The New York Knicks’ Unbelievable Plus-Minus Discrepancy Is a Testament to Their Depth but an Embarrassing Knock on Their Core

Slowly but surely, the New York Knicks are crawling back into the fold.

Wednesday’s 94-85 victory over the Detroit Pistons was New York’s third straight win, moving it back to the cusp of a top-eight seed in the Eastern Conference. Though the Knicks shouldn’t be celebrating too much just yet, as the game featured a disturbing stat that highlights the failures of their starting lineup.

The New Yorks Knicks starting five was (and has been) a mess

Barring a couple of minor adjustments, head coach Tom Thibodeau has used a consistent starting five this season. On Wednesday, Thibs deployed Kemba Walker, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Julius Randle, and Mitchell Robinson against the league-worst Detroit Pistons. The results, in a word, were frightening.

Early on, the Knicks trailed by six before Thibodeau brought in his bench. New York took a 48-41 lead into halftime before getting outscored 30-16 in the third quarter. The worst offenders in the third were Randle and Barrett, who in just under nine minutes each went scoreless from the field and -21 in the plus-minus department. The other three starters weren’t much better, combining for two points and a -39 rating.

By the final whistle, Barrett had 15 points but a team-worst -29. Randle shot 2-of-11 for the game and was a -27. In addition, Robinson finished at -22, Walker at -21, and Grimes at -17.

While Wednesday was extreme, lackluster performances from starters aren’t new for New York. Its most popular lineup — which features four of Wednesday’s starters and Evan Fournier instead of Grimes — is getting outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. Furthermore, all of New York’s negative per-100 lineups feature Randle and Fournier, with all but one also featuring Barrett.

New York’s bench saved (and has continuously saved) the day

If the Knicks’ starters have continuously failed to meet expectations, how is the team still around .500? Simply put, their bench has delivered time after time.

Wednesday would have ended in an embarrassing defeat to a five-win Pistons team if not for the contributions of Alec Burks, Miles McBride, Immanuel Quickley, Obi Toppin, and Taj Gibson. All five players finished the game with plus-minuses of +27 or better, with the defensive standout McBride registering a +39 in under 25 minutes.

Thibs was so impressed by his bench, he used them exclusively for all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. And they didn’t let the veteran coach down, outscoring the Pistons 30-14. Burks led the way, scoring 19 of his 34 points in the final frame. All in all, New York’s bench outscored Detroit’s bench 65-7 in the contest.

“Just digging down and making play after play,” Thibodeau told ESPN after the game. “That’s what I love about those veterans. Alec and Taj are true pros.”

New York’s thriving bench is nothing new, either. The four vets, along with the injured Derrick Rose in place of McBride, have outscored opponents by an average of 28.4 points per 100 possessions. In addition, five of its six most successful lineups have featured Burks, four have had Quickley, and four have had Toppin.

Should Tom Thibodeau change the Knicks’ starting lineup?

Thibodeau has been pretty consistent with divvying out playing time over the course of New York’s first 35 games. Nine players are averaging 22 or more minutes a night with only Randle and Barrett getting 30 or more. But those two, along with Walker and Fournier, have started every game they’ve played in. Should that continue?

The answer is more difficult than it seems. On the surface, Thibs could simply move his current starting five to the bench and start his role players instead. New York would certainly be getting a defensive upgrade by doing so. But there just isn’t enough offensive punch to consistently hang with other teams’ top units.

Realistically, Randle and the bulk of New York’s regular starters won’t be replaced by the likes of Quickley and McBride anytime soon. But their style of play needs to change before Thibs does consider the unthinkable.

New York’s starting group has exuded little effort on the defensive end more often than not. And it’s forcing Randle and Barrett to play hero ball in order to keep the Knicks in games. Perhaps the answer is a much shorter leash when things go bad on defense, even if it means sacrificing some offense in the process.

It’s always good to have depth. But when the depth is significantly outplaying the core of your playoff-hopeful team, trouble is brewing.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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