Can Knicks make NBA playoffs with Elfrid Payton as starting point guard?

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

The Knicks have multiple options at the point guard position this season. There’s rookie acquisition Immanuel Quickley, veteran trade acquisition Derrick Rose and former lottery pick Frank Ntilikina. Despite all of these available names to choose from, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau has stuck with point guard Elfrid Payton throughout the season.

The much maligned point guard has had a mostly inconsistent season with the Knicks. So far this season, Payton has played in 40 games, averaging 12 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Though Payton is certainly productive as a point guard, his lack of efficiency is troubling. Payton has just shot 24.7 percent from three this season.

Payton’s lack of perimeter shooting ability has cramped the Knicks’ offense. New York’s primary scorers Julius Randle and RJ Barrett have had a hard time creating offense on drives and isolations with Payton on the floor. There’s little room to operate if Payton’s man can slough off him and crowd the paint.

Payton’s contemporaries at the point guard spot, Rose and Quickley, are much more dangerous on the perimeter. Quickley’s shooting 36.8 percent from three this season. Though Rose hasn’t shot the ball from deep with consistency throughout his career, he’s shooting 37 percent with the Knicks this season.

The Knicks are losing by 0.9 points per 100 possessions in the 918 minutes when Payton has shared the floor with both Randle and Barrett according to the NBA’s Stat Page. The trio with Quickley in Payton’s place is outscoring opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions in 269 minutes. With Rose in that spot, they are plus-15.9 points per 100 possessions.

Last season, Payton had a decent on/off net rating, but that was for a Knicks team that finished 21-45. Payton stood out compared to Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. But that spoke more to the lack of talent and depth the group had last year compared to this season.

Defense has also been a problem for Payton this year. He’s prone to falling asleep on defense when he’s off the ball. Though defense is supposed to be Payton’s strength, there’s growing evidence on the court that he’s not the difference-maker on that end that excuses his weaknesses on offense. At this point, it would make more sense to give Payton’s starter spot to either Rose or Quickley, and then add Ntilikina to the rotation as a two-guard.

Already, Payton has seen a decrease in his minutes. He played just 14 minutes on Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and saw 25 minutes in Saturday’s game. He hasn’t played over 30 minutes in a game since March 4 when he recorded 35 minutes in a win against Detroit. Some of that is due to him missing time with a hamstring injury. Oftentimes, Payton finds himself on the bench at the end of games due to his limited outside touch.

While it would make sense to remove Payton from the rotation altogether, it’s hard to envision Thibodeau taking Payton from starter to completely out of the mix. Thibodeau has stuck with many of the similar lineups and hasn’t really experimented at all this season. He’s a coach that practices what he preaches. His philosophy centers around “building habits” and that bleeds into his rotations and decision-making.

Randle has seen limited minutes at center despite numerous injuries to the Knicks’ rotation of centers. Randle and rookie Obi Toppin rarely play together. Thibodeau has also preferred to have Quickley and Rose play together off the bench in a two-point guard set up. That has worked as the pairing has outscored opponents by 12.9 points per 100 possessions in 188 minutes.

The Knicks are currently seventh in the East with a 25-25 record. After their 125-81 win Saturday against Detroit, the Knicks will have an interesting battle the rest of the way to make the playoffs in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race. Just three and a half games separate the fourth-place Charlotte Hornets (25-23) from the ninth-place Indiana Pacers (22-26).

As the Knicks advance deeper into the season and play more meaningful games, it will be a difficult task to fit Payton into the rotation. Teams will dare him to shoot on a regular basis. Can the Knicks create counters or other ways for Payton to be useful? It only gets harder from this point as the playoffs and potentially play-in games come soon.

The Knicks don’t have a foolproof solution at point guard. They have yet to find that point guard of the future, so it will be important for the team to make the proper adjustments and not wait until it’s too late to recover as they continue to vie for a playoff spot.