Knicks fans have been fed up all season with Tom Thibodeau’s insistence on keeping Elfrid Payton in the starting lineup. After two absolutely dismal starts in the playoffs against the Hawks, in which Payton went a combined 0-for-5 shooting with one point, one assist, and one steal in 13 minutes, during which the Knicks were outscored by a total of nine points, Thibodeau finally relented, and put Derrick Rose in his starting five.
The Knicks got flattened in Game 3 in Atlanta and pulverized in Game 4, with Payton stapled to the bench for both contests as a DNP-coach’s decision. New York is now one loss from summer vacation, and it could come as early as tonight at Madison Square Garden.
Is it possible that, to save their season, the Knicks need to put Payton back in the lineup? It just might be, that in a Knicks season that has defied logic, the illogical move is the one to make.
The case here is not that Payton is good. Quite the opposite, he’s had a horrendous year. Per PBP Stats, Payton’s on-off net rating this season was minus-8.88. Payton shot 28.6 percent on three-pointers, and averaged only 4.9 assists per 36 minutes, easily the worst rate of his career — he’d never been below seven helpers per 36 before. He turns the ball over frequently, isn’t a good free-throw shooter, and… look, all the criticisms are valid, there’s no need to dump on the guy. Payton has never been on a playoff team before, and as soon as the Knicks made it, he quickly was dropped from the rotation for a reason.
And yet, a mix of stats and the eye test suggest that having Payton start is a good move, because of the way that he fits into the team.
The Knicks played 1,104 minutes this season with Payton, Julius Randle, and Reggie Bullock on the court, and without Derrick Rose. New York’s net rating for those minutes was minus-1.93 — not good, but also a whole lot better than Payton’s total of minus-8.88. Replace Payton with Rose, and the Knicks’ net rating over 341 minutes with the former MVP alongside Randle and Bullock was plus-6.80.
There’s no disputing that the Knicks are better with Payton off the court, but putting him back in the lineup isn’t about getting minutes for Payton. It’s about Randle, who has had an absolutely abysmal series, shooting 20-for-73 with 15 turnovers.
With Randle, who averaged 24.1 points per game this season, struggling with his shooting, and R.J. Barrett also slumping, Rose has become the Knicks’ top scorer against the Hawks. The problem is, Rose is a different kind of point guard than Payton, and while Rose is much better in a vacuum, when he’s running the offense, the ball is in his hands a lot more, and Randle doesn’t get as many chances to drive to the paint and muscle his way to layups — which in turn sets up his ability to kick out to Bullock or Barrett for corner threes, or his own mid-range game when defenders collapse into the paint.
Meanwhile, when Rose comes off the bench to replace Payton, stepping into an offense that’s already flowing through Randle, what he’s bringing is a change in energy and an additional threat to penetrate, pass, or simply pull up for three.
The Knicks have to be Randle’s team, and him shooting 27.4 percent isn’t going to cut it no matter what, which is why New York is down 3-1 and facing elimination. The best chance to get back to that in Game 5 might not be what any Knicks fan wants, but with Rose in the starting lineup, it’s easy for a team without much playoff experience to defer to the former MVP. They need to ride with the star who got MVP chants down the stretch at the Garden, and to do that, they just might need to start Payton.