It’s time for the Knicks to bench Elfrid Payton

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The coach has been resolute in his belief about the player. He has been defiant about it. Ever since Knicks fans were allowed back into Madison Square Garden Feb. 23 for what has been a genuine doe-eyed love fest for 22 games, there hardly has been a discouraging or disparaging word directed at any of the local heroes clad in home white (or blue, or black).

With one glaring exception.

From the moment they opened the Garden doors, before many of the faithful even took their seats, before they bought their first beer, they have booed Elfrid Payton. They have groaned at every missed shot and misstep. They have yearned for more Derrick Rose, pleaded for more Alec Burks, even turned erstwhile mascot Frank Ntilikina into a folk hero.

The message: A.B.E.

Anyone But Elfrid.

Tom Thibodeau has ignored them. Payton is a made guy in the Thibodeau basketball family. And made guys don’t just get benched because unhappy fans demand it.

“He allows us to do more switching than we normally would because of the size and toughness that he has,” Thibodeau said on April 12. “He’s an important part of this team.”

He was that night. Against the Lakers, who were missing LeBron James and Anthony Davis (but did have Dennis Schroeder, a potential offseason Knicks target,) Payton was terrific: 20 points on 9-for-12 shooting, a team-high plus-27 rating.

The problem has been the 35 days since, 17 games in which Payton’s playing time has shrunk and his confidence has evaporated and he’s become a nightly liability. It isn’t only the fans wondering when Thibodeau is going to succumb to the obvious anymore. Most people who watch the Knicks see one glaring hole. He wears No. 6.

The playoffs begin this weekend at the Garden.

Glaring holes generally become gaping holes in the playoffs.

And for all the feel-good vibes the Knicks have generated in accumulating a 41-31 record and securing the No. 4 seed in the East, it is essential to remember that this team’s margin for error is still razor-thin. The Knicks can’t afford to let a struggling player simply work it out anymore, or before you know it they’ll join him in basketball purgatory.

That is the issue Thibodeau must address as the Knicks prepare for Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks. He has pushed every proper button from day one. He has preached every appropriate creed. He has reached this team in a fundamental way, and they have responded, and part of that mutual respect is how ardently he stands up for them.

But even Thibodeau has his limits. Kevin Knox, you may remember, started the season as a rotation guy; he’s strictly an observer now. Austin Rivers was a big part of the Knicks’ early-season success; he’s in Denver now. Things change. Circumstances change.

There was actually a long stretch this season where Thibodeau’s belief in Payton paid dividends that felt similar to the strong stands he’s taken on behalf of RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin. Payton was playing above both projection and pay grade, fueled by a mostly unjustified self-confidence that nevertheless yielded results.

Just not lately.

Including the Lakers game April 12, Payton averaged 26.1 minutes, 12.0 points, had a 3.4/1.7 assist/turnover ratio, shot .448/.286/.701 and had a plus-minus of -0.8. Nothing eye-popping, but playable. Since? It’s grisly: 16.7 minutes, 5.2 points, 2.7/1.4, .360/.286/.500, minus 3.6. He is a different player, and he still starts, and the Knicks simply can’t afford to play the talented Hawks 4-on-5 for half the first and third quarters.

Thibodeau has steadfastly avoided criticizing Payton. The most recent time he was asked directly about him, Thibodeau pivoted like George Mikan: “We like our depth. We have versatility. Each game tells you something different. Whatever you need, you have the answer either starting or on the bench.”

Fair enough. That’s Thibodeau. He demands a lot out of his players and one of the perks is they know they’ll never see him burying them in the newspaper. But burying them on the bench is another matter.

Thibodeau already plays a tighter-than-normal rotation. Would it be a terrible thing to insert Burks into the starting five, keep Rose in his microwave-like role off the bench joined by Immanuel Quickley? Or utilizing Ntilikina and his plus-defense skillset for more than just cameo appearances in an effort to keep Young from killing them?

Bear Bryant preached that you dance with the one who brung ya. But the Bear never had to watch Elfrid Payton implode at the worst possible time of a season. Tom Thibodeau has. Sometimes as a coach you have to change the music. For Thibodeau, it’s time.

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