With a two-pronged point guard attack and a refined bench unit leading the way, Alec Burks is struggling to find a new role in the Knicks’ rotation.
This past offseason, Alec Burks returned to the team he had played the previous season with for the first time since the 2018–19 season. After a great 2020–21 campaign that saw him finish with 12.7 points per game, the fourth-most on the team, he was brought back to the Knicks on a three-year, $30 million contract to build off that success.
Burks, having played 25.6 minutes per game last year, was often the spark plug off the bench the team needed in scoring slumps. He functioned greatly as a facilitator with the ball in his hands, and was one of their more reliable options from long range. Of players to average more than 10 minutes per game last year, he shot a team-best 41.5% from three.
Thus far into the new season, though, the Burks seen so far has been quite different. His minutes per game are down over seven minutes from last year, and he’s only averaging a shade over eight points per game. His shooting numbers are actually up at 42.3% from three-point range with the 13-game sample thus far.
RJ with the EXCELLENT setup and Burks knocks down the corner 3 pic.twitter.com/SIpWVP1pBl
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 9, 2021
The most jarring year-to-year change is in Burks’ shot selection. Whereas he took an average of 10.2 shots last season, he’s only taking 6.7 per game so far this season. He’s still hitting threes at an effective rate, albeit on one fewer attempt per game. The underlying issue comes in what he’s choosing to do inside of the three-point line.
Outside of three-pointers, over half the shots Burks took last year were from within 10 feet of the basket. On those, he made 45.2% of his shots. He’s still taking over half of his non-three pointers from within 10 feet so far this season, but at a less effective rate of 42.3%.
The early slate of the season has shown that the Knicks have effectively transformed into one of the league’s more electrifying offenses, relying far more heavily on the three-pointer than last season. This year’s team is far more concerned with using space to get shooters open from three-point range for quality shots. Burks is doing a bit too much when it comes to getting to the rim than the team needs him to.
Last season, when the Knicks took threes at one of the league’s lowest rates, that shot wasn’t such a priority. Rather, players would get the ball in isolation and use screens and other methods to get to the rim or find a player on the wing that the defense was neglecting. While Julius Randle was the main proponent of this in the starting lineup, Burks often filled this role on the bench unit.
Burks handled the ball coming downcourt, and would be the one deciding the plays for the second unit. The issue is that he still tries to do that now in a very different offensive scheme now. Burks will often come barreling down the court, looking for a lane to the basket. Defenders tend to collapse on him, though, resulting in a poor shot or turnover.
Take the above play against Cleveland last week, for example, where Burks receives a screen from Nerlens Noel at the three-point line. Burks goes around the screen and Cedi Osman follows him the entire way, while Jarrett Allen maintains his stance in the paint giving Burks no leverage. Rather than pass the ball to Immanuel Quickley or Quentin Grimes, whose defenders aren’t paying full attention to them with the ball in Burks’ hands, Burks settles for the contested jump shot with 16 seconds remaining on the shot clock.
It’s shots like these that Burks was O.K. to take last year, given the heavy use of isolation rather than the three-pointer. Now that it’s a focal point of the Knicks’ game plan, that shot is viewed as far worse than a kick out to Quickley or Grimes for an open three-point attempt.
Another factor in Burks’ struggles has been the signings that the team made this offseason. While Derrick Rose did play off the bench last season, he filled in quickly for Elfrid Payton in most games and spent the majority of his time playing and closing games out with the starting unit. Now with Kemba Walker signed and inserted into the starting lineup, Rose is spending most of his time with the second team.
Rose has dominated doing most of the things that Burks did for that second unit last season, being the primary ball-handler and facilitator for the squad. He’s averaging 12.8 points per game and shooting a career-best 47.9% on three-pointers so far this season. When Rose and Burks are on the court together, Burks is best situated as a three-point shooter for a driving Rose should he get open. He appears to be in a bit of a quagmire not knowing what to do when moving without the ball in his hands.
Additionally, the signing of Evan Fournier to replace Reggie Bullock in the starting lineup has allocated more minutes to Fournier that might have gone to Burks at that two-guard spot last season. While Fournier is averaging 30.4 minutes per game this season to Bullock’s 30 per game last season, the difference is more situational than quantifiable.
Bullock’s role last season was that of a 3-and-D player, excelling at playing defense and hitting three-pointers. The Knicks barely put the ball in Bullock’s hands to put on the floor, and he was unable of creating his own shots. Burks was a refreshing change of pace from Bullock when he would come on the floor, offering the ability to dribble and use screens to make his way to the rim, capable of hitting mid-range jumpers and drawing fouls. So, in the fourth quarter when the Knicks would need extra firepower, coach Tom Thibodeau would often leave Burks inserted in games to fill that offensive hole in games they trailed.
Now with Fournier, the Knicks have a much different player at that shooting guard spot. Fournier is capable of hitting spot-up threes and also creating shots of his own on the floor. Fournier has taken 42% of his shots this season from inside the three-point line, on which he is hitting 48.4%. So, he provides a lot of the punch that the Knicks would have run with Burks in the fourth quarter last season. In fact, Burks has played just 97 fourth-quarter minutes across 13 games played so far this season, as opposed to 124 fourth-quarter minutes in 13 games from last March at a time where his role was clearly defined.
ALEC BURKS TUFF AND ONE GIVES THE KNICKS THE LEAD pic.twitter.com/qY8msPCiNJ
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) October 24, 2021
With these infusions to the team, unfortunately, it seems Burks’ role will have to change for him to maintain a part of the rotation. Given his part on the second unit with Rose being the main facilitator, and Fournier taking a lot of the fourth-quarter minutes that once went to him, he will have to embrace three-point shooting as the mainstay of his game. It helped him in his best game of the season against the Hornets on Friday, as he took six of his 12 shots from behind the arc and scored 15 points to finish the game +4.
This has always been a strength of his game, having averaged 37.3% from three-point range for his career. If anything, it’s been a growing skill for him as he took a career-high five three-pointers per game last season, and shot over 40% from there for the first time since the 2015–16 season with the Utah Jazz. His three-point shooting percentage this season is at 41.5%, well over the league-wide percentage of 36.7%.
Once Burks figures out how to move off-ball so he can get open looks from behind the arc, that’s when he will define his role with this new offense. This doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not allowed to put the ball on the floor anymore, rather he needs to make better decisions inside the arc. Take the below possession against the Raptors, for example, where he gets the ball from Obi Toppin at the top of the key.
Burks uses a screen from Taj Gibson, but rather passes the ball out to Quickley and doesn’t force the drive. Once Quickley shows a move into the paint, Dalano Barton switches off Burks to create a double team. Burks uses this as an opportunity to shift back to the three-point line, becoming wide open for a clean shot.
There’s certainly no need for him to transform into a spot-up shooter. In fact, of the three-pointers he hoisted last season, Burks actually shot better when he dribbled first. He shot 38.2% from three-point range when spotting up, but 46.3% when dribbling into his shot.
The return of Big Shot Burks?! pic.twitter.com/q9KqoGr6BM
— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) November 4, 2021
If Burks is just able to make himself more useful from long-range rather than forcing shots inside the three-point line, it will make life much easier for the Knicks knowing they have yet another lethal three-point shooter who can both make and create his shots. As a key contributor from last year’s surprise playoff team, the Knicks would surely want to keep him in their plans as he helps to maintain their new success.