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Kemba Walker vs. Derrick Rose: who should get the Knicks’ minutes at point guard?

Knicks, Kemba Walker, Derrick Rose

The New York Knicks, after having roughly a 20-year streak of underachievement, lack of development, and overall futility at the point guard spot, are suddenly flush with talent at that spot. Apologies to fans of Raymond Felton, or to those magical few weeks of Linsanity, but the Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose tandem at point guard this year is easily the most formidable the team has been at that spot since Stephon Marbury was wearing orange and blue in his ill-fated stint in New York.

The upgrade from last season with Elfrid Payton soaking up the starting minutes to Walker and Rose this year for the Knicks is the rough equivalent of going from a rusted out 1982 Datsun with 200,000 miles on it to a certified pre-owned Cadillac.

So, with both Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose in tow, plus second-year guard Immanuel Quickley — who played many of his minutes as a 2 guard last year and figures to this year as well, but spent all of summer league taking point guard reps — and rookie Miles “Deuce” McBride, how should the Knicks distribute their minutes at point guard this year?

Rose basically put the baby to bed the other day about who will start for the Knicks:

“[Walker]’s starting. I’m doing whatever it takes to change the game, I’m not worried about minutes.”

But as it was learned last year, who starts for Tom Thibodeau isn’t nearly as important as who finishes. Payton started all 63 regular season games that he appeared in last year for the Knicks, for example, but by the end of the year was only appearing briefly to start the first and third quarters, with Rose taking the reins down the stretch of halves to close things out for New York.

The talent level couldn’t be more different this year, however: Kemba Walker was a legitimate max player and All-Star just a couple seasons ago in Boston, and if his knees are healthy this season, he presents an enormous upgrade at the starting spot over Payton.

That makes the important question this: How do the Knicks balance the minutes of their unexpected former All-Star addition, their stalwart favorite of Thibs that they just paid in excess of $14 million per season, and their promising young sophomore that played all of his minutes at point guard in summer league?

On an ideal night for the Knicks, it has to be figured that Thibodeau will want to get Walker at least 30 minutes. Considering there’s only 48 minutes total in a game, that only leaves 18 pure “point guard” minutes to spare. Of course, Walker could potentially share the court with one of Derrick Rose or Immanuel Quickley (or even McBride) as the shooting guard, so it’s not to say that there’s only 18 minutes to go around between that group. But with Evan Fournier, Alec Burks, and RJ Barrett all candidates to receive 25-plus minutes as well, those shooting guard minutes will be tight as well (but that’s for another article).

But before diving into the backup minutes, let’s first check out the projected improvement the Knicks should get from adding Kemba Walker instead of Payton:

Taking a look at some of the head to head numbers between Walker and Payton just widens the chasm between the two in terms of what Walker should bring to the floor for the Knicks this year. Per Cleaning the Glass, even in a down year for Walker last season while he recovered from offseason knee therapy, he finished in the 64th percentile among all guards in effective field goal percentage (51.9%), in the 95th percentile in finishing at the rim (69%) and in the 54th percentile shooting from three (37%). On the extreme flip side of the equation, Payton finished in the 14th percentile in eFG% (45.6%), 36th percentile at the rim (55%), and second percentile from three (29%) — quite literally one of the worst offensive players in the league.

Walker’s chemistry with his new — but old — backcourt partner should translate to the Knicks as well. Evan Fournier, the Knicks’ marquee money free agent this offseason, formed a formidable duo with Walker last year after being traded to Boston from Orlando midseason. Of all Celtics two-man units that played at least 50 minutes together last year, Walker and Fournier finished sixth on the team with a +13.6 rating, per NBA Stats. That number was also tops among two-man combos of Celtics starters.

All of that is to say, with Fournier in place as the new starting shooting guard, Walker should probably be out there with him as much as possible and soak up at least 30 minutes a night for the Knicks. Unfortunately for Immanuel Quickley and any of his or the organization’s plans to train him up as a point guard, there’s likely not going to be a ton of room for him as a 1.

In fact, Derrick Rose might even need to spend some time with Walker as the 2 guard if he’s going to play over 20 minutes per night. Looking at those two-man Celtics units again, Walker actually posted a +21.4 net rating with backup point guard Jeff Teague last year, good for second among players who played 50-plus minutes together last year for the Celts. One would hope that that could translate to the Knicks with Walker and Rose playing together.

No matter how the equation works out, it seems like the reality here is that Quickley is going to need to really scrap for minutes when the Knicks are fully healthy, despite his borderline elite production and perimeter shooting last year, as well as what appears to be a burgeoning playmaking skillset after summer league.

Quickley had plenty of success at the shooting guard last year, though, which is where he could likely find some playing time this season in a competition with Fournier and Alec Burks. But that’s a breakdown for next time. For now, here’s the likely allocation of minutes for the Knicks at point guard this season:

Kemba Walker (starter): 30 minutes

Derrick Rose: 18 minutes