The buzz of an eventual seismic shift within the New York Knicks organization was at its peak after an early December bludgeoning at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks that dropped the team to 10-13 on the season. A trade, a firing, or a combustible cocktail of the two felt imminent. Their next game, a matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers on Dec. 4, kickstarted a run in which no team in the NBA has a better net rating than the Knicks — the team is 10.5 points per 100 possession better than their opponents over their last 12 games.
Evan Fournier was already accruing DNP-CDs. Derrick Rose and Cam Reddish joined him as Tom Thibodeau dropped to a steady, 9-man rotation that strived for consistency and leaned into the players that best fit his defensive system. The Knicks are fourth in defensive efficiency during this 12-game stretch. It’s paid off in a big way on the other end, too, as they are also third in offensive efficiency.
After ripping off an eight game winning streak, dusting a few playoff teams along the way, the Knicks have now dropped four straight. A heartbreaking meltdown against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night in which Luka Doncic essentially decided he was not going to lose felt like the ultimate reversal from the winning streak. It is worth noting R.J. Barrett left that game early, while Jalen Brunson did not play.
Bookending this stretch with losses to the Mavericks is, obviously, not something the Knicks wanted. But regardless, the defense is better, the offense is better, and because of both of these things, the team is better in a way that feels replicable moving forward.
While crediting one player for all of this is, of course, impossible, the play of second-year guard Quentin Grimes are indicative of the process that’s elevated the Knicks. Grimes expands the margins upon which the Knicks, and particularly Thibodeau, try to prey upon. The Knicks are 17th in transition frequency and 28th over this December stretch, but Grimes scores once or twice a game simply by sprinting down court and pressing the defense, which is inherently not a staple of New York’s play style.
Since Dec. 4, Grimes is averaging 14.3 points per game on 64.4 percent true shooting, with 35.6 percent of his points directly generated out of fast break or second chance opportunities. That’s the largest margin outside of Mitchell Robinson, who feasts on putbacks. Simply put, Grimes creates easy buckets without initiating himself.
For a team that has struggled at times to play with pace and movement, this does wonders. Part of this is due to primary schemes and concepts the Knicks employ. Much of their offense is derived from forcing double teams and drawing help, which Julius Randle — who is in the midst of a significant bounceback campaign — often demands. But with stagnant spacing across the floor, it can become easier to pinpoint weaker shooters to sag off of. Offense can quickly turn into one-and-done possessions.
The Knicks have players who can shoot and shoot well, but when going up and down the roster, the lack of movement shooting stands out. Barrett is at his best as a stationary shooter with some lifting from the corners mixed in. Brunson has heated up of late, but often needs a wide open shot, or a one-two dribble pull-up, or a sidestep to get a clean look. Fournier wasn’t much in the way of a movement shooter when in the lineup and Reddish was fairly lukewarm from outside when in the rotation, as well. Immanuel Quickley’s frigid start from deep and hesitancy to let it fly this season has neutered some of his impact as a shooter.
As for Grimes? Well…
Grimes never stops moving. Every step is with a purpose, with an innate feel for how to space himself to be a constant threat. It’s much harder to throw double teams at Randle when a roving 40 percent shooter is sliding into open spaces. Even if he himself doesn’t wind up open, the defense is occupied. Overplay his shot and he’ll make heady cuts to the rim.
(In fairness, this is something of an indictment of Thibodeau and the lack of the offense’s creativity. We’ve seen this become a problem in the clutch when pace slows and defenses are that much more keyed in on personnel. When teams start to dare Randle to make shots without sending help, you can see some of the limitations of reliance on read-and-react basketball when you lack a top-10 player in the sport.)
Grimes is vital as an outlet, an added point of gravity, and a factor of randomness in the offense. He adds movement without needing to script it — Obi Toppin, who has been sidelined due to injury since Dec. 9, brings some of this as well, but without the same shooting threat. He can gun off of an early flare screen in transition. He can boomerang the ball off of a post player and open himself up with deft change of direction. Go under a screen and he can nail dribble pull-ups. He sets himself quick and has a snappy release, a mark of someone with the ability to be one of the best shooters in the game. Grimes just makes good things happen.
His handle is pretty average and he lacks much burst, so creation upside is limited, but with additional secondary ball-screens at his disposal and his savvy movement, Grimes routinely shows off quality playmaking chops. There’s room for that to keep expanding as defenses continue to acknowledge his capabilities and he develops more and more counters.
On the defensive end of the floor, the Knicks’ scheme functions best with intensity and movement. Few players bring the controlled freneticism that Grimes does. He mirrors ball-handlers at a high level with impeccable footwork that shines on his closeouts and screen navigation. Blend those skills with his reaction time and strength, and it’s easy to pinpoint Grimes as a special defensive player.
He rarely gets caught off guard off of the ball, covers ground in a way you’d expect out of a rangy forward rather than a 6’4 off-guard, and is a focal point for defenses to try to screen off of their best initiator — if you can, go back and watch the screening variations the Cavs hit him with in their most recent matchup.
Some may balk at paltry steal numbers, but think of him more like an elite cornerback who takes away an entire side of the field. You can’t gauge him based on his counting stats when teams are doing their best to keep his defensive playmaking out of central actions. If he continues to play like this for the remainder of the year and remains healthy, he warrants All-Defensive consideration.
Grimes moves and plays with a purpose in all facets of the game for every second he is on the floor. For a team that quite literally plays their best ball when they ramp up the intensity, Grimes is an essential piece for a Knicks squad seeking to cement themselves as a team with a strong foundation for a stronger future.