The Knicks Might Make Another Line-up Change – but Who Gets Benched?

Mitchell Robinson

Getty Mitchell Robinson #23 of the New York Knicks looks on prior to the first half of their game against the Charlotte Hornets at Spectrum Center on November 12, 2021, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

After three consecutive losses and dropping eight of their last 12 games, the New York Knicks have slumped to 11-12 on the season, falling to below a .500 record after a 7-4 start. With this slump in mind, and the prospect of advancing beyond last season’s first-round playoff exit already starting to fade, Greg Joyce of the New York Post reported on December 6 that head coach Tom Thibodeau is considering a change to his starting line-up.

The Knicks have used only nine different starters all season, in all but one case changing out a starter only due to injury absence. The quintet of Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, Evan Fournier, Mitchell Robinson and Kemba Walker has started every game they have played together this season, as was also essentially the case all of last season, with Reggie Bullock and Elfrid Payton in place of Walker and Fournier.

Thibs Not 1 to Tinker Too Often

When it comes to sticking by his players and rotations, Thibodeau’s loyalty bordering on intransigence has long been noted throughout his previous stints with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Chicago Bulls. In an era of load management, line-up flexibility and greater understanding of the perils of excessive minutes than ever before, Thibodeau, resolutely old-school, sticks to his guns.

However, it is not without precedent that Thibodeau would make an adjustment to his starting line-up, and indeed to his rotation altogether. It was only last week that Walker – a headline offseason acquisition – was removed from not only the starting line-up but the entire rotation, replaced by Alec Burks for the last four games. And yet with three more losses coming in that time, it seems as though more is both needed and forthcoming.

Thibodeau did not say publicly whom he was thinking of replacing in the line-up, but the options are scarce. With Randle as the team’s leading scorer and lone All-Star, his removal would only further hamper a middle-of-the-pack offensive team (15th in offensive efficiency this season), and with Fournier’s high-volume, high-efficiency shooting being a key component of that offense, he is not easily replaced either.

In both the medium- and long-terms, until further notice, Barrett is considered to be the future of the franchise. This, then, leaves only Robinson. And Robinson has not impressed so far.

Once the Motor of the Defense, Robinson Now Under Threat

Averaging 6.9 points on the season – the lowest mark since his sophomore year – Robinson’s numbers and impact are down across the board. Injuries have been a factor, with Robinson in and out of the line-up with myriad minor lower-body ailments. Yet when he has taken the court, he has not been the impactful force he used to be, let alone shown improvement in his game.

Offensively, Robinson has always been limited to a point-blank finisher, and with only 3.7 field goal attempts per game – almost all of which come right at the rim – that has not changed. Robinson is shooting 75.7% on those attempts, about as efficient as an NBA player can ever be, yet they are few and far between, and all need setting up for him.

As a put-back specialist and alley-oop option, Robinson has always been efficient if limited, yet the hope was that he could add to this core base of skills and expand his game. However, despite offseason videos of him shooting jump shots, none have been seen in actual NBA minutes. Nor have there been notable improvements in his hands, rolls to the rim, hook shots or footwork.

Robinson has gotten bigger and stronger, especially in his lower body, as a countermeasure to how frequently he could be outmuscled in the same paint that he lives in on both ends. Yet this added bulk, combined with the injuries, seems to have slowed his feet and tempered his explosiveness on both ends. 

The alley-oops and the dunks, once so plentiful, are less and less frequent. The transition game (not helped by the team’s poor overall defense) has been sporadic, and the blocking of jump shots – once the hallmark of his game – has dwindled away too. Robinson still blocks 1.7 shots per game, but the team ranks 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency, and his decreased defensive range has been a noticeable part of that. 

Robinson still looks the part, but on a stagnated team, he has stagnated the most. Rather than improve, he has declined, and where once he was the hope, now he is part of the problem. The Knicks need a spark, and Robinson used to be it. Now, it might come from his benching.

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