The Knicks want RJ Barrett to blossom into a superstar, but they haven’t surrounded him with the talent required for him to thrive.
RJ Barrett’s efficient 26 point outburst was the silver lining to a dark Opening Night loss for the Knicks. Despite their young star’s outstanding performance, New York still wilted away in the second half against the Pacers en route to a 121-107 final score.
The good news for Knicks fans is that Barrett showed signs of being a quality No. 1 option on offense. Scoring 26 points against Indiana wasn’t a major accomplishment for the second-year pro. Doing so on just 15 shots was the real development for the former Duke star. Barrett going three for three from behind the arc was another encouraging sign for Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff.
The fact that the Knicks were -10 in Barrett’s 34 minutes of action despite his stellar offensive play should be ringing alarm bells in the Big Apple. Barrett failing to contribute to winning basketball even when enjoying such a high-level of offensive efficiency is a troubling sign for his team’s prospects this season.
Giving up 121 points to a good, but not great Pacers offense clearly indicates there are issues on the defensive end of the floor. In theory, Thibodeau should be able to work those out. The appeal of hiring him as a head coach is that he can forge below-average defensive talent into an above average-unit. His issues typically come when trying to produce anything more than a mediocre offense.
Are the Knicks destined to waste RJ Barrett’s potential?
Barrett bailed his coach out on that front Wednesday night. He won’t be able to do so over the long haul this season. The ugly truth in New York is that Thibodeau has already set up the franchise’s most promising young player to fail.
The lack of spacing present in the team’s starting five is going to gradually choke the life out of Barrett as the regular season drags along. Only Reggie Bullock, the weakest overall member of Thibodeau’s starting five deserves to be called an above-average shooter. The rest of the group comfortably profiles as well below-average in terms of floor spacing.
Elfrid Payton came back to the team on a relative bargain in free agency, but he’s a career 29.1% shooter from three. That’s not good enough for a point guard playing alongside Barrett. Payton might get him a few easy buckets in transition, but otherwise, he’s going to make it far too simple for opponents to shade their perimeter coverage towards Barrett on a regular basis.
Some teams might be able to overcome such shortcomings from the point guard position by deploying a stretch four. That’s not a description that accurately describes the Knicks’ starting power forward. Julius Randle is another sub-30% career shooter from behind the arc. The theory of Randle is that he can produce quality isolation scoring opportunities for a team that needs volume scoring. Unfortunately, Randle has finished the last two seasons with a field goal percentage comfortably below 50 percent.
Throw in Mitchell Robinson at center, who is a complete non-shooter, and it’s easy to see that the degree of difficulty on offense for Barrett this season is much too high for him to achieve anything resembling stardom.
So what can the Knicks do?
The sooner the Knicks come to grips with the reality that they aren’t a playoff team this season the better. Instead, their focus should be on developing their young talent. Establishing an environment where Barrett can take meaningful steps forward this year should be the organization’s top priority.
The challenge for New York is that they don’t have many quality players on the roster that can potentially fit well with Barrett. One obvious move Thibodeau should make immediately is to insert Obi Toppin into the starting lineup in place of Randle. He’s got plenty of weaknesses, but he does project to be a quality shooter from deep.
The team could also consider going with a starting lineup that doesn’t include a natural point guard. Barrett needs the ball in his hands to be successful. Pairing him with Alec Burks in the starting backcourt would put more playmaking responsibility onto Barrett, but Burks would at least give him more spacing to utilize on the perimeter. New York might miss Payton’s defense, but that’s not something that should be a big concern for Thibodeau and his staff in this developmental season.
But what will the Knicks do?
The unfortunate answer here is that Thibodeau will continue to squeeze every regular-season win he can out of this ragtag roster. That means the starting five will remain the same. It also means that Barrett’s Opening Night performance will be an isolated bright spot in a dark season for the Knicks.