After playing sparingly together in Boston, Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier will team up to help fix the Knicks offense from last season.
The New York Knicks’ backcourt underwent a full-scale remodel this offseason. 2020–21 starters Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock are Knicks no longer, with the former heading to the Phoenix Suns and the latter the Dallas Mavericks via free agency. To offset their departures and bolster the scoring punch at the guard spot, New York inked Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier to two- and four-year deals, respectively.
Walker and Fournier won’t be suiting up as teammates for the first time with New York. The pair spent the latter end of the 2020–21 campaign as members of the Boston Celtics. While Fournier and Walker logged just 191 total regular-season minutes on the court together, it’s worth rewinding to their season in Beantown and what went right and what went wrong. Without further deliberation, let’s dive into the numbers for relevant takeaways.
What went right: three-point scoring and efficiency
Fournier and Walker were the crème de la crème when putting the ball through the net from deep. Shooting 46% and 37%, respectively, on threes with the Celtics last season, both finished above average for their position in three-point accuracy, per Cleaning the Glass. When paired together, their marksmanship paid dividends; the Celtics nailed 40.3% of their treys with Fournier and Walker on the floor (89th percentile). Bear in mind this mark is leaps and bounds ahead of Boston’s season-average 37.4% three-point percentage.
But three-point percentage alone only means so much. If a team only takes a few threes yet converts a high rate of them, how impactful is that? Not very. Additionally, whether players can create their three-point looks or not is another important factor. No matter how good the spot-up shooters are on a given squad, it’s difficult to rank among the top of the league in attempts/makes without reliable three-point creators, a lesson New York learned the hard way last season. Fortunately for the Knicks, Walker and Fournier attempted a generous amount of threes, with a promisingly sizable chunk of them being unassisted.
Half of Walker’s total made baskets with the Celtics were three-pointers (82nd percentile), and only 55% of his treys came off assists (77th percentile). Fournier, meanwhile, attempted 55% of all shots from deep (66th percentile), with 10% of them going unassisted (53rd percentile). Aside from Immanuel Quickley, no other current Knick rivaled the pair’s high usage and self-generation ability from deep. Especially not from the guard position, as Payton is a below-average shooter, and Bullock, while accurate from deep, was almost solely a catch-and-shoot threat.
No metric better elucidates the value of Walker and Fournier’s three-point prowess than the fact that 44.2% of Boston’s field goals with them on the floor were threes (96th percentile in frequency). This elite rate is no coincidence, small sample size notwithstanding; the two’s ability to manufacture scoring chances off the bounce is a recipe for lots of attempted threes, which New York needs to take that next step (27th in tries last season). All in all, the Knicks’ three-point offense is significantly more lethal with two snipers who both knockdown treys and set themselves up for long-range looks more effectively than most.
What went wrong: free throw rate, interior scoring, Fournier’s foul troubles
As perimeter-centric scorers, neither Walker nor Fournier made their hay at the line in Boston. Both are fresh off the worst seasons of their careers getting to the charity stripe, as evidenced by their shooting fouled percentage—Walker finished in the 43rd percentile and Fournier the 24th. Additionally, Boston’s free throw rate with Fournier and Walker was a below-average 16.3 (15th percentile). Once known foremost for his breakneck speed and at-the-rim finishing, Walker used to feast at the line. But a mere 20% of Walker’s shots came at the rim in 2020–21, far and away from his lowest number as a pro. However, it’s worth mentioning that Walker shot a career-best 69% in the paint with the C’s.
As for Fournier, his inside finishing was sub-par across his 16-game stint as a Celtic. He ranked in the first percentile in paint scoring efficiency, having converted just 40% of his looks therein (8-for-20), which accounted for a mere 12% of his combined shot attempts. His finishing precision was better but not much better earlier in the season with Orlando (49th percentile).
Simply put, the Knicks’ backcourt won’t rank among the league’s best at finishing inside or drawing shooting fouls. While still a phenomenal player in store for a bounce-back season, Walker is no longer the speedster of yesteryear, and Fournier doesn’t venture inside the paint frequently enough to be an upper-echelon dribble-drive threat/foul-drawer.
Last but not least is a Fournier-specific dilemma: he was foul-prone; his regular-season foul percentage of 3.4% ranked in the 38th percentile. To his credit, Fournier gets an unfair amount of criticism for his defense. He exerts effort and is decent at using his reach to pick off passes and come up with steals (85th percentile in steal percentage). However, he too often plays overzealously to a harmful extent; it was common for him to pick up silly reach-in fouls while trying to make the home-run play for a steal.
Kyrie dropped Fournier 👀
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 23, 2021
The Brooklyn Nets further exacerbated Fournier’s fouling problem during Boston’s first-round series. With not the most outstanding defensive reputation, the Nets emphasized forcing Fournier to guard one of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, or James Harden on switches all series long, a tactic which paid off for Brooklyn. Fournier ended up averaging four fouls per game for the series and seemingly couldn’t stay out of foul trouble. Of course, defending the Nets’ three-headed dragon is a lofty task, but it nonetheless highlights that Fournier has to work on defending without fouling.
What does this all mean for the Knicks?
Firstly, the Knicks appear destined to shoot up the rankings in three-points attempts next season while remaining accurate percentage-wise. Fournier and Walker are arguably the two best pure shooters on the New York roster whose combination of efficiency, usage, and creativity from deep will all work wonders for the Knicks’ perimeter attack. At the same time, their presence will space the floor and open up avenues to the rim for Julius Randle and R.J. Barrett.
Yes, Walker and Fournier’s interior scoring woes mean they aren’t fit to be primary scoring options, but they don’t have to be. Leave the slashing to those who do it best, such as Randle, Barrett, Alec Burks, etc.
In conclusion, the Knicks’ offense took a significant step forward by acquiring the former Celtics, which compensates for manageable concerns on the other end. Tom Thibodeau, the great basketball mind that he is, will mitigate the duo’s weaknesses on defense. Maybe that means figuring out a method to prevent Fournier from being switch-hunted or having a rim protector share the floor with Walker at all times to impede guards looking to post up the diminutive New Yorker.