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February P&T mailbag, part two: Randle vs. Obi, Lonzo Ball and which Knick needs to draft for next

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A mailbag full of love as Valentine’s Day nears.

NBA: Houston Rockets at New Orleans Pelicans Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Part one of the February mailbag dealt with Immanuel Quickley vs. Elfrid Payton, which Knicks should be re-signed for how much money and the vast greatness of LeBron James. Part two didn’t.

1) Is it worth it for the Knicks to buy into Julius Randle, as in build your team and prepare as if he’s a focal point...the next 2+ years? If he were playing like this on another team would we be taking it seriously? Should we trade him? Should we trade Obi Toppin?

— Gyrk

With Randle blocking Toppin’s playing time and Obi needing [that] to develop...is there a path for him on the Knicks other than trading Randle (or foolishly letting Randle leave in FA)?

— 4-Babylon-HM

Is Randle worth committing to? Depends how long he sustains this level of play and what each side thinks that’s worth moving forward, next year and beyond. I suspect he’s physically stronger and more durable than Kristaps Porziņģis, but remember at this point we’re talking about 26 games of Super Julius. KP could look awesome for half a season before fading fast and hard. I’m not saying I expect Randle to suffer similar depreciation. Only that there’s a big difference in the asking price of a player who puts up 22, 11 and 6 on 47/38/80 splits for an entire season versus half or a third of one.

How that question plays out then runs headfirst into the fact that the Knicks hold the option to pick up Randle’s contract next year for $19M or pay him $4M to go away. What if Randle does sustain this production through whenever the season ends? Would he resent the Knicks depriving him of his market value by picking up the option? Would the Knicks do so anyway, confident he’d remain as motivated, healthy and productive in 2021-22? Or would both sides agree to an extension beyond next year? I wouldn’t pay Randle the $33-$36M max he’d be eligible for. I could see a deal in the high 20s, but I imagine Randle will be looking for more security and more years.

We kinda have seen Randle do this with another team. Two years ago Randle was under contract with the New Orleans Pelicans, a two-year deal with a player option in year two. In what was a de facto contract year, he put up career-highs in minutes and scoring while upping his 3P% by 12%. Randle came into this season knowing it was essentially a contract year — even if the Knicks weren’t likely to pick up his $19M next year, he might be traded to a team that might consider it. So far he’s putting up career-highs in minutes and scoring while his 3P% is up 11%. Sound familiar?

There are reasons to view this year’s growth as more comprehensive and perhaps moe meaningful than what Randle showed that last year in the Bayou. His assist percentage is nearly double what it was the past three seasons. It’s also nearly double his turnover rate.

Meanwhile, his usage rate is a tick lower than it was the prior two seasons. His true shooting, three point rate and free throw rate are all up, but not by insane amounts. He leads the league in total minutes and is second in minutes per game to James Harden. This isn’t a player just selfishly hunting for numbers. The changes in Randle’s game seem meaningful and sustainable, and perhaps most importantly his synergy alongside RJ Barrett has improved significantly. Last year in a little over 1400 minutes together, that two-man lineup was -7 points per 100 possessions. This year in nearly 800, they’re -0.6.

Should the Knicks trade Randle? I wouldn’t. Imagine the Knicks had traded Randle after the draft, started Toppin on day one and he was putting up the same numbers Julius has, and the team was competitive. Would you want to trade Obi? Of course not. You’d be thrilled the team had finally found a building block, especially one who makes his teammates better. On both ends.

Here’s the kicker: Toppin (23 next month) isn’t that much younger than Randle (turned 26 a few months ago). Obviously Randle is pricier — Toppin’s first four years of salary combined pretty much equal what Randle makes this season.

Again, if the Knicks lose 12 of 15 to fall out of playoff contention and Randle sustains his level of play, I’d let teams make offers and see if there’s one I can’t refuse. But while it’s too early to commit to Randle long-term at this stage, it’s also too early for me to think about trading him. For what? Is any lottery-likely team going to trade out of this year’s powerball for Randle? What could the Knicks reasonably expect in a deal for a player under contract for just one more season?

Trade Obi? Again, I wouldn’t, for a few reasons, first being I don’t know what the Knicks have in Toppin. He had no summer league, virtually no training camp and has only played half as many minutes as Kevin Knox, a man with six straight DNPs. The Knicks’ best player plays the same position as Obi and leads the league in minutes; Toppin hasn’t played more than 17 minutes in any game since opening night. Yet despite all that, I’ve been intrigued when Toppin does play, not the least because of his ability to transcend mathematical limits, like how he’s somehow managed to play 101% of his minutes at two positions.

I don’t see Randle and Toppin working together as a 5/4 pairing. What about Obi at the 3? With Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel equally averse to non-dunks, you’d basically have to have a Steph Curry/Klay Thompson backcourt to survive the lack of spacing with Toppin at small forward. I don’t see a path at the moment for Toppin to show all he can be with the Knicks. Maybe he ends up as trade capital. I wouldn’t rush to any decisions on him yet, again unless there’s a Godfather offer. I want to wait till he’s had a full offseason and training camp before I make any decisions on Obi. Collin Loring of The Strickland wrote a whole piece today on the Knicks’ patience with Toppin and why it’s a good thing.

2) Would you consider trading for Lonzo Ball at a relatively low cost, then re-signing him to a reasonable long-term deal as a restricted free agent? By low cost I mean something like a late 1st + Dennis Smith Jr. or Knox and a late 2nd [and] something like 4 years, $52-60M.

— sheagoodbye

I would. Disclaimer: I have been irrationally drawn to Lonzo since his UCLA days. Maybe “irrationally” is the wrong word. Who wouldn’t love some of this at MSG?

I know this one’s an oldie, but it’s so good it deserves some spotlight.

This year and last Lonzo’s shot 37% from deep on 6.5 attempts per game. Imagine Randle is Zion Williamson in this clip and imagine Ball in the corner instead of Elfrid Payton.

I think Ball could be a better version of what the Knicks value in Payton: a superior shooter, at least from distance, as well as a high-IQ, unselfish player who doesn’t need to dominate the ball to impact the offense. Ball is also a promising defender.

Close-up:

For all the crap LaVar Ball gets — some of it earned, some almost implausibly unfair, given the reality of the NBA being a majority white-run business whose profit-making ethos is built on decades of exploiting mostly young Black men — bear in mind something David Aldridge wrote back in 2017:

“...in a league where many players have strained relationships with their fathers — or no relationship at all — some personnel types respect that LaVar Ball is, by all accounts, a caring and loving father who is a major influence in his sons’ lives. That love is not universal. ‘I’m not a fan (of the father),’ another Pacific Division man said. ‘He’