After nine games of rest, rehabilitation and a rinse and repeat cycle of being listed as questionable and then sitting out, Kemba Walker was back and back in the starting lineup Tuesday night.
While it was a relief for the Knicks to get another player back from the sidelines, it presents them, and particularly coach Tom Thibodeau, with a conundrum. Thibodeau said earlier this season when he benched Walker for nine games (missing 10 total games after resting his knee in the game before the benching) that he viewed Walker as a starter. And with that, he never brought him off the bench.
But upon his return to action when the Knicks roster was decimated by players in the NBA’s health and safety protocols, Walker was back in the starting lineup for six games. In his first game back he delivered a 29-point effort, followed that with 21 points and eight rebounds in his next game and then exploded for 44 points against Washington. He then put up a triple-double on Christmas Day. But he faded out with poor performances in Minnesota and Detroit on back-to-back nights and then tweaked his knee in pregame warmups in Oklahoma City on Dec. 31 and was a late scratch. He had not played since that Dec. 29 game in Detroit.
In his place, Alec Burks took the starting job at point guard. And while his natural position is a wing, Burks has gained the trust of Thibodeau with his play on the offensive end and, perhaps more importantly, his size and ability on the defensive end.
"It's like, the good thing is, Alec, I consider him a starter, also," Thibodeau said. "I consider Derrick [Rose] a starter. So they may not be starters, starting the game, but I view them that way. And so just get in there. Give us what you have, we need everyone. And that's the beauty of a guy like Alec is he can start, he can come off the bench. He can play the point, he can play the wing. His versatility is a huge plus for our team."
When the season began with Walker as the starting point guard it had a storybook quality to it, returning him to New York, where he was born and raised. The Bronx native starred at Rice High School, putting his potential on display at Madison Square Garden. And then at the University of Connecticut, he led the Huskies to a Big East title with a magical run through the Garden.
At his introductory news conference Walker said, "It’s an unbelievable feeling. It's a great feeling. Just growing up here, walking around the city and seeing those guys' faces on the billboards who played for the Knicks, and I'm going to play in New York. Now to see myself up there, with Evan [Fournier] who I've known for a minute now, man, it's an unbelievable feeling. I'm grateful."
But when the team struggled after a 5-1 start, particularly on the defensive end, Thibodeau pulled the trigger on the lineup change and rather than use Walker off the bench, he buried him at the end of it.
When he returned to action, Walker said of his role, "I’ve just not played for what, seven, eight, nine games. I don’t know. Like I said, I’m a team-first guy, so whatever’s asked of me I’ve never going to argue anything. Just play my part. I get what the team needs me to give. Whether that’s me not playing, being the first one up cheering to me coming off the bench or me starting it is what it is."
But he acknowledged that he didn’t know what his future in New York would be. And he likely still doesn’t. But for a night, he was back, in action and in the starting lineup.