Another Kemba Walker Knicks decision looms for Tom Thibodeau

The Knicks are on a roll, their starting lineup is on a roll and point guard Kemba Walker is on the verge of returning for Monday’s MLK Day matinee against Charlotte. 

Decisions, decisions, decisions. 

Walker, who is listed as questionable, has missed the last eight games with knee soreness after Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau may have played him too many minutes in a back-to-back. And now the Knicks coach’s late-November starting-lineup brainstorm is finally working. 

The 2020-21 NBA Coach of the Year’s instincts seven weeks ago prompted him to employ Alec Burks as the starting point guard with Evan Fournier and RJ Barrett as wings with power forward Julius Randle and center Mitchell Robinson. It didn’t work then, but it sure is working now. 

For the past two games, each of the five starters has landed in double figures. The lineup has been intact four of the last five games — all victories. The Knicks’ only loss in the last five contests came when Fournier was absent with a bruised thigh and Immanuel Quickley moved in at starting point guard, with Burks switching to shooting guard. 

Tom Thibodeau (left) faces another Kemba Walker (right) decision when he returns to the lineup.
AP, Getty

The Knicks (22-21) are above .500 again after winning five of their last six. Thibodeau is known to stay with the hot hand, but he’s also cognizant of the firestorm he created when Walker got banished from the rotation. 

When asked after Saturday’s rout of the Hawks what he plans with Walker, Thibodeau demurred. 

“You make your decisions based on the people you have available, but we’ll see when we get guys back,’’ Thibodeau said. “We’re always gonna do what’s best for the team, period. Whatever gives us the best chance to win, that’s what we have to do, so everyone has got to sacrifice. I want us to be at full strength. I think that gives us our best chance. So hopefully, we can get Kemba back soon and we’ll get Derrick [Rose] back and be ready to roll.’’ 

By keeping Burks as the starting point guard, it could ease the transition of Cam Reddish into a playing rotation. If Burks is moved back to wing, the glut might be too much for Reddish to penetrate. 

While management is invested in Walker after signing him to a two-year, $18 million deal as a free-agent acquisition, Knicks president Leon Rose also has skin in the game with Reddish after Thursday’s trade. 

Before Saturday’s game, Thibodeau was asked about Reddish’s role and he offered up a remark that could also apply to Walker. 

“You’re working on the development of your team and your players and you have a finite amount of minutes available in each game — 240 minutes,’’ Thibodeau said. “So you have to play whomever gives you the best chance to win. And nobody’s development is more important than someone else’s development. The team comes first. You play who gives you the best chance to win. And then everyone has to be ready if you’re not in the rotation.’’ 

It was in Atlanta on Nov. 28 when Walker sat out on a load-management day to avoid a back-to-back and Thibodeau elevated Burks to starting point guard. 

Alec Burks drives past Trae Young during the Knicks' 117-108 won over the Hawks.
Alec Burks drives past Trae Young during the Knicks’ 117-108 won over the Hawks.

The Knicks routed the Hawks, prompting Thibodeau to exile Walker. However, the Burks-Fournier-Barrett-Randle- Robinson quintet fumbled at first, losing three straight. Thibodeau made another change, swapping Robinson for Noel. 

Now all this time later, history could repeat itself off a big win in Atlanta. 

The season continues to be a train wreck for Noel, who will miss a second straight game with a sore knee after he felt it funny during Saturday’s warm-ups. He’s played just 18 games this season. 

Ex-Knick Kevin Knox was in a Hawks gold jersey Saturday and got gleefully swarmed by his former Knicks teammates after the contest, though he never got in the game. 

“I hope Kev gets over there and gets his opportunity to show what he can do,’’ Barrett said. “We all love Kev as you can see, just big support for him throughout the rest of his career.’’

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