The Knicks have seen a rotation at the wing nearly unchanged this season, causing casualties in Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina.
When Tom Thibodeau took over the head coaching job for the presumably rebuilding New York Knicks, there were many questions about how the grizzled penguin with a reputation for not trusting his young players would balance the team’s need to develop their youthful core with his insatiable and, some might say, maniacal desire to win. Almost 30 games into the Knicks’ surprisingly fun season, the answers to those questions have started to reveal themselves, though not as definitively as some fans might’ve hoped.
The short answer is, in a way, the same as it always has been with Thibs: he plays the young guys who make it impossible not to play them. Hence Immanuel Quickley being ninth among rookies in total minutes played (praise be), despite missing four of the first five games of the season. The same goes for R.J. Barrett, who has looked every bit the part of a very good secondary option, and for Mitchell Robinson’s quietly monstrous play helming one of the league’s top defenses before his injury. Obi Toppin could maybe be considered the lone exception to this rule, but even Thibs understands the need to play your rookie lottery pick.
There is, however, one place where we’ve seen wins come over development, and that’s on the wing. The moves the Knicks made this offseason to acquire Alec Burks and Austin Rivers and guarantee Reggie Bullock’s contract gave them three competent veterans, all on contracts between $3-6 million, which also makes them attractive in offers to playoff hopefuls. This is especially true of Burks and Bullock, who would both make sense filling out rotations for championship hopefuls such as the Sixers, Bucks, or Nuggets (Burks more so given his ability to create off the dribble).
This has made it harder to find minutes for the third- and fourth-year lottery picks Kevin Knox and Frank Ntilikina, and, as sad is it is to admit, rightfully so. The truth is, Knox and Ntilikina haven’t made it impossible for Thibs to sit them. While some fans may balk at the characterization of the two top-10 picks as wings, the fact is that if either were going to carve out space for themselves in the rotation, that’s where it would have to be. Elfrid Payton and Barrett and Quickley and Derrick Rose have the guard rotations all but locked in place, leaving no room for Ntilikina, and the same is true for the frontcourt pairs of Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel and Toppin and Taj Gibson (at least while Robinson is out). There’s a chance the latter rotation could change in favor of Knox, but that would require two rather unlikely events: Thibodeau trusting Toppin with center minutes and Thibodeau deciding to move away from his trusted commandant in Gibson.
For now, if the two exiled princes want to find their way back into the rotation—which, for Ntilikina, would have to be after he finally clears the health and safety protocols—it would have to be on the wing. A difficult but not impossible task, given the players ahead of them. So, let’s take a look at the three vets who pose the greatest impediment to their return to the Garden, how they’ve been playing, and what the future may hold for them.
Rivers is an easy starting point, since he, too, has been excised from Thibs’ rotation. The contract Rivers signed in the offseason ($10 million over three years, with the last two years non-guaranteed) was so team-friendly it almost seemed like a mistake. Sure, his most memorable moments in the league either involved him looking like Kristaps Porzingis after a Latvian barfight or, perhaps more injuriously, his own star teammate making fun of him in a way that doesn’t quite come across as loving:
But still, there was no questioning the fact that Rivers was a solid pro, and one only a handful of years removed from being a positive contributor on a fourth-seed Clippers team with genuine championship ambitions. A quick glance at his basic stats would indicate that Rivers has been his normal, crossover-happy self. But the truth is, outside of his two explosions against the top-ranked Utah Jazz, his season has been pretty abysmal. If you remove those two games, his three-point percentage drops from 36% to 28% while his points per game drops to just over 5.5 a night.
Despite the Knicks needing offense—they rank 24th in the league in Offensive Rating, per NBA Stats—the kind of offense Rivers brings just isn’t what they need. Between Payton, Barrett, Randle, Burks, Quickley, and now Rose, the team has plenty of guys who want and, in most cases, deserve the ball in their hands. Rivers, with his erratic jump shot and his Allonzo Trier–esque propensity for isolation plays (except that Trier was actually efficient in his iso possessions), just doesn’t generate easy buckets, which is crucial for a team that struggles as much on offense as this Knicks squad has for much of the season.
