new york knicks
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Knicks made significant upgrades to the starting lineup and it’s already paying off

The New York Knicks are in the process of a slight identity change. Even though they still look to hang their hat on defense and toughness, they are much improved offensively in 2021-22. And by much better offensively, we mean by a mile.

The two main upgrades the Knicks made to the roster were in the starting lineup. The bench unit is exactly the same as last year (aside from Taj Gibson getting minutes while Nerlens Noel nurses an injury).

As for the starting lineup, insert Kemba Walker for Elfrid Payton and Evan Fournier for Reggie Bullock. Both changes are significant upgrades to the offense. They could be slight downgrades defensively, but Bullock is only an above-average wing defender while Payton’s length tends to make up for his poor defense.

For what it’s worth, neither Bullock nor Payton is flourishing in their new homes. Bullock is averaging 6.5 points per game and he’s only 9-for-29 from deep. Payton is the third point guard on the depth chart in Phoenix and only playing because of an injury to Cam Payne.

Giving up a little defense for a whole lot of offense seems like a worthwhile trade, especially in the modern NBA. Even Tom Thibodeau has to appreciate the shift.

The Knicks have played six games, so it is far too early in the season to fall in love with averages or advanced metrics. However, there are a few stats that illustrate the dramatic changes that Fournier and Walker bring to the starting lineup.

Zach Lowe of ESPN pointed this out last week, but Fournier and Walker are hitting the pull-up three at a rate that Bullock and Payton couldn’t. The Bullock-Payton pairing hit nine last season while their replacements are already up to 23-for-50 through seven games.

That added handling and shotmaking in the starting lineup opens up the floor in drastic ways. It’s no secret why RJ Barrett is finishing better at the rim this year. Sure, Barrett’s individual development and improvement, but it helps to have three-point threats who are dangerous on or off the ball.

The transition has not been nearly as seamless for Julius Randle as it has been for Barrett. Although Randle is putting up monster per game numbers (21.0 ppg, 10.9 rbg, 6.3 apg), it’s safe to say he isn’t clicking on all cylinders yet.

Whether it’s fatigue, teams game-planning for him, or adjusting to his new teammates, something is off with Randle. He hasn’t been bad, but he could be better.

His burgeoning chemistry with Fournier is one early sign that he will be fine. Randle has already assisted Fournier on 17 three-pointers, the most in the NBA by a wide margin.

The Frenchman is showing that he can do all the things that Bullock did for the Knicks and then some. Bryan Kalbrosky of Hoops Hype dove into the numbers for this Fournier-Randle duo.

For all the handwringing done in the offseason about losing Bullock and Payton, the Knicks made the right moves. They are 5-2 with an offense that looks more equipped for a playoff series.

NY/NJ hoops reporter (NBA/NCAA) & sports betting writer for XL Media. Never had the makings of a varsity athlete.