Circumstances have forced Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau to play Kemba Walker again. This time, the original lineup could pack a punch.
The COVID-19 outbreak affecting the New York Knicks and Derrick Rose’s ankle surgery have led to an interesting development to the season. More than 40% through the 2021–22 campaign, the Knicks are going back to their roots—the same starting lineup in Game 33 as Game 1.
Kemba Walker was sprung from his prison known as Tom Thibodeau, launched back into the starting lineup to unleash an offensive output at point guard far unseen for generations. The return of RJ Barrett from COVID-19 health and safety protocols saw the third-year wing re-join Walker and Evan Fournier on the perimeter against the Atlanta Hawks on Christmas Day. Nerlens Noel entered the Knicks’ COVID protocols after grabbing the starting center role from Mitchell Robinson, who now fills it again.
This was a five-man unit maligned by NBA observers; even if they weren’t watching them sink like a cinder block in the East River, they had one of the worst collective Net Rating, hemorrhaging points only for the bench unit to attempt to salvage competitiveness.
Walker-Fournier-Barrett-Randle-Robinson’s -12.2 NetRtg is only eclipsed by bottom-of-the-barrel teams’ five-man lineups in Houston, Detroit, and Oklahoma City (min. 150 minutes, per NBA Stats). In fact, despite Walker’s 10-game sabbatical, that five-person unit has played the fourth-most minutes together in the NBA. The only lineups to play more minutes together are Utah, Phoenix, and Golden State—the top three teams in the West (not in that order).
Walker’s encouraging recent play and a re-focused Julius Randle, however, renew confidence in the offseason’s cherished goal to replace last year’s deficient backcourt, assisting Randle. Plus, with Rose, a Sixth Man candidate, out for the next six-to-eight weeks, the Original Recipe 2021–22 Knicks starting lineup becomes all the important to finally cohere and succeed with New York still on the outside looking in of the play-in seeds. The team is 2-2 since the return of Walker, who is averaging 26.0 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.0 assists, and 1.0 turnovers in an astonishing 40.2 minutes per game. Rose’s absence necessitated Walker’s return, but it also happens to find the former All-Star playing his best basketball of the season thus far. (Interestingly, in that span, Randle is averaging 22.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, but a 3.8 assist rate—down from his 5.1 season average.)
Walker may come back to earth—although he just followed up a 44-point performance in a loss to the Wizards with a triple-double on Saturday against the Hawks—but the play at point guard has undoubtedly prepared New York for success and unburdened Randle.
On Tuesday, the Knicks start a four-game road trip, an area they have demonstrated the greatest strength this season, with an 8-7 record as visitors. First is the Minnesota Timberwolves, who, like most NBA clubs right now, are facing a COVID-19 epidemic. Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell entered protocols over the weekend.
Immediately afterward, the Knicks face the Detroit Pistons for the second night of a back-to-back and the second of their three matchups this season. New York handled the rebuilding team one week ago in Walker’s second game back as the starting point guard and first win with the Bronx native back from the 10-game benching.
The Knicks finish their road trip with weekend matchups with another beatable team, the Oklahoma City Thunder (although OKC has won four in the last five, totaling a third of their wins on the year) and old foes Toronto Raptors, who have the Knicks’ number with two victories over the ‘Bockers this season. Overall, it’s a winnable road trip to draw New York closer to .500 in an Eastern Conference separating the sixth seed and the Knicks at 12 by two games as 2022 nears. After the road trip, the Knicks will only have five more away games in the month of January to go with nine home games—a chance to re-form home-court advantage.
All of this rests on the shoulders of the new old starting lineup. Mitchell Robinson is looking like his old self again and should not have to relinquish his spot as the starting 5 to Nerlens Noel. Alec Burks is essentially New York’s backup point guard until Immanuel Quickley returns (he exited protocols before the Hawks game but did not play), but they will share a backcourt without Rose in the interim. Rookies Quentin Grimes and Miles “Deuce” McBride should become fixtures in Thibodeau’s rotation, but confidence in the head coach committing to the neophytes beyond injury replacements appears dim.
It’s ironic to now have to rely on the old starting lineup, but a sense of urgency appears to have been developed. There are grumblings that Walker’s benching pissed off the rest of the Knicks, and they’re starting to play with that attitude (aimed towards the opponent). The urgency to win ball games is very real as 4-8 in December won’t cut it.
Finally, there’s a fire under the Knicks’ collective keister.