Knick fans have been pleased with the play of the team and the coaching of Tom Thibodeau(Thibs), but there are a few lineup decisions the fan base are split on. The most notable is Thibs’ decision to keep Elfrid Payton(Elf) as the starting point guard. I am in the camp of fans that don’t care much for him. While many fans agree with me, he has put up some good games statistically as of late.
Elf you know the Rockets 🚀 didn’t play defense tonight. Also, you got to look to make your other teammates not named Julius better if you want a contract extension.
— Ken T (@KenTavarez) February 14, 2021
But whether you think it’s fool’s gold or not, you have to ask yourself, why has Thibs rode with him? For someone that is obsessed with the details and is coaching to win, there must be a good reason.
The appeal of Payton
The obvious one is that he has the most upside of all the point guards. Elf has great size and athletic ability for the position. His defense is solid and he can wear down smaller point guards. He is the best point guard at getting to the rim and finishing. He also has the best handle, rarely does anyone steal the ball from him. This isn’t my opinion, it’s the assessment of the experts.
If you go back and look at his pre-draft player profile you will see why he has was a lottery pick(10th overall). Back in 2014, when he was coming out of college, NBADraft.net rated Payton a 9 out 10 in the following categories: Size, Quickness, and Ball Handling. His lowest rating was a 6 in two categories; Strength and Jump Shot. In 7 seasons Elf has turned himself into one of the stronger point guards, but his jump shot still hasn’t improved.
The issues with Elf
The problem with the jump shot is that it neutralizes his strengths. He is not a bad outside shooter, he is a horrible one. This season Elf is shooting 25.0% on 3-pointers and 28.6% for his career. The league average on 3-pointers is 36.8%. When it comes to 2-pointers, he isn’t much better, shooting 47.7%, while the league average is 52.5%. This is more concerning when you look at his shot profile. He lacks a mid-range game, only shoots 12% of his shots from 10-16 feet. Most of Elf’s shots (68%) are within 10 feet of the basket. A player that shoots most of his shots that close to the rim needs to make more than 50% of them.
Teams don’t just leave Elf open, they dare him to shoot. This has hurt the Knicks in the half court since it’s easier for opponents to clog up the paint when they know he can’t and won’t shoot from beyond 10 feet. R.J. Barrett is the player has been negatively impacted the most by playing with Elf since he also is not a great outside shooter, 30.4% on 3-pointers. Payton and Barrett together are by far the worst shooting backcourt in the NBA.
Why Thibs likes him
But regardless, Thibs has found a way to make the team competitive. If there is one coach that knows the point guard position it’s Thibs. He played it in college and has been able to win with some journeyman point guards. In Chicago Thibs famously kept the team afloat relying on guys like John Lucas III. He even won some playoff games with former Knick Nate Robinson running the offense. He also knows the benefit of having a physically dominating player at the position. He was Derrick Rose’s coach during his MVP season with the Bulls. So you can see why he is intrigued by Elf.
"When he's pushing the ball and he's getting into the paint, it creates havoc"
Tom Thibodeau praises Elfrid Payton's game today pic.twitter.com/hniKhzRR8g
— Knicks Videos (@sny_knicks) February 6, 2021
So while today it looks like Elf is here to say, I’m not so sure. Coach Thibodeau deserves credit for finding creative ways to produce offense in the half court when Elf is on the floor. I have noticed the Knicks using Elf more as a cutter when he is off-ball. They are making defenses pay when they cheat off of Elf in order to provide more help on the other Knick players. But it’s only a matter of time before the opponents adjust.
My problem with Elf
However, the biggest concern, more than his shooting, is his decision making. While Elf is lethal in the open court or when the defense is out of position and driving lanes open up. He is not great at running a half court offense. Dallas Amico of the Strickland and a guest on the Knick of Time Show said recently that Elf is just slow at reading defenses. When the defense slips up in the half court it takes Elf a split second more than the other ball handlers to notice and react. Many times the opportunity is lost since NBA defenses recover quickly.
Speaking of Quickley, the offense looks appreciably better when he is running it. While his shooting gravity helps create offensive spacing, his 3-point shooting has only been slightly better than the league average at 37.9%. What makes the offense look better is his decision making. According to Cleaning the Glass.com, the Knicks are +14.0 and in the 97th percentile in points per 100 possessions at 117 when IQ, a rookie, is running the point with the Knicks 3 best players; Randle, Barrett, and Robinson on the floor. But when Elf is running the point with same 3 players, they are -2.3 and are in the 38th percentile with 104 points per 100 possessions.
So to answer the question, is Elf here to stay? I don’t think so, when the pressure starts to mount and a playoff berth is at stake, I see Thibodeau relying on Rose and IQ. Talent is important, but results are what matters.