The New York Knicks’ 2022-23
Media Content Day was long on smiles, exposed torsos and inspirational chatter. Wanna see how happy Julius Randle looks after six months away from fans who pat themselves on the back for chanting “F*** you!” at a player who’d had no beef with them but clutch their pearls when one of their own busts out a thumbs-down to tell them the same? Ever wonder what Derrick Rose looks like shirtless? Does talk of accountability and working together get you hot and bothered? This was your day, my friend.
Among the day’s bigger storylines, at least to this girl, was RJ Barrett showing no ill-will about being dangled to Utah in Mitchell trade talks (I wasn’t really expecting him to sound bothered, but as the end of the world creeps and crashes, safety nets in any guise narcotize). That was the undercard, however, on a day Tom Thibodeau stuck a funnel down Knick Nation’s throat and poured in the nightmare fuel, declaring Evan Fournier, a human Maginot Line last year on defense, the frontrunner to start this year at shooting guard.
Quoth Thibs via
Berman Brazillier Of The Post: “We need shooting. The one thing I know: with Jalen and RJ [Barrett] and Julius [Randle], we have to put shooting around them. Mitch [Robinson] will give pressure around the rim. That’s what will force the defense to collapse. Evan’s proven — I thought the second half of last year, he played really well.”
“Last year, it took me a moment to really understand, ‘OK, what’s my role gonna be with this team? How can I help the guys and how can I be myself?’ ” Fournier said. “I started the year very poorly defensively because I let my offense really impact my defense. I thought the end of the season was much better [on] both sides of the court. And I think it’s really gonna help me just knowing the guys.”
You may remember Quentin Grimes as the rookie who shot nearly as often from deep as Fournier (8.7 3PAs per 36 to Evan’s 9.5) and nearly as well (38% to 39%). You may also remember Grimes as an impressive defensive player, something Fournier has never been accused of. Also of note: Fournier turns 30 at the start of the season; Grimes won’t reach 23 till May.
You may remember the Knicks are starting a 6-foot-1 point guard this year, one who’s defensive rep is not only no Gary Payton but no Elfrid (Elf’s defensive rep had serious BDE but in truth was never all-that). Brunson is a fine defender off-ball, but would not be what evolution designed to defend the likes of Trae Young, Kyrie Irving and Darius Garland three times in four nights. So who answers the call? Could we see a Grimes/Immanuel Quickley backcourt closing games and making their mark on both ends? If we do, it pro’ly won’t be seen for a while. And definitely not at tip-off.
Brunson with Fournier will have their moments on offense, surely; the former is the best scoring point guard New York’s had since Stephon Marbury (though my heart belongs to a more recent hero), while Fournier is such a terrific shooter some folks were disappointed after a debut campaign that saw him shoot nearly 40% from deep while setting the franchise record for 3s in a season. But for a team that too often finds itself digging out of early deficits, passing on pairing Grimes with Brunson feels like Dick Grayson passing on being adopted by Bruce Wayne to go live with Darrel, Sodapop and Ponyboy Curtis. (5% of you got that; if you did, we woulda been friends in junior high)
Thibodeau gets a lotta flack for this, and part of my brain feels that’s fair, or at least true. Over 11 years as an NBA coach, five players who were Grimes’ age or younger were primary starters over a season, meaning one of the team’s top five in games started. Three were locks to start, as they were #1 overall picks: Derrick Rose, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. The fourth, Zach LaVine, was a lottery pick with upside, and a right pissed one at that.
The fifth was Josh Okogie, who, like Grimes, was a late 1st-round pick while Thibodeau was buying and cooking the groceries for Minnesota. Okogie hit the big time after the Jimmy Butler Experience left a hollowed-out crater in the Timberwolves’ starting lineup. Okogie is likely less instructional than an anomaly — it’s hard to imagine Fournier driving up to Westchester, killing New York’s best players in a scrimmage and yelling at Scott Perry, “You [bleeping] need me, Scott. You can’t win without me.”
But the Knicks, historically if not culturally, have not been a hotbed of letting the kids play, or at least start. I went back over the past 40 years to look for Knicks Grimes’ age or younger who ranked top-five in starts for New York. Here’s the list: Gerald Wilkins, Kenny Walker, Mark Jackson, then no one for 21 years, then Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Landry Fields, Iman Shumpert, Shane Larkin, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kristaps Porziņģis, Kevin Knox, Emmanuel Mudiay and RJ Barrett. That’s 13 players over 40 years. If Thibs is determined to start Fournier over Grimes, he came to the right place.
Thibodeau frequently points out that who closes games means more than who starts them. We all get that. But given that NBA games are 48 minutes and the points you score or prevent late mean just as much as the early ones, why not give yourself the best chance during both periods of time? It’s not like Grimes can only defend and not shoot. Fournier could get out and run with the Knick bench; he’d be quite the threat in transition with Obi Toppin flying ahead of the field and players like Cam Reddish out on the break. The Knicks winning first and fourth quarters would have the whole Garden hot and bothered. In a good way.