Arron Afflalo was brought into New York this season to be the second scorer after Carmelo Anthony. Against the Timberwolves on Wednesday, he showed the very best of what he is capable of, scoring 29 points on 9-14 shooting. A big part of that was being a hot 3-of-5 from deep and converting on 8-of-9 free throw attempts. Everything was going right for him, and for one game he looked like the most talented player on the team.
However, as good as he was Knicks’ fans haven’t had many opportunities to see him shine like that. It was only the second game this season in which he went over 20 points. The big scoring night actually bumped his season average way up to 13.6 points per game, and it also happened to be the best game of the season for him in terms of sinking the long ball and getting to the free throw line.
In the midst of his first 18 games, he scored 29 against the Timberwolves and 31 against the Rockets. Most of the rest of the season he has just been average, with a few games nicer than others and a handful of clunkers thrown in. You could argue that he needed time to get his legs under him after starting the season on the bench with an injury, but New York must have hoped he would be better than this upon his return, or, at least, more consistent offensively.
Truthfully, Afflalo has largely gotten a pass for his forgettable play. With everyone rightfully focused on Kristaps Porzingis, Afflalo has been bettered by the Latvian Lurch as the second option for the Knicks. Add to that how effective at times Lance Thomas and Langston Galloway have been, and suddenly there is a situation where Afflalo doesn’t have the pressure to perform.
Games like the one he put together against Minnesota make it much harder to let mediocre play slide. Afflalo can shoot the basketball and get to the rim with relative ease. He isn’t a superstar, but he has been competent for most of his career, especially with the ball in his hand. Without proven scoring anywhere on the roster outside of Carmelo Anthony, Afflalo was expected to have the ball in his hands a lot.
Part of that equation changed when a number of the Knicks came into the season strong and outperformed expectations, even in Afflalo’s absence. To his credit, despite throwing off the minute management he did a good job of meshing into what the team was already doing. Still, there is a reason fans didn’t expect much from Thomas or Galloway, or even Porzingis at this stage in his career. The front office has to be shocked with how competitive those guys have been, and the heights they have reached, even including the cold spells they have had.
Afflalo has been able to carry big scoring loads on bad teams. He averaged 16 and 18 in Orlando, as well as 15 and 14.5 in Denver in 2011-12 and 2014-15. He was traded to the Trailblazers last year to replace Wesley Matthews, but on a well-rounded team that already had LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard, Afflalo become a 10 points-per-game guy and struggled to fit in. When the Knicks signed him, they were hoping to get the guy they saw in Orlando, especially considering team expectations were about at that level.
There is no reason Afflalo should be held under double digits in a competitive game. He has been limited to six points or fewer four times already through 18 games, and he played between 19 and 30 minutes in all of those contests. He was restricted to that total only once in the 72 games (53 with Denver and 19 with Portland) he played last year. Even then, the bigger scoring nights came more often, as they did in his career-best 2013-14 season.
The Knicks have gotten along with the production from Galloway, Thomas, and Porzingis, and those guys have given them hope for the future. That is great, but none of them right now have the talent to be as consistent as Afflalo, and it is hurting the team that he isn’t able to provide a reliable offensive option.
When those three young guys go cold, Melo is sometimes all by himself trying to put the ball in the basket. Unless Afflalo is actively hot, he is just another body taking up space on the offensive end, one that doesn’t rebound well, pass effectively, or even play particularly impressive defense. At least, a cold Porzingis still offers rim protection, while Galloway and Thomas make their bones with hustle plays and good team defense.
Tonight against the 76ers, hopefully, Afflalo’s increased contribution won’t be needed. However, the Knicks won’t be playing the 76ers every day, and the Timberwolves might be ascending but the Knicks needing a season-best night from Afflalo to close them out shows exactly what kind of team they are, and explains why the record isn’t going to be putting them in playoff contention down the stretch.
Maybe the 76ers porous defense is exactly what Afflalo needs to turn one good game into two, and start the ball rolling on him being Melo’s sidekick with the ball for the rest of this season. If Afflalo continues to struggle, he could find himself losing minutes to the higher energy guys who aren’t afraid to throw the ball at the hoop. With a player option for next season we thought was unlikely to be exercised, it is sad to say that him losing playing time and choosing to eat up a pretty high cap number for a second year doesn’t look as unlikely as it once did. Hopefully, he gets it together so he can get paid this offseason and the Knicks could win a few more games in the mean time.