Status: Garbage time baller
Projected future status: Garbage Time baller with occasional forays into the real lineup
Reggie Bullock has started every game that he’s been available for this season, and if there’s one word for his play, it would probably be “solid.” He’s not an elite shooter, but he’s solid. He’s not a great defender, but he’s solid.
Most importantly for a starting lineup that at all times features three-ball dominant players and a non-shooting center, he doesn’t need to dribble the ball to be effective. It should come as no surprise that the only players who average fewer dribbles per touch than Reggie on the team are the three centers. When the ball is in his hands, chances are good he’s either shooting or passing. There’s really no other option, which is exactly why he’s stayed in the starting lineup for so long: he knows his role, and how important that role is given the players around him.
The interesting thing is, while Reggie is clearly the superior defender due to his time and experience in the league, his production is actually quite similar to Knox’s, given the differential in minutes played (Ntilikina’s per-36 minutes numbers are higher than either, but his four-game sample size doesn’t mean much).
It’s clear that Thibs trusts Bullock in ways that he doesn’t trust Knox. But it stands to reason that if Bullock deserves to start every game, Knox, who actually averages even fewer seconds per touch than Bullock, could eventually find his way to some real minutes—especially if the team is able to find a trade for Bullock. The problem, of course, is that with the Knicks currently sitting at sixth in the Eastern Conference, they seem equally likely to be buying at the deadline.
Status: Full-time starter
Projected Future Status: Either full-time starter or trade chip
As mentioned earlier, Burks seems like the most likely Knick around which a team with playoff ambitions would sniff. His combination of shooting and creation would bolster many lineups, including some, like the Warriors and Sixers, that are already familiar with him and are desperate for backcourt creation. While Burks’ shot selection at times can be aggravating, there’s no denying that his presence alone helps stretch the defense for the likes of Randle, Barrett, Rose, and Quickley to attack the basket in a way that few Knicks can. While Burks started the three games in which Bullock was out, Thibs recognized that his ball-in-hand brand of offense was more needed on the bench, and moved him back into a sixth-man role when Bullock returned—which was probably the right decision.
Burks is now shooting 42% from three while not being a complete zero on defense, which is about all you could hope for from the 29-year-old. He’s also on an expiring deal and playing in a second unit that seems to be getting stronger and stronger as the season progresses.
Burks is one of the reasons the bench has been so good at turning the tide of games of late. However, given the attacking ability of Rose and Quickley, as well as Quickley’s shooting (and hopefully at some point Obi’s), he seems like the ideal player to move before the trade deadline of March 25th.
If that’s the case, Knox would make the most sense to replace him. While Knox has been relegated to helping Austin Rivers clean up the garbage time minutes, as a shooter with some passing ability, he could help mitigate the loss of Burks’ production. Not to mention it would free up more shots for Quickley and Toppin, which would allow Thibodeau to accomplish the rare feat of putting out a competitive playoff-hopeful team while also developing the young players in a winning situation.
Status: Sixth man
Projected Future Status: Top trade chip (outside of the blue-chippers)
Where does that leave Ntilikina and Knox?
Is there any hope for Knox and Ntilikina to regain a foothold in Tom Thibodeau’s good graces this season? Well, yes and no. Knox has a chance to take advantage of minutes opened up by a trade. Given the modest but genuinely encouraging development he had shown early in the season, I’d expect them to find some room for him in the rotation at some point.
Ntilikina may be fast approaching the end of his road as the longest-tenured Knick. As someone who has always believed Ntilikina could be a useful 3-and-D player, this is not a paragraph I take any joy in writing. There were times as recently as this summer where I believed he could be the one to break the Charlie Ward curse, and it’s certainly still possible. But we’re now on head coach number three out of his three and a half head coaches that don’t seem to believe in him (Mike Miller, counting as half, seemed to sort of believe in him). That, combined with his proclivity for missing major chunks of every season with what seem to be little nagging injuries, makes it hard to put any stock in a French Prince restoration in the Garden.
Editor’s note: This article was updated after publishing following an error in the headline.