NBA fans, rejoice! The 2022 season is underway and the Memphis Grizzlies open the year tonight at home against the New York Knicks. After winning 56 games a year ago, expectations are higher than ever in Memphis.
The Grizzlies went 30-11 at home last year and 20-10 against the Eastern Conference. They had an average point differential of +9.2 at home, outscoring opponents by 377 points over the course of the season. Memphis was 2-0 against New York last year. In their first meeting, the Grizzlies won 120-108 behind a 26-point double-double from Jaren Jackson Jr. and a breakout 21-point performance from Ziaire Williams.
A month later, Memphis outscored the Knicks by 13 in the fourth quarter to win 118-114. Ja Morant scored 37 points – outdueling Julius Randle who recorded 36 points and 12 rebounds. Morant has averaged 22.4 points and 7.8 assists for his career against New York. RJ Barrett, who was drafted one pick after Morant in 2019, has averaged 20.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in four games against Memphis.
The Knicks made some offseason additions while the Grizzlies lost two rotation players in free agency, With questions on each side, I brought in Kris Pursiainen from the Knicks Film School to chat ahead of tonight’s game.
1. In recent years, the Grizzlies and the Knicks have chosen to build through the draft, rather than through trades. As Leon Rose enters his third season as the Knicks’ president, how would you grade his performance? Is New York’s front office facing any pressure this year?
I agree with your first point and will say to earn myself some goodwill here that Memphis has killed the draft. They “just take good players” and let it work itself out. I think I’m personally a lot more patient with Leon Rose than most other fans of the team because I know how complicated it is to sustainably build a contender and I knew that with how poorly we were set up, it would take quite a while to do this “right”.
I would give Rose a B- thus far with the acknowledgment that that’s a very good grade considering what he started with and what his goals are. Once he eventually acquires a star, things will fall into place rather quickly due to the work he’s put in now and in previous seasons to set a solid foundation. I can’t say that in my short lifetime of 20 years, the New York Knickerbockers have had a more advantageous combination of young talent on the roster, draft capital and assets to utilize in trades, flexibility in regards to the cap, and steady-handed decision-makers running everything behind the scenes.
2. Memphis and New York are full of young talent, led by their top picks from the 2019 draft. What parallels do you see between the two teams and how will those similarities play out on the court tonight?
The first thing I think about when these two teams are mentioned in tandem is what makes them different as opposed to their similarities - Memphis drafted Morant and immediately made it an organization focus to put the ball in his hands, let him work through mistakes and successes alike, and surround him with complementary talent that would facilitate his success on the team. New York threw RJ Barrett in a starting lineup with Marcus Morris Sr. and Julius Randle where he had to compete for every touch he got, so you could forget him getting a serious amount of opportunities to initiate the offense.
The season before last, both teams were propelled as far as their stud duos could take them in Barrett & Randle and Morant & Jackson Jr., but Memphis’ approach to team-building was obviously more youth-oriented while the Knicks needed to keep enough veterans in their rotation to please head coach Tom Thibodeau. Jenkins is a really cool coach who seems to know exactly how to optimize his talent and keep a locker room - Thibodeau runs a tight ship that runs well if every position is manned, but sticks to his tenets as a coach to a detrimental extent far too often resulting in those teams crashing and burning. I don’t think the Knicks are headed in a similar path, though - I see both of these teams being at the top of their conference (give NY a couple of years to land that star) for several years to come.
3. Quenten Grimes received some serious buzz over the summer. He’s been touted as an elite perimeter defender who has retooled his offensive skillset to be more than a 3&D wing. What are your long-term expectations for the sophomore?
Grimes definitely has some juice to him. I don’t think he’ll be afforded many opportunities by Tom Thibodeau to play make this season, especially if he makes it into the starting lineup (I think he will, and soon). What Thibodeau loves about him is his ability to produce without the ball in his hands and his defense, which is indeed elite. His shooting, particularly his proficiency with movement and catch-and-shoot looks, provides what’s needed for him to fit right in with ball handlers like Brunson, Barrett, and even sometimes Julius Randle. Grimes’ ability to guard the point of attack is incredibly valuable to us - especially now that we have a smaller PG in Jalen Brunson up there. I’m not sure any one player on the Knicks is a bonafide answer to stopping Ja Morant but it certainly hurts us big time that he’s out against Memphis.
