The New York Knicks are looking to bounce back from a disappointing start to the 2021-22 season, and head coach Tom Thibodeau has been tinkering with the rotation in the process. The Knicks have tried a multitude of different lineups, but there are certainly ones that have worked better than others. Since the beginning of Thibodeau’s time in New York, they’ve consistently run a 10-man rotation, with a fully separate starting and bench unit. Currently, the pieces don’t fit perfectly, but they have the right guys to make two formidable units.
The mainstays in the Knicks’ starting lineup through the first 38 games have been Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Evan Fournier. Barrett and Randle were the keys to the Knicks’ success in 2020 when they went 41-31 and made the postseason as the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference. Though neither of them has been as efficient as they were last year, they’re still the two best players on the team.
Randle is averaging 19.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, and 4.9 APG with a 42.3% FG%, 32.7% 3P%, and 76.7% FT%, all down from last year. Barrett is averaging 15.7 PPG and 4.8 RPG on 41% from the field. They’ll need both of them to shoot better, especially from 3, in order to live up to their expectations as a team. Both players stepped up in the 2nd half last year, but Barrett’s 2nd half was spectacular. In the last 44 games of last season, Barrett averaged 18.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while shooting 45.2% from the field and 45.5% from 3. When Barrett is aggressive, he’s tough to stop and makes the Knicks’ offense way more dynamic.
Kemba Walker has had an up-and-down season for New York, but he is the best option to start at point guard alongside Randle and Barrett. Walker came back from being benched with some of his best games, averaging 19.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and 5.3 APG while shooting 38.5% from 3 and 88% from the line. His newfound aggressiveness transformed the offense, as he was able to create for himself and for others, unlike any other Knick starter. Early in the season, Walker was trying to get his shot in the flow of the offense, but he’s better at creating the offense, which we’ve seen in his most recent action.
Mitchell Robinson has started 25 of his 34 games, but he has started to get his athleticism back after adding weight this offseason. Robinson set the record for a single season by making 74.2% of his field goals in 2019-20, and he’s shooting an even better percentage this season. He’s a dominant force down low, who plays great defense and rebounds well. Although Taj Gibson and Nerlens Noel have both received starts, Robinson is their best option at center. Taj Gibson started against stretch-5 Myles Turner and the Indiana Pacers, a trend that may continue if Robinson continues to be reluctant to step out to shooters.
Evan Fournier’s spot in the starting lineup has been consistent all year. As their biggest offseason acquisition, it makes sense that New York has kept him in the lineup despite his struggles. It’s clear that Fournier isn’t yet comfortable in his new role, as he’s no longer the 2nd option like he was in Orlando. Moving him to the bench would allow him to flourish as a ball-dominant scorer. In his place, the Knicks could start rookie Quentin Grimes, who has already played himself into the rotation. Grimes is an elite defender who has a sweet stroke from 3 and can still impact the game when he’s not hitting his shots.
Knicks ideal starting lineup: Walker, Grimes, Barrett, Randle, Robinson
The “Bench Mob”
Even without Derrick Rose, the Knicks still have one of the best bench units in the NBA. Their 2020 1st round picks, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley, have incredible chemistry and bring pace and energy to the floor. Quickley isn’t the most efficient scorer, averaging 10.3 points on 8.7 shots per game (38% FG%), but he is a spark plug off the bench and leads the NBA in FT% (94.1%). For Toppin, his first two NBA seasons have been night and day. Last year, Toppin struggled to adjust to the NBA game, but this season, he’s been super productive off the bench. He averages 8.6 points on 53.5% shooting while playing only 16.8 MPG behind Julius Randle.
Alec Burks, who is possibly the 3rd best player on the Knicks, is best utilized as a bench wing who can close games. While New York tried him out as a starting PG, the offense stagnated as teams began to press him defensively. He doesn’t have the skillset to be a consistent primary ball-handler, but he’s an elite 3PT shooter and defender. He has an uncanny ability to take over games in the 4th quarter, as he has done over the past two years. While Grimes fits the starting lineup better as a spot-up shooter rather than a shot creator, Burks should continue to close games as he has the last two years.
Evan Fournier moving to the bench would create more opportunities for him with the ball in his hands. Although Burks and Quickley also need the ball in their hands, there are more touches available when Randle and Barrett are off the court. Fournier’s been getting a lot of flack from Knicks fans, but he has a role on this team. He just doesn’t fit with the rest of the starting lineup. On the bench, we can see more of the Fournier who thrived in Orlando. Also, alongside Quickley and Burks, it’ll be much easier to hide his defensive ineptitude than alongside Kemba Walker.
The final player in the Knicks rotation would be Taj Gibson or Nerlens Noel, but I’ll roll with Gibson due to his consistency and veteran presence. Gibson seems to always be in the right place at the right time and brings veteran leadership to a bench that includes two second-year players. Noel puts up more numbers defensively, but Gibson holds his own on the defensive end with his effort and toughness. The Knicks could play either Gibson or Noel with the bench unit, or they could stagger Obi Toppin, Mitchell Robinson, and Julius Randle’s minutes as the only three bigs in the rotation. Since Thibodeau seems to like his 10-man rotation, Gibson seems to be the way to go.
Knicks ideal bench unit: Quickley, Burks, Fournier, Toppin, Gibson
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