Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose may need to undergo strict load management this season. The Knicks have the depth to thrive while one or both of the veterans rest.
At the New York Knicks’ introductory press conference for Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, the New York Post‘s Marc Berman asked Walker about his plans regarding back-to-back games during the season. The All-Star point guard directed the question to head coach Tom Thibodeau, pointing to him in the front row. “He’s playing,” Thibs said promptly and with a smile on his face.
Kemba on playing back-to-backs:
"You gotta ask Thibs"
Thibs: "He's playing" 😂 pic.twitter.com/fIdoNQxaAK
— KNICKS ON MSG (@KnicksMSGN) August 17, 2021
Walker and the crowd laughed at Thibs’ comment. It was a funny, light-hearted moment as the Knicks welcomed the former Boston Celtic who joined New York in free agency. But Walker’s availability is something the Knicks need to take seriously.
Because of a series of knee injuries, Walker missed 31 total games last season (29 regular-season games and Boston’s final two postseason games). The season prior, Walker missed 16 regular-season contests. His health is the most important thing to monitor as he plays for his hometown team. Being in and out of the lineup made him brutally inconsistent last season—so bad that Boston had to attach the 16th overall pick with him in a trade to get off of his contract.
Walker is not the only point guard whose minutes the Knicks should be careful with. Derrick Rose has shown that he’s still a very impactful player but age will catch up to him at some point, as he’ll turn 33 years old before the season starts. His record of poor health has pretty much been a fixture of his identity as a professional basketball player. He hasn’t played 60 games in a season since his first stint with the Knicks in the 2016–17 season.
Last season, Rose missed eight games due to contracting the coronavirus, which can’t be considered a typical basketball injury. Had he not been so unlucky he would have played in 58 games. Still, as he travels further down the wrong side of 30, health concerns are not to be taken lightly. It would make total sense for New York to play it extra safe with Walker and Rose, who should be among the most important players as the Knicks vie for a second consecutive playoff berth. The catch is that their head coach is…well, you know how it goes by now.
The classic trope with Thibodeau-coached teams is how Thibs tends to run players, mostly veterans and starters, into the ground with ungodly amounts of playing time. There’s no doubt that he leans heavily on his top guys more than most coaches. Exhibit A: Julius Randle led the league in total minutes and minutes per game last year. Exhibit B: Right behind Randle on the total-minutes leaderboard was teammate R.J. Barrett.
However, the narrative around Thibodeau’s playing time isn’t exactly completely accurate anymore. Randle may have been first in minutes per game with Barrett ranking in the top 15, but Reggie Bullock, who ranked third on the Knicks in minutes per game, ranked 75th. No other Knicks were in the top 100, though Mitchell Robinson would have been if he had played enough games to qualify.
Since Thibodeau has one of the best bench units in the league to work with, he has shown that he can scale back the minutes of some of his starters and rely on his backups more. His days of feeding all of his starters heavy doses of playing time seem to be behind him. Thibs is a new, more well-balanced chef and he’s got the ingredients to cook up 48 minutes of quality basketball on a nightly basis.
In years past, this may not have been the case, especially at the point guard spot. Not too long ago, Knicks fans looking at point guard options looked like the Angry Video Game Nerd surrounded by games that disgust him. Fortunately, the Knicks are now loaded to the teeth with quality point guards, which should allow them to be overly cautious with their veteran point guards during the regular season. There are several ways for New York to go about this.
One simple option is for Thibodeau to renege on his punchline from the press conference and rest Walker (or Rose) on the second night of a back-to-back game. (Or, as it is called on Twitter, a SEGABABA. True story.) New York’s schedule gives them only 12 such games, tied for the lowest mark in the league. Would it be wise for the Knicks to completely shut down one of their two best guards for almost 15% of the season?
Let’s examine that stretch. Here is every game, all of which are away games aside from games no. six and 11:
- 11/8 @ Philadelphia 76ers
- 11/21 @ Chicago Bulls
- 11/27 @ Atlanta Hawks
- 12/8 @ Indiana Pacers
- 12/29 @ Detroit Pistons
- 1/18 vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
- 1/24 @ Cleveland Cavaliers
- 2/8 @ Denver Nuggets
- 3/7 @ Sacramento Kings
- 3/23 @ Charlotte Hornets
- 3/28 vs. Chicago
- 4/3 @ Orlando Magic
New York’s SEGABABA opponents include only three playoff teams from the prior season (Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Denver). Chicago, Indiana, and Charlotte should vie for playoff contention after failing to qualify last season and the remaining teams are expected to be league-worst teams again.
The number of games that the Knicks can afford to rest their veteran point guards in will be partially dependent on their record at the time. They may not be able to coast a little bit in their later SEGABABA contests if they need to make up ground in the standings. Luckily, the last four of those games are against teams that will likely either be in New York’s weight class or below it.
Last season, Walker didn’t play in the second game of back-to-back games and he was able to go most of the season without consecutive absences. By his box-score numbers, the rest seems to have done him pretty well, as he performed strongly in games that occurred after a SEGABABA he sat out. On paper, it makes sense for the Knicks to rest Kemba in select SEGABABA games if he’s still dealing with knee issues. The same goes for Rose should he find himself dealing with an injury.
