Should Knicks bench Elfrid Payton heading into 2021 NBA Playoffs?

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Elfrid Payton reaction 4/3
Elfrid Payton reaction 4/3

The New York Knicks had a great regular season, surpassing all reasonable expectations and finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 41-31 record. Experiencing their first playoff appearance in eight years, there’s a buzz around the team as they face the Atlanta Hawks in the series opener at 7 p.m. on Sunday night.

The playoffs require quick thinking and a willingness to adjust from head coaches. Just last year, the Los Angeles Lakers and their head coach Frank Vogel benched their two centers Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee in the second round as well as the NBA Finals due to specific matchups despite both players contributing significantly in the regular season. The move paid off as Anthony Davis created chaos at center on both ends of the floor, as the Lakers won a title.

For the Knicks, starting point guard Elfrid Payton seems like an easy choice to be taken out of the club’s playoff lineup. Payton is the only player in the current rotation with a negative net rating. The team has been outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions with Payton on the floor, per NBA.com. Even more important, Payton’s pairing with leading scorers Julius Randle and RJ Barrett has been suboptimal (-1.9 points per 100 possessions in 1,297 minutes).

But Payton isn't looking at his personal stats, as reporters asked Thursday how he views his recent stretch with New York.

"I assess how I’m playing by how my team is doing. And we’ve been winning. So, we’re in the playoffs," he said.

Payton’s role on the team has changed drastically over the course of this season. He’s played over 20 minutes just three times in the last 20 games. Though the Knicks were 16-4 over that stretch of time, the playoffs are a different animal. The Hawks will lay off Payton (career-28.9 percent three-point shooter) to muck up the paint and disrupt Randle and Barrett.

Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau made it seem as if Payton is still likely to start at point guard to open the series in his media availability on Wednesday.

Other Options at Point Guard

The Knicks have multiple candidates that can start and fill Payton’s minutes on the roster.

Derrick Rose seems to be the easy option to consider as a starter. The veteran point guard and former MVP has been special. Rose’s ability to create his own shot either in isolation or in the pick and roll has been vital to New York’s second half of the season success. Over the past month, Rose has played like a borderline All-Star off the bench. He has 50-40-90 shooting splits and has averaged over 18 points.

Immanuel Quickley is another option. Likely a candidate for the NBA’s All-Rookie team, Quickley has been effective. His ability to shoot from deep is a perfect fit alongside Randle and keeps defenses honest. It would feel too soon to start a rookie point guard in the playoffs and Quickley has seemed to be a better fit off the bench. Actually, Rose and Quickley’s chemistry together with the Knicks’ bench unit has been a factor in the lack of a rotation shake up.

Alec Burks played point guard in small doses over his 10-year career. Burks has been solid as a pseudo-point guard this season, closing out a few games in lineups with Randle, Barrett, Nerlens Noel and Reggie Bullock. Like Quickley and Rose, Burks has looked good with the bench unit as well. Shooting 41.5 percent from deep, he provides a nice mix of size, perimeter shooting and offense in the backcourt.

A final option for the Knicks is Frank Ntilikina. In and out of the Knicks’ rotation, Ntilikina hasn’t been able to cement a spot for himself due to the immense depth of the Knicks. Though you’re getting less playmaking skills with Ntilikina, you’re getting a better shooter than Payton and a lights out defensive weapon to guard Atlanta Hawks star point guard Trae Young.

Though Ntilikina’s overall shooting from deep has been inconsistent, he’s been solid from the corners. Quietly, Ntilikina has shot 43.3 percent on corner threes over the course of his career. Shooting a career-high 47.9 percent from behind the arc on a small sample size of 48 attempts this season, Ntilikina is shooting 70.6 percent on corner threes. Thibodeau also mentioned that Ntilikina could see playing time matched up against Young.

Final Thoughts

There’s too much evidence against Payton starting at point guard. Those small moments that Payton is on the floor could cost the Knicks dearly. In a series that is expected to be tight and competitive, every decision that’s made will be crucial in gaining the upper hand and advancing past the first round.

The first big decision for Thibodeau starts with Payton.