Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) for layup in the second quarter at Madison Square Garden
Jan 9, 2024; New York, New York, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard Malcolm Brogdon (11) drives past New York Knicks forward Precious Achiuwa (5) for layup in the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The combination of Miles McBride, Quentin Grimes, Josh Hart, and Precious Achiuwa has been underwhelming, which isn’t awfully surprising given the lack of a shot-creator in that group. It’s not due to the lack of quality players; Hart is a strong defender and rebounder who can guard multiple positions, McBride and Grimes are excellent shooters who can guard the perimeter, and Achiuwa has really come into his own in recent games, averaging five rebounds a game and going +26 on the court in 13 games.

One can expect that Grimes will be traded, and you’d hope to get a solid contributor in return, with Malcolm Brogdon being a name who could help the Knicks plenty. Just like OG Anunoby, he’s a plus-minus darling stuck on a bad team, and his value off the bench could be enormous for the Knicks. He’s been mostly a starter with the Trail Blazers, but last year with the Celtics, he was the Sixth Man of the Year, and he provides strong playmaking alongside an excellent three-point shot.

Ranking in the 61st Percentile in Points Per Possession and averaging 15.7 points per game, Brogdon could be the perfect sixth man for the Knicks, as he primarily generates his value on offense. The 31-year-old guard can also provide some value on defense due to his size relative to other point guards in the NBA, as he stands at 6’4. McBride and Hart are stout defenders who could tackle the tough defensive assignments for Brogdon, but he does provide defensive versatility, especially on the perimeter.

The synergy for the bench could improve by swapping out the disgruntled Quentin Grimes for the veteran shooter, especially given the emergence of Miles McBride. He may not have the playmaking skills to run an offense, but he’s deadly on the perimeter, offensively and defensively. Since being inserted back into the rotation, he’s hitting 48.2% of attempts from long range, taking 4.0 threes a game, and looking like a steady floor spacer who can provide some buckets when needed.

If the Knicks were to shift McBride into a similar role as Grimes, they might be able to yield the same results for the bench, which could make the former first-round pick expendable in a deal for a sixth man like Brogdon.

(Using Percentiles)

Assuming the Knicks were to keep McBride on the perimeter and allow him to be a three-point specialist who can convert open looks into makes, they might be better off moving on from Grimes. Trading for Malcolm Brogdon means getting a playmaker, and it also means adding a salary of around $22 million that the Knicks could use in a potential deal for a superstar over the summer. The Knicks would be better with Brogdon over Grimes; that’s not up for debate, but McBride could make the loss of the third-year guard obsolete.

Were the Knicks to look for some depth, they could try to add veteran wing Gordon Hayward, who they’ve had an interest in for years and would fit well in their scheme. A strong defender who can score, the Knicks could replenish some of the defensive value lost by dealing Quentin Grimes while also adding some size to the second unit. He provides a lot of the skills that they’d lack in terms of driving to the basket and taking advantage of the spacing on the court.

Gordon Hayward is an aggressor on offense, but he is very comfortable handling the basketball, ranking in the 81st Percentile in Potential Assists per 100 Passes. His ability to generate looks at the rim into points could prove highly valuable when McBride and Brogdon are generating most of their offense from the perimeter, and his 6’7 frame gives them a backup for Julius Randle if he were to get hurt or need some rest.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers
Dec 26, 2023; Los Angeles, California, USA; Charlotte Hornets forward Gordon Hayward (20) moves the ball against Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George (13) during the first half at Crypto.com Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

He could become available on the buyout market, where the Knicks could have him as a bench scorer who battles with other second-unit options for playing time in the postseason. Lineups typically shorten to just eight or nine players in the playoffs, but having as many quality bench pieces as possible will ensure that the Knicks aren’t short on talent, as players inevitably get banged up during the year.

Even with just adding Brogdon, the Knicks would get a substantial upgrade, and their goal should be to finally find a primary ballhandler who can run the offense for the bench. The Knicks are on an incredible tear since adding OG Anunoby, and they need to take full advantage of the situation by acquiring someone for their bench. In the starting lineup, you have everything you could reasonably need to succeed, and barring any unlikely changes, their best course of action is to keep the same five guys starting every night.