New York Knicks: Analyzing the return of Elfrid Payton

The New York Knicks re-signed Elfrid Payton on a one-year deal. We know what he brings to a team, but will things be different next season?

The New York Knicks have their point guard. After months of speculation, they brought back Elfrid Payton — after losing out on all the guys they wanted. The same Elfrid Payton from last year’s team that won 21 games and ranked near the bottom in almost every major offensive statistical category.

President Leon Rose and his crew are trying to be careful with their spending right now. They saved $3 million by declining Payton’s $8 million team option and then re-signing him to a lower one-year, $5 million deal.

Apparently, the worst kept secret of the offseason was that Fred VanVleet was going back to Toronto. We also can’t blame them for D.J. Augustin understandably choosing the Milwaukee Bucks over a rebuilding Knicks squad.

But Payton’s most significant flaw isn’t going away. He still has a complete lack of a jump shot. The fit with Julius Randle and RJ Barrett was a significant contributor to New York’s lack of spacing. They will need more than just Alec Burks to fix that problem.

Some of Payton’s numbers are pretty jarring for a guy who rarely shoots from the perimeter.

Of the 304 players who attempted 65 3-pointers last season, Payton ranked 303rd in 3-point percentage (20.3 percent). His effective field goal percentage of 45.6 percent was in the 8th percentile for point guards, per Cleaning the Glass.

He was last in the NBA in points per shot attempt (min. 1000 minutes), also per Cleaning the Glass. It was by a long shot too. CTG defines the stat as total points per 100 shots attempts — including field goal attempts and trips to the line (Payton shot 57 percent from the stripe).

Payton was one of the 104 players who averaged 50 touches per game last season. Of those 104, Payton ranked 103nd in points per touch — per Second Spectrum.

Elfrid Payton does what he’s best at for the New York Knicks

But Payton knows that he shouldn’t be taking jumpers. So he doesn’t. After attempting 2.5 per game in 2018-19 — and converting at just over 31.4 percent — he was down to 1.5 attempts as a Knick. Payton was second to last on the Knicks in 3-point attempt rate. Only Taj Gibson was lower.

Cleaning the Glass states that 50 percent of Payton’s field goals came at the rim — which put him in the 96 percentile for point guards. He converted at a 55 percent rate. It’s good that he clearly knows where his strengths are and sticks to them. But Payton’s passing is his greatest strength to the team.

Payton’s assist percentage last season was the highest by a Knick since Stephon Mabury in 2003-04, per Basketball-Reference. But I guess that says more about the sad state of the Knicks point guard situation than it does about Elfrid Payton.

The 26-year-old averaged a team-leading 12.8 drives per game, but he was mostly a passer in those circumstances. The point guard finished 17th out of 130 in assist percentage on drives (5 drives per game minimum), per Second Spectrum.

As a passer, Payton’s skill makes his tunnel vision when it comes to Julius Randle even more frustrating. Payton directed a majority of his passes to Randle while ignoring RJ Barrett. He made 29.2 percent of his passes to Randle last season while just 13 percent went to Barrett.

But no matter what you think of Payton, the Knicks were objectively better when he was on the court. The bar wasn’t set very high, but he had far and away the highest on/off efficiency differential on the team.

The New York Knicks outscored opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions when Payton was on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. When Payton was on the court, New York played like a 37 win team. When he was off, they played like an 18 win team.

A big part of that was his tremendous chemistry with Mitchell Robinson. Payton assisted on 47 of Robinson’s field goals and Mitch shot 75.8 percent on passes from his point guard, per Second Spectrum.

New York outscored opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions in the 1,034 possessions that Mitch and Payton shared the floor, per CTG. The only two teams with higher efficiency differentials than +6.8 last season were the Bucks and the Celtics.

But the big problem with the signing is that it feels like the move back to Payton was inevitable once VanVleet and Augustin were no longer an option. That’s unacceptable, mostly since we know VanVleet was never leaving Toronto.

The New York Knicks did a lot of good things this offseason but hopefully, they aren’t done making moves at the point guard spot.