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Kemba Walker replaced by Alec Burks in Knicks' starting unit

New York Knicks guard Kemba Walker on the

New York Knicks guard Kemba Walker on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Phoenix Suns at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 26, 2021. Credit: Noah K. Murray

Kemba Walker’s heartwarming homecoming lasted all of 20 games.

Walker, the Bronx-born point guard who signed a two-year contract with the Knicks in the offseason, has been demoted from starter to out of the rotation, coach Tom Thibodeau said Monday after practice.

Walker will be replaced by Alec Burks, who scored 23 points in a win over Atlanta on Saturday in his first start this season. Walker, a four-time All-Star, had started all of the 18 games he played for the Knicks.

For now, Walker, 31, will not come off the bench. Thibodeau wants to keep his second unit intact.

"It’s a tough decision to make, but you have to do what’s best for the team," he said. "I view Kemba as a starter, and so it would be tough to play three small guards together . . . I’ve got great respect for who Kemba is as a person and all that he’s accomplished in the league. But I have to do what’s best for the team."

Walker has been a starter since 2012-13, his second year in the league. Both he and the Knicks’ first unit have struggled this season, forcing Thibodeau’s tough decision.

Walker is averaging 11.7 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 24.5 minutes this season, all of which are career lows. Even more concerning is that the Knicks have been outscored by 122 points with him on the floor, which, according to Statmuse, is the worst plus-minus by any player on a winning team.

Walker played only 23 minutes in a loss to the Phoenix Suns on Friday night. When he did not play Saturday night in a win over Atlanta, it was assumed that he was resting his arthritic knees in the second game of a back-to-back.

Now it appears that the Atlanta game was basically an audition for Burks, who at 6-6 gives the Knicks more size than the 6-foot Walker. Burks, who is shooting 45.1% from three-point range, is averaging 10.5 points in 22.3 minutes per game, numbers that are likely to go up with Walker out of the rotation.

"We’re 20 games into it. And one of the things that stood out to me was the inconsistency of the team," Thibodeau said when asked what led to his decision.

"Those are tough decisions. You think it through. You look at the film. You look at the numbers. And then you also have to think about how can we help the starters get more into rhythm. And it doesn’t fall on one guy. It’s a team sport. As I said, I liked the way we played in Atlanta. I want to take a look at that. I think it’s our best chance."

Neither Walker nor Burks was made available to the media after practice. Julius Randle said he understands that Thibodeau has to run the team the way he thinks is best.

"I trust Coach," Randle said. "He’s going to do what he feels is best for the team. it’s our job to go out there and play. And he felt like it just gave us more size and hopefully more consistency to the starting unit. So Kemba’s been great, great in the locker room, great teammate, all that. So he’ll still do the same. But Coach just felt like 20 games in, he didn’t want to wait and switch things up."

Notes & quotes: Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel, Taj Gibson and RJ Barrett (non-COVID-19 illness) are all questionable for Tuesday’s game against the Nets at Barclays Center.

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