Why the Knicks bench RJ Barrett late in games

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Can RJ Barrett and Josh Hart co-exist on the Knicks
Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (6) shoots over New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett (9) as Jalen Brunson (11) watches during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

RJ Barrett sat on the bench for the final 12 minutes of the Knicks’ 129-123 loss to the Lakers on Tuesday night. The team’s $100 million dollar man, their 22-year-old former third overall pick, watched his team miss opportunities to put away the game and then left without talking to reporters. 

Barrett’s frustration with being on the bench late in games is understandable, but the bigger problem for both the Knicks and the former Duke Blue Devil is that the decision made sense.



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Let’s start by just looking at Tuesday’s game.

Barrett was not having a good night. He had 13 points on 5-of-13 shooting and 0-of-3 from beyond the arc. He had contributed just three rebounds and two assists and is the team’s worst defender by defensive RAPTOR metrics

It made sense for Immanuel Quickley to close over him. 

Quickley had 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting with eight assists, three rebounds, and a steal on Tuesday. He was one of the few Knicks with a positive plus/minus for the game, and the team’s bench had been out-performing the starters for much of the game. 

He has also been a fixture in late-game lineups for Tom Thibodeau in recent games. 

In last week’s win against the Celtics, Quickley entered the game with 2:06 to go in the third quarter and was on the court until Thibodeau put Barrett in the game with 1:57 remaining in the fourth. In the upset victory over the Cavs the game before, Quickley entered the game with 4:28 left in the third quarter and wasn’t taken out until 1:31 left in the fourth. However, Thibodeau put him back in with 15 seconds left to help the Knicks seal the win. 

In both games, RJ Barrett sat for a large chunk of the fourth quarter. There are a few key reasons for this. 

For one, IQ is a far superior defender. He ranks 4th on the Knicks in defensive RAPTOR rating and is their 2nd-best defender based on NBA.com’s Defensive Rating. His 24.3% steal rate is 3rd-best on the team, and he has the best defensive win share of any Knick to see the court this year.

He’s the exact type of player you want on the court at the end of close games. 

He also provides a different offensive skill set than the Knicks’ two main offensive threats, Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson. Both Brunson and Randle like to create off of the dribble and look to get to the basket. That’s also how Barrett is most effective on offense, despite his attempts to make himself a more reliable shooter this offseason.

Having a shooter like Quickley, whose 37.8% three-point field goal percentage over the last month is 3rd-best on the team, makes sense around Randle and Brunson. Quickley also gets 38.8% of his points from three-point shots, while Barrett only gets 27.5%, and his true shooting percentage of 56.1% is also better than Barrett’s 53.8%, which just means that he’s a more reliable off-ball shooter despite some hot stretches from Barrett. 

Knicks Immanuel Quickley has been playing over RJ Barrett
New York Knicks’ Immanuel Quickley (5) drives past Los Angeles Lakers’ Dennis Schroder (17), of Germany, during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

In addition to being a better overall shooter, IQ is also better at creating his own shots since 53.3% of his points are unassisted, while only 43.8% of Barrett’s points are unassisted. In late-game scenarios, being able to make something happen off of the dribble, in the event that Randle or Brunson aren’t able to get free, makes IQ a potentially more dangerous scoring threat. 

Lastly, Quickley is the better free-throw shooter, knocking down 84.1% of his attempts from the charity stripe, compared to just 75.7% from Barrett. 

For all those reasons, the decision to play IQ over Barrett at the end of games makes sense. Now, one could argue that Thibodeau needs to stagger his rotations better and break up the minutes for his players at the end of games. There’s no reason that both IQ and Isaiah Hartenstein needed to play 20+ straight minutes to close out the Lakers game; however, there are valid reasons to keep Barrett off the court late in close games. 

And that’s a major problem for the Knicks. 

Next year, the team will have $75.89 million tied up in contracts for just Randle, Brunson, and Barrett. In 2024-25, that number rises to $78.32 million, and in 2025-26 it will be $82.13 million. That’s 73.4% of the team’s salary cap tied up in three players that aren’t well-suited to close games together.

That’s an issue. 

Now, RJ Barrett is only 22 years old so there is still potential growth in his game. However, the two areas that he needs to show improvement in order to be a better fit to play alongside Brunson and Randle are three-point shooting and defense. So far this season, he’s shooting 34% from three, which is in line with last year’s mark, and his defense has continued to be well below average. 

If you look at his career defensive trajectory on DARKO, which is “a machine learning-driven basketball player box-score score projection system,” Barrett appears to offer nothing on the defensive end. DARKO is a basketball projection system similar to baseball’s use of Steamer and ZiPS. It is a “forward-looking projection” that updates daily, “responding to new information as it comes and updating its understanding of player talent accordingly.”

Barrett’s Defensive Daily Plus Minus (D-DPM) remains well below league average and has actually gotten worse over the last 1oo games. 

Knicks RJ Barrett's DARKO defensive metrics

His career three-point field goal trajectory also seems to have plateaued over the last 100 games. 

Knicks RJ Barrett career three point trajectory

Those are not optimistic signs for his potential growth in the areas that make him a good fit with the Knicks’ other two big-money players. If you want to see how the Barrett, Brunson, and Randle trio compares together, we can use DARKO to see that all three of them have a below-average Defensive Daily Plus Minus (D-DPM).

That means that playing these three together at the end of games means the Knicks will have three players on the court that offenses can potentially attack with their scorers. 

Additionally, all of them are also high-usage players, posting usage rates around 25% or higher, which means they all like to work with the basketball in their hands often. This creates a scenario where they could compete with one another for touches, which can impact the ability of any of them to get into an offensive rhythm since none are truly comfortable playing off the ball. 

While the Knicks have stated that they want to build a contender around this core trio, it’s fair to wonder if that’s actually plausible. If you don’t feel comfortable with your three highest-paid players sharing the floor in the most crucial moments of a game, that’s a good sign that those players aren’t going to be part of a championship team together. 

Whether the Knicks will do anything about it remains to be seen. 

For more Knicks coverage, like this RJ Barrett article, visit amNY Sports