Trey Burke may soon find his way to the New York Knicks, but fitting him into the rotation won’t be as easy as it seems. To get the most out of his new guard, Jeff Hornacek would be wise to think outside the box.
With the news that Trey Burke could soon be on his way to joining the New York Knicks and with Tim Hardaway Jr. still out with a stress injury in his left leg, Jeff Hornacek will be tempted to shake up his guard rotation as the season crosses the halfway mark. This is especially true with Burke bringing two things to the table that the Knicks have struggled with all year: three-point shooting and the ability to penetrate the lane.
Right now, the minutes-distribution for New York’s guards is spread fairly evenly. Since Hardaway went out, Courtney Lee has played 32 minutes per game, Jarrett Jack, 26, Frank Ntilikina, 24, and Ron Baker, 16, with Damyean Dotson getting occasional spot minutes outside of garbage time.
Assuming Hornacek doesn’t want to shake things up too much—and judging by what he’s done thus far, he won’t—Jack will retain his starting role and Ntilikina’s minutes won’t decrease.
Where the minutes will come from
Ntilikina’s development is one thing New York fans pining for Burke shouldn’t take lightly. Not only is Frank’s progress a major prerogative for the organization, but the team also excels when he’s out there. Over the last month, Ntilikina has the best individual net rating on the team among regulars according to NBA.com. When he sits, however, the Knicks have been outscored by 7.3 points per 100 possessions. The discrepancy is easily the largest on the team over that span.
If Ntilikina’s minutes figure to remain unchanged, that means Burke would have to cut into Jack’s court time, right? Not necessarily.
The appeal of the former Michigan Wolverine is what he can do on the offensive end. Yet for all of Jack’s imperfections—he doesn’t provide anywhere near the speed or shooting that Burke could—he’s done a decent job of directing the offense. For the year, Jack’s offensive rating of 106.8 is second on the team to Hardaway Jr. It’s defense where Jack struggles, as his 110.2 rating on that end is virtually tied with Kanter for the worst among New York’s regulars.
This raises the separate issue of whether New York should separate the defensively challenged Jack from the equally generous Enes Kanter and move one out of the starting lineup, as was recently pondered by Bryan Gibberman at The Knicks Wall. It’s an interesting idea, but as noted above, Hornacek seems loath to make these type of changes unless absolutely forced to do so.
The problem here is that Burke has never been known as an effective defender. The Washington Wizards gave up over 108 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court last season, which was worst among the nine Wizards who played over 700 minutes. Although the two steals per game he averaged in Westchester look nice, starting with his rookie year in Utah, teams that Burke has been on have given up 2.5, 4.8, 3.9, and 3.3 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor according to CleaningTheGlass.com.
Most troubling are those first three numbers, all of which came during Burke’s time with Jazz squads known for their stinginess (they ranked 12th, eighth, and third in defensive efficiency during Burke’s three seasons there).
A creative alternative
Given the history, the Knicks would be better served rolling out an actual red carpet down their opponent’s lane than playing Jack and Burke (and likely Kanter) together.
If Burke isn’t going to take many of Jack’s minutes, play with Jack, or take Ntilikina’s minutes, that only leaves one option: playing alongside the Frenchman, with the two sharing ball-handling duties, similar to what the Knicks have done when Ron Baker and Frank are on the court together.
Twitter user @TravisRembert suggested the possibility of Burke taking more of an off-ball role during Ntilikina’s minutes. His thinking was that Frank could use his length to defend the bigger guard, and leave Burke to handle the opposing team’s point guard.
Despite the fact that Trey has never been known for being a particularly dangerous off-ball threat, there’s some precedent for this working. Last year in Washington, when Burke played shooting guard alongside John Wall—another long defender who can tangle with bigger guards—those lineups outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions over about 100 minutes of court time according to CleaningTheGlass.com.
Their defensive rating during those stints was bad—110.6—but their offensive rating was a scorching 117.1, a number no doubt aided by having two ultra-fast guards that got out in transition almost 20 percent of the time and took over a third of all their shots at the rim.
Frank is a lovely young player, but he’s not John Wall on offense. Still, it’s easy to see small lineups featuring Ntilikina, Burke, Kristaps Porzingis at center and Michael Beasley at power forward lighting up opponents and playing just enough defense to make the endeavor worthwhile. This might mean less time for Baker, but hey, a dreamy floppy mop can only get you so far in life.
When Timmy returns, he could be the perfect fifth man for this lineup. Not only does he have experience playing with Burke at Michigan, but over the admittedly tiny sample size of 167 possessions, lineups featuring Hardaway Jr., Porzingis, and Ntilikina are annihilating opponents with a +31.5 net rating this season.
Yet another thing for Knicks fans to look forward to, hopefully in short order.
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