Is the Trey Burke comeback on its last legs?

1

By Michael DeStafano

Trey Burke has been a great story for a fanbase that hasn’t had many since the turn of the century. He turned down other offers to play in Westchester, took the G-League by storm, and when he finally got the call, reunited with his college buddy to give Knicks’ fans a glimmer of hope in a lost season.

Because it’s such a good story, we want it to have the ending it deserves. The ending we deserve.  Linsanity 2.0 … All-star numbers … Unlikely wins … Legend status. 

The harsh reality, though, is none of those things are going to happen.

The more likely ending?  He falls out of the rotation entirely.


A New Darling

Burke’s main strengths in 36 games last year were his abilities to score in the midrange and put pressure on defenses with penetration. He averaged almost 13 points and 5 assists per game, boosting those numbers to nearly 19 and 8 as a starter.

This year, however, he has regressed: 9.5 points and 3.4 assists while shooting just above 40% from the field. This might just be a slump; it might be the result of a new system or the lack of a set rotation – either way, he’s not performing, and someone else is doing his job better.

Allonzo Trier’s strengths thus far? Scoring in the midrange and putting pressure on defenses with penetration. And then some. He’s scoring more efficiently than Burke did last year (when Burke was scorching hot): 49.4% from the field, 44.1% from 3, and 89.2% from the line. Burke’s respectable 36.2% from three over both seasons isn’t close, and his sub-70% from the free throw line is unacceptable for a lead guard.

Going beyond the numbers, Trier’s physical gifts make him the better option for this sort of instant-offense role. When Burke gets past his man and into the paint, he is unsure of himself – too small to rise up over the defense, he resorts to the Chris Paul offensive-boxout, putting his body between the ball and his man just waiting for an opportunity to present itself.  But quality opportunities have been rare, so instead he’s settled for low-percentage attempts.

Those weird lefty floaters he’d been shooting pretty regularly when starting are evidence of the discomfort he feels once he gets past the elbows. Teams are taking away his pull-up and forcing him deeper, and he hasn’t figured out how to counter it.  Trier, on the other hand, attacks the rim with ferocity, finishing through contact and drawing fouls at an impressive rate.

Trier’s size also gives him a better opportunity to hold his own on defense once he gains more experience.  While his Defensive Rating isn’t currently strong, he can make plays on that end (see first highlight above).  Plus his efficiency on offense has made up for any defensive deficiencies; Burke’s simply been a liability both ways.

The time Trier’s seen lately as the primary ball-handler is all the evidence you need to know that Burke is losing his grip on the role he’d been so good in last year. The only real advantage he still has is that he’s the more willing facilitator. Trier averages about one assist per game (to almost two turnovers), so even though Burke’s not racking up assists, he’s still better in that regard.


But What About Mudiay?

In Mudiay’s first real action of the season against the Mavs, he posted this stat line in 15 minutes: 6 points, 4 assists, 2 rebounds, 3 steals, +5.

Modest, yes, but to put this in perspective: including the Dallas game, Burke had only 4 assists in his last 35 minutes of action (three games). The impact Mudiay had in that game thrust him into the rotation, playing all crunch time minutes alongside Trier against the Bulls. While he did not shoot well in this game, and his bonehead foul literally handed Chicago the win, Mudiay’s value on the court was undeniable: 16 points, 6 rebounds, +11 (best on the team).

Compared to Burke, Mudiay is the more natural, more comfortable, and more gifted playmaker, and though the Knicks’ horrid shooting of late might suggest otherwise, the offense simply runs more smoothly, both in the halfcourt and in transition, when he’s on the floor.

Like Trier, Mudiay also possesses the size to do things Burke simply can’t. Against the Bulls, the ways he can use his body to create scoring opportunities was evident, both in the post and attacking the rim.  He can bully people physically to get to his spots. And on the other end, while not a great defender, his length and strength allow him to be disruptive (as long as he’s not fouling someone at the buzzer for no reason).

Burke is rarely disruptive defensively and lacks the physical gifts to overwhelm anyone with his body.


Rotational Issues When Healthy

Here’s the rotation as it currently stands:

STARTERS RESERVES
Frank Ntilikina Trey Burke
Tim Hardaway Jr. Emmanuel Mudiay
Damyean Dotson Allonzo Trier
Noah Vonleh Lance Thomas / Mario Hezonja
Mitchell Robinson Enes Kanter

Here’s a version of what it will look like once Knox is fully back and Lee gets healthy (if he ever gets healthy – this is weird, no?):

STARTERS RESERVES
Frank Ntilikina Trey Burke / Emmanuel Mudiay / Allonzo Trier
Courtney Lee Damyean Dotson
Tim Hardaway Jr. Mario Hezonja
Kevin Knox Noah Vonleh / Lance Thomas
Mitchell Robinson Enes Kanter

Whether or not you agree with where I’ve placed these names is irrelevant; the point is that minutes are now at a premium.

Fizdale will NOT play 13 guys, and Lee has to play – trading him is the most realistic avenue to more cap space next year, and no sane front office would trade for a guy with a mysterious neck injury that isn’t getting run. Plus, short term, he brings value on the court (forget tanking: they want to win games) with his defense, shooting, and veteran leadership.

So who’s losing minutes? Dotson’s role is set in stone. Hezonja is too versatile, and, despite the far-too-frequent head-scratching moments, has earned what inconsistent minutes he gets. And we don’t need to talk about Trier.

No matter how you look at it, there’s going to be an odd man out here, and unfortunately all signs point to Burke as that man, despite his ability to score in bunches.

Last year, the Knicks needed his scoring, his playmaking, and his feel-good story.  But this year Trier’s the better scorer, Mudiay’s the better playmaker, and both are better defensively. So while there’s always a chance he could reignite to last year’s form, it’s more realistic to expect a fall from the rotation, spot minutes whenever they need an offensive jolt.

Which would be a sad end to a really nice comeback story.