Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau made an impactful change to the rotation on Monday by removing Kemba Walker in favor of Alec Burks.
Kemba Walker, a key transaction last offseason, is now out of the New York Knicks’ rotation, according to head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Thibodeau, speaking to the media on Monday afternoon, announced that the Bronx native and point guard Walker will no longer be tabbed as the team’s starting point guard, handing the responsibility to veteran guard Alec Burks.
Kemba Walker is out of the Knicks rotation “as of right now,” Tom Thibodeau says. He says he will tighten the rotation moving forward. “It would be tough to play three small guards together,” Thibodeau says. Says he has great respect for Walker and all he’s accomplished.
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 29, 2021
Burks started in Atlanta on Saturday in the win over the Hawks with backup point guard Derrick Rose missing his third straight game due to injury and Walker resting on the second night of a back-to-back. The 30-year-old Colorado product helped guide the Knicks to a gritty 99-90 win against last year’s playoff vanquishers, adding a season-high 23 points along with three assists and a pair of steals.
The decision by Thibodeau to switch up the starting lineup (and rotation by excluding Walker) comes at a critical time in the 2021–22 season for the Knicks. After splitting the weekend’s back-to-back games, New York has a tough stretch of games, which include the first matchup with crosstown rival Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday, a third meeting with the Chicago Bulls after splitting the first two, and hosting the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors in two and half weeks.
Distilled in its simplicity, Kemba was underperforming after signing as a free agent last summer following his release by the Oklahoma City Thunder (traded there earlier in the offseason by the Boston Celtics). Averaging 11.7 points and 3.1 assists in 18 games (all starts), Walker has been sporting the worst plus/minus on the team (-6.8), via NBA Stats, and the Knicks’ starting lineup is routinely finding itself in an early deficit against nearly every club it faces.
The starting lineup of Walker, Evan Fournier, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson has played the most minutes together out of any five-man group in the NBA, at 287 minutes. Together, they have an unconsciously awful -15.7 Net Rating. The only group playing nearly as many minutes as the Knicks starters and performing that terribly belongs to the Houston Rockets, whose most frequent lineup has a -26.5 NetRtg.
It’s quite fair to say Walker alone is not the reason New York’s starters have been tanking the beginning of halves, but the 31-year-old, who signed a two-year, $17.9 million contract in August, has been passive—not in a positive light as a point guard—and has failed to be aggressive in paint touches or setting up teammates. It’s obvious to see New York’s starters getting into an early anti-rhythm or settling for Randle isolation plays. Now, those don’t necessarily have to be poor scoring opportunities, but the Knicks are lacking ball movement, along with people movement. Walker’s deferral on offense and getting burned on defense are both easy to point out as the ‘Bockers are about a quarter of the way through their 82-game season.
Some will question Burks’ merit to start for Walker instead of Derrick Rose or sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley. To get into Thibodeau’s head a bit, it appears as though breaking up that solid bench, with Rose leading the second unit when healthy, would be a mistake. The Knicks’ bench regularly bails the starters out of extreme trouble by chiseling at the margins to get the team back into games. Burks inclusion has two cascading effects, too: 1) more time for Barrett to play with the second unit, a successful endeavor through limited minutes, and 2) more time for rookie wing Quentin Grimes, who is earning minutes with attentive, if over-aggressive, defense and a sweet shooting stroke that replaces Burks’ reliable outside shot with the 2s.
It’s evident that most of the Knicks’ struggles with their starters circles back to lacking elite play from their guards. Fournier, for example, has vanished from games from time to time, then when he shows up, they win ball games. I mean, they did just hand over four years and $78 million for someone playing 4.7 minutes per fourth quarter in losses. Fournier is averaging 13.1 points per game, shooting 39.5% from three on 6.5 attempts a game, so his volume is needed on this team that left the summer answering for last season’s lack of perimeter shooting (or lack of volume shooting).
Long term, Burks as the starting point guard—over Kemba Walker or of the other New York point guards—may not be the answer. However, a shake-up at this junction of the season was a needed move made by Thibodeau to keep the Knicks battling in games instead of constantly trying to win in comeback fashion. If we saw anything from Burks’ spot start in Atlanta, this is a team that can thrive through defense and a collective effort guiding winning basketball, something not achieved by the now-former starting lineup spending the first eight-plus minutes of halves looking disoriented and apathetic.