New Solutions, Bigger Problems
Kemba exploded on Saturday night. Will it solve any of New York's issues? We dive into the numbers to find out.
Good morning, and if you’re someone who celebrates, Merry Christmas week! The Knicks, well, they haven’t exactly helped foster that holiday spirit with their play this season, but if nothing else, they’re keeping things interesting. We’ll get to all that below, but first…
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Game Recap: Knicks 107, Celtics 114
As the league has started to succumb to the havoc wrought by COVID and the new Omicron variant, with game getting postponed and teams putting most of their roster into health and safety protocols, the effects of our current reality were on full display on Saturday. With Obi Toppin, RJ Barrett, Kevin Knox, Quentin Grimes and the newly added Immanuel Qucikley and Deuce McBride all in protocols, plus Derrick Rose out with a bum ankle, the Knicks were left with seven rotation players, three of which were traditional centers. As a result, Kemba Walker not only made his return to the rotation, but the starting five. The lack of healthy bodies also resulted in some more odd sights, like Julius Randle at the three, Taj Gibson at the four, and a lot more Wayne Selden than we’ve seen all season.
As for the game: like we’ve seen all season long, the Knicks treated the first quarter like it didn’t count towards the final score, and a combination of cold shooting and lax defense saw them go down 32-18 after one. To their credit, even without their traditional bench mob, they didn’t let go of the rope. After an even second, New York opened the next half on a 27-7 run, largely behind the shotmaking heroics of Walker, or Lazarus, as he shall now be known. Not to be outdone, Evan Fournier reminded us that he still holds a grudge against Boston for not bringing him back, putting up 32 against them for the second time this season.
Things were looking promising after a season high 41 points in the third, but the Knick put up just 19 in the fourth, when the lack of depth appeared to contribute to them running out of gas. Even so, this was yet another game you felt like they could have won had they played up to their capabilities. Perhaps after 30 games of waiting though, we should start to accept that their inability to do exactly that is the new normal.
⓵ The death of Kemba Walker has been greatly exaggerated. Kemba’s third quarter explosion of 17 points was as impressive an offensive display as any Knick has put on this year. That it came after a first half in which Walker shot 3-for-11 was indicative of a few things. First, expectedly, he was rusty. Second, if you give Walker a chance to cook, sooner or later, results will probably follow. Here are the shooting results of every game in which he’s taken at least double digit shot attempts this season:
With the exception of the Pacers game, the offensive results have been exemplary. if he gets in the flow of the game, watch out. On the flip side…
⓶ The whole is not greater than the sum of the parts. No, where Julius and Kemba are concerned, it’s less. A lot less, in fact. After Randle’s 6-for-19 showing on Saturday, Randle has now shot 45-for-125 during those nine games in which Walker has taken double digit shot attempts. That equates to a sterling 36 percent from the field and 29 percent from deep. In the other games? 44 percent from the field, 35 percent from deep. Coincidence? I think not.
⓷ First quarter woes. It’s convenient to blame this game on the lack of a bench, but New York was all too happy to let the Celtics fire away from deep in the opening frame, watching then start 3-for-3 and five for their first eight from behind the arc. The hot shooting subsided, but Boston made several big ones when it counted late - the result, I’d argue, of being allowed to get comfortable early and often.
On the season, New York has the second worst 1st quarter defensive rating in the NBA at 112.9. 30 games in, and we still haven’t seen the instant intensity that characterized them last season. And that’s not even the worst part.
Over their first 16 games, when the Knicks ran out the same starting five of Kemba, Fournier, RJ, Randle and Mitch 14 times, they allowed a respectable 105.3 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, good for 15th in the league. Over the last 10 of those 16 games, it went down to 104.8 - good enough for 12th in the NBA. Over the final five games of that starting five (before Mitch went down and the game of musical chairs began), their defensive rating was 88.1, good for tops in the entire league over that short stretch.
There were issues, to be sure (see: an 85.0 offensive rating in those same five games) but by the numbers at least, the defense was trending positively. Since then? Avert your eyes, kids: 121.9 points per 100 possessions allowed in the last 14 first quarters. Over the last 10 first quarters, it’s 127.9 - a fake number that can’t be real except that it is, somehow. Paired with a 100.0 offensive rating over the same time, and it’s no wonder that the Knicks are 2-8 in their last 10 games.
They’ve had to trot out nine different starting lineups over that time, mostly due to injury and COVID-related absences. Still, it’s interesting to note that Walker’s benching hasn’t exactly inspired that sort of out-of-the-gate fire and desire you thought it might.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ Alec Burks: I toyed with giving him two stars, if only because his defense was ever-present if unspectacular, as opposed to the more inconsistent gentleman who ended up with my two-star designation. I also thought about giving Mitch this spot, as he was much better on D throughout this game than we’ve seen him of late, and played with the sort of urgency that elevates his game to another level. Taj Gibson’s effort also deserves commendation, as always.