Long-term, I think Grimes is definitely a starting-caliber player who either plays off the bench in a feature role for great teams and potentially even closes for them if they need defense. He could have a starting role on a team with several creators that allow him to focus on his shooting and defense. He could also be staggered in with bench units to do some creating with them. He’s definitely the kind of guy you want going to war for your side when it comes time for the NBA Playoffs. Whether you like him or not, you have to admit it does take one hell of a work ethic to impress Tom Thibodeau as much as Grimes has in just one year.
4. The Knicks finally added Jalen Brunson in free agency, after the two sides had been linked for months. Since Barrett was drafted, the Knicks’ point guards have been Dennis Smith Jr., Elfrid Payton, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks and Kemba Walker. Brunson, who plays a more traditional style of point guard play, is the best distributor Barrett has played with. How do you see Brunson benefitting Barrett’s development, as well as the Knicks’ overall success this year?
Last season, you saw RJ Barrett have a great response to the player who was slotted as the team’s leader due to his performance and leadership in the season prior. Barrett took the reigns and did a good job of being the team’s engine, given that Derrick Rose missed much of the season due to injury. Barrett is not yet at a point in his development where he was necessarily ready for this much responsibility so early. Brunson is known for being a super stable force at the point guard spot and I love that his game involves him being able to bring both scoring and playmaking to the table. There might be nights where RJ has it going and is getting to the line a ton but isn’t making the best reads against the defense. Now he has Jalen Brunson! There might also be nights where Barrett is picking apart the defense in a surgical manner but can’t get a single shot to fall. Now he has Jalen Brunson! The same goes for Brunson, who many have criticized for leaving Dallas and a superstar teammate in Luka Doncic - he didn’t exactly go to a tanking team. He’s here to compete with these Knicks and RJ Barrett is going to show him every night why he’s so loved by these fans here in New York.
Guys like Obi Toppin showed drastic improvement after the team acquired Derrick Rose to steer their bench unit back in the 2021 season. It’s clear how much of a difference going from someone who doesn’t naturally play the PG position - or just isn’t too great at it - can make for players, whether they’re playmakers, play-finishers, or anything in between. None of the guys you named were legitimate answers to the starting PG position (given Rose’s age and limitations in regard to playing time), but Brunson is. The Knicks will benefit greatly from Brunson’s presence both in what it will do for their young players’ development as well as what he brings to the table each night to help the team win games.
5. After an incredible season two years ago, Randle struggled in 2022. Tensions climaxed when Randle gave the Madison Square Garden crowd thumbs down after he was booed off the court in January. Do you see a bounce-back year coming for Randle? Or do you think the former Most Improved Player will be on the trade block this season?
I think Randle has spent the offseason on the trade block. However, this business is all about “what you’ve done for me recently” and not “what you’ve done for me before”, so it’s been tough for New York to find a suitor for Randle given his extension from the season before, how he played this past season, and what they’re looking for in return for him. I do think Randle has a bounce-back year, but not to the All-NBA level he played at in 2021; rather, if he buys into this team, into Brunson and Barrett as lead options, etc., I believe he can be an effective offensive weapon for the Knicks to have around. He seems to be back in the shape he was in for the 2021 season which helped him play some great on-ball defense against even smaller guards. Especially given that the team invested the #8 overall pick into Obi Toppin just two years ago, I think they’ll look to move Randle if he plays well and add more draft capital to their chest of treasures that they can throw at someone like Phoenix - for Devin Booker if tensions continue to rise there - or Oklahoma City - for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander if Sam Presti is going all-in in the pursuit for Victor Wenbanyama.
I like Julius Randle as a player and would like to see him succeed here in New York. I’d also like to see Obi Toppin be a starter on the New York Knicks, which he was for ten games last season as he racked up 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists per game on a field goal percentage well over 50%. The Knicks are moving in a generally younger direction anyway, so it might, unfortunately, be time to part ways with Mr. Randle this season.
Thank you Kris for participating in the first Five Questions with the Opponent of the season. Make sure to follow Kris on Twitter(@krispursiainen), along with Knicks Film School (@Knickfilmskool), for the best Knicks coverage.
You can also preview the tonight’s game with the latest episode of the ‘Nxt Gen’ Podcast with Bryson Wright, as well as the first ‘Grizzly Bear Bets’ of the season.