Going without either vet for 12 games doesn’t seem like such a tall order thanks to the abundance of weapons the Knicks have at their disposal now. Even without either point guard, Randle and Barrett are surrounded by Immanuel Quickley, Evan Fournier, Alec Burks, Quentin Grimes, and Miles McBride. The first three names have proven that they can create their own shot at the NBA level while the two rookies have the potential to do so at a respectable rate.
I’m not suggesting that the Knicks rest both Walker and Rose on every SEGABABA. Hopefully, both guards can stay healthy enough that they only need to rest one at a time. But New York is ready for that situation should it arise. Much of that luxury is thanks to their young point guards, who offer a way for the Knicks to get by if their vets get too banged up.
Lean on the Youngins
Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride are more than just hopeful long-term options at the point guard spot. Their abilities allow them to contribute right now, preserving the health of veterans better suited to help the Knicks win now while absorbing knowledge from them that’ll help them develop further.
Quickley’s scoring talents made him a household name throughout New York City right away. All he did throughout his rookie season was flash star-like confidence, shifty handles, a picture-perfect floater, and three-point marksmanship. He earned a selection to the All-Rookie Second Team for his efforts. But perhaps more importantly, he secured himself a spot in the rotation of a playoff team. As he embarks on his second year in the league, he’s showing that he can truly play point guard, which should only further entrench his spot in Thibs’ rotation.
The case for a sizable role isn’t as clear-cut for McBride, who looked terrific in Summer League play but hasn’t yet played against true NBA competition. He plays defense like he was tailor-made for a defensive-minded coach and looked comfortable shooting a variety of shots during the summer league. His lack of outwardly impressive athleticism may hold him back—he stands at 6-foot-2 and isn’t incredibly strong, fast, or explosive for an NBA player—but he has the opportunity to carve out a role by doing what he does best.
Having even one promising point guard prospect is a luxury. Right now, the Knicks look spoiled. Hopefully, at least one of Walker or Rose will always be healthy—both being healthy is preferable but a steep request. If New York does have to go a few games without either former All-Star point guard, they can sleep well knowing they have two young point guards that can fill in. They can help the Knicks try to win while getting extended reps on occasion, which should benefit their development.
Deploying Quickley alongside Fournier, Barrett, Randle, and Mitchell Robinson is the most sensible move, as he retains the advantage creation and shooting in the starting point-guard spot that Walker would seemingly occupy when healthy. That would allow McBride to play alongside Burks, Grimes, Obi Toppin, and Nerlens Noel. Both lineups should be able to excel on both sides of the ball.
The drawback to Quickley and McBride is that they just may not be ready for the duties of being a lead point guard for long stretches. It takes experience to get comfortable balancing one’s own scoring intuitions with the responsibility of playmaking. For the time being, they may just be best as ancillary creators while someone else takes the reigns. If Thibodeau decides that that’s the case, that’s perfectly fine. He has an older, bigger option that should be able to handle point guard duties from time to time.
Randle proved last season that he can lead an offense, posting per-game averages in both points and assists that ranked in the top-25 league-wide. The first-time All-Star’s vast improvements as a playmaker have made him a well-rounded offensive weapon that can be utilized as a de facto point guard when needed.
🔘17 (!!!) assists (most by any non-guard in Knicks history)
🔘3rd triple-double of the season
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) March 19, 2021
Using Randle in a point guard role could allow the Knicks to play without a point guard on the floor, playing him with a center and three of Barrett/Fournier/Burks/Grimes. However, New York will probably never be so devoid of available point guards that they’ll have to play such a lineup. Suggesting such a lineup is feasible is simply an exercise to show how much more dependable Randle’s passing has become.
Getting Randle more reps in orchestrating the offense would test him to become more apt at creating advantages for himself and his teammates. He certainly showed improvements in that area this past season but not enough to prevent him from collapsing in the playoffs. With more spacing to work with after New York put better scorers/shooters around him, Randle should be able to leverage his scoring abilities more, which should consequently open up passing lanes.
On the flip side, the Knicks should also make sure to create advantages for Randle, too. Walker and Rose have the skills to set him up with good looks by attracting attention from the defense. Having a point guard who can reliably create looks for Randle will be a very pretty sight. Thanks to the depth New York has at that position, they should never be lacking for one.
It’s not fun to hypothesize routes for the Knicks to take if their veteran point guards need to manage their playing time more closely. But it’s a necessary discussion to keep in mind as the Knicks enter this season. Maintaining the health of their over-30-year-old floor generals may be a necessary step in order to preserve them for the postseason. If it isn’t necessary—that’s great! History shows us that it likely will be, though.
Walker and Rose provide one of the strongest one-two punches at the point guard spot in the whole league. But that doesn’t mean the Knicks need to go for knockout swings every time. They should be patient with how often they use it and not be afraid to pull back to recharge. Slow and steady wins the playoff race.