But Burks, who managed 19 points on just nine shots to go with six boards, four dimes and four frustrating turnovers, earned his keep here by playing 41 big minutes, almost always guarding one of Boston’s big two. Even so, it’s becoming increasingly clear from the paltry numbers at both ends that something about the Burks-at-PG experiment isn’t working as intended.
⭐️ ⭐️ Evan Fournier: I don’t even care about the 32 points.
I mean, I care, but Fournier’s scoring hasn’t been the biggest problem this season, not when his 53.3 effective field goal percentage is a tick higher than his career mark, and more than respectable for a starting wing with his shot diet.
No, the Frenchman we saw in the second half on Saturday played like he had a point to prove, and that is guy New York thought it was getting for the tidy sum of $18 million a year.
Part of the reason Fournier’s season has been so frustrating is because it feels like he’s leaving so much meat on the bone. He can do all the things you need a starting wing to do…he just doesn’t do them all often enough, and hardly ever all at the same time.
Even in the first half on Saturday, when he had more of the same hesitant possessions coupled with some brutal turnovers, it muted the impact of his 17 points. In the second half though, not only did the defensive intensity improve, but so did his assertiveness as a real weapon on the offensive end. Watch how he doesn’t get scared by a hedging Robert Williams here and instead used a nice little burst to split the defense and get the and-one:
He finished the night with 32 points on 24 shots, including 4-of-10 from deep, to go with five rebounds, three assists and two steals in 43 gutty minutes. Even if its just to make sure his contract doesn’t age like milk left out over a long vacation, this is the version of Fournier the Knicks need to see.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Kemba Walker: I’ll get into the Kemba Conundrum more below, but for the moment, let’s just appreciate what a night he had returning home to Boston.
Walker was, in a word, electric. Even in the first half, when he wasn’t hitting his shots, what we saw resembled a past version of the former All-Star. He didn’t hesitate to take the bull by the horns and run the show.
The standout of his final point total (a season high 29, with the second highest number coming the last time he played one of his old teams in Charlotte) was two-fold: 5-of-10 from deep and 8-of-10 from the line. It was the first time he’s taken double digit attempts from both spots in nearly two years. His aggression stood out, both on its own, as well as what it stood in stark contrast to. In other words, the version of Walker who has tried to fit in as the third or fourth guy on the totem poll was nowhere to be found.
We also some of old drive and kick magic:
It was a good enough performance, given Walker’s pedigree, to raise some very legitimate questions. Let’s get to them right now.
So what now?
Before we get to any potential decisions that Tom Thibodeau has in front of him after Kemba Walker went into Boston and looked very much like the Walker of old, a quick recap of how we got here:
While almost the entire Knicks team got off to an incredible shooting start to the season, no one on the team, and perhaps no one in the entire league, was hotter than Walker, who through six games ranked in the 100th percentile in points per shot attempt at 1.364, per Cleaning the Glass.
Following that hot start, his shooting fell off a cliff, ranking in the 12th percentile at .984 points per shot attempt over the next 12 games before the benching. Combined with the porous defense of the starting five (at least before we had something even worse to compare it to) and Walker being the natural spot to swap out, he was sent to the bench.
Using the reasoning that he sees Kemba as a starter only, Thibs banished Walker from the rotation. We all assumed the move would revitalize the defense, and one would all assume the coach figured the same. Was that the real reason for the benching though?
Since then, the defensive numbers I mention above call Thibodeau’s decision into question, at the very least. But Saturday night was a reminder of another, much larger aspect of the move. What became somewhat clear over the course of the 18 games Walker played was that the same problem that dogged him in Boston - an inability to adjust to not being the top guy - was still rearing its ugly head with the Knicks. When he wasn’t taking over, he might has well not even have been out there.
When he got a chance to run more of the show, however, the results were far better than when he didn’t. Check out New York’s game by game offensive ratings when Walker has been on the court, sorted by his corresponding usage rate in each game:
There are a few outliers, but more or less, when Walker took on a larger share of the offense, it hummed. When he was more passive, the team struggled, often immensely, at least when he was on the court.
This, I would argue, was the real reason for the benching. Thibs had made his deal with the devil, 1 and that devil had just extended for nine figures this summer. There was no realistic option for this team that did not involve getting Julius Randle going. Walker wasn’t helping in that effort, and thus, he was sent packing.
The only issue is that since then, Randle hasn’t gotten going. Before the Hawks game, Randle was averaging 20, 10 & 5 on a 42/34/75 slash line. Since then: 19, 9 & 6 on a 42/33/86 slash line. About the same, right? The advanced numbers tell a different story: pre-Kemba benching, the Knicks were getting outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions in the 668 minutes he played. Since the benching, they’ve been getting outscored by 11.5 points per 100 possessions in 395 minutes
So where to go now? Going back first to Walker, if we’re going to be critical of Julius for his inability to adjust to a new situation, it’s also fair game to blame Kemba for the same issue, and as Thibs said right before the benching, there’s only so long an adjustment period a team can afford.
But does that mean Walker deserved to be the sacrificial lamb? It’s hard to argue that if Randle wasn’t four years younger and their contracts weren’t so drastically different (two years, $18 million for Walker; a four-year, $117 extension starting next season for Randle), a different decision might have been made. Randle has been far less efficient on offense2 , not to mention more turnover prone and arguably just as detrimental to the defense.
After Saturday, would Thibs revisit including Kemba in the rotation, but off the bench? Doubtful, especially when the backups have been the least of New York’s problems. And what about giving it one more go as a starter? This would get us back to the same elephant in the room: whose team would it be?
Which brings us back to square one: a clearly not-yet-washed version of Walker who finds himself without a role in this rotation. And if you’re wondering how much longer of a rope Randle gets, it’s a fair question. He continues to try and make the right play, and still regularly draws attention that results in open teammates who he’s still hitting with proficiency. But he’s also 39th out of 46 high usage players3 in effective field goal percentage with the 32nd ranked assist to turnover ratio of that group. Worst of all, Randle’s on court net rating of minus 7.5 is 44th among that group, with only Detroit’s duo of Jerami Grant and Cade Cunningham ranking lower. By pretty much any metric, Randle has been one of the worst high usage players in the NBA, while Walker (again, when he’s had the chance to run the show) has been one of the best.
With every additional subpar Randle outing, it has to be making things awfully tough for Tom Thibodeau. It is an impossible oxymoron: Randle is New York’s most talented player and the only guy who can consistently draw the attention of the defense, and yet he is the lone unifying factor in every poor lineup they have run out onto the court. As I noted after the game, every single rotation player has a negative net rating alongside Julius (most of which are very bad) with the one exception of the guy backing him up: Obi Toppin.
The Obi of it all is just one more complicating layer to all of this - the forbidden fruit we have yet to see fully unleashed. How might Walker look with Toppin alongside of him to catch lobs instead of monopolizing isolation possessions? We can only wonder.
In reality though, Walker’s incredible game is only likely to make an already uncomfortable situation that much more uncomfortable. This is an impossible path forward for as long as Randle keeps underperforming. If he was giving a stellar defensive effort on the regular, we’d all be a lot more forgiving, but the eye test and the numbers reveal that this isn’t the case.
In the meantime, the Knicks will try to get healthy. If and when they do, something tells me Kemba will be back on the bench, while Julius will continue to get time to work out his issues. They don’t have much of a choice, but it also doesn’t make it any less frustrating to see.
#NYK75: No.47 - Ray Williams
All-Time Franchise Ranks:
Games Played: 399 (29th)
Points scored: 6555 (19th)
Scoring average: 16.4 (23rd)
Assist average: 5.7 (10th)
Win Shares: 26.5 (29th)
Best Knicks Stat: One of four Knicks to spend at least five seasons in New York and average at least 16 points & 5 assists (Walt Frazier, Richie Guerin, Stephon Marbury)
I’ll be honest and say that I had never heard of Ray Williams before compiling this list, which surprised me less because he put up some pretty good numbers over his time as a Knick and more because he was with the franchise for a full five years not that long ago.
Drafted 10th overall in 1977, three spots after the Nets selected Bernard King and one spot ahead of the Bucks selecting future Knick and GM Ernie Grunfeld, the Mount Vernon product was a backup as a rookie. He was a member of a fairly successful team led by former MVP Bob McAdoo and Earl Monroe that got swept by the Sixers in the second round. The lack of playoff success was a sign of things to come for Williams in New York.
The following year, Ray’s role increased and he finished 7th in the NBA in assists per game as New York bottomed out with 31 wins. The next two seasons saw Williams average 20 points a night to go with his dishing as he shared backcourt duties with the more heralded Michael Ray Richardson in front of backstop Bill Cartwright. It was a talented three-man core, and one that totaled 39 and then 50 victories, although neither season resulted in a single playoff win.
He was traded to the Nets for Maurice Lucas that summer, but then two seasons later, was traded back to the Knicks, where he spent one season playing a supporting role to the Bernard King show on the 1983-84 squad.
And that was it for Wiliams in New York. Ultimately, he is probably a bit of a forgotten name because of when he played his five seasons in New York: smack dab in between the final remnants of the championship teams and the beginning of the franchise’s renaissance under Patrick Ewing.
But what he did in his time is enough to get him a spot on the list (probably a few spots too low, thanks to this writer’s ignorance).
The horns are replaced by braids in this case, although not lately
111.7 points per 100 shot attempts for Walker on the season, 68th percentile for his position to 104.0 for Randle, which is in the 12th percentile.
25 usage rate or higher, minimum 25 minutes a night and 15 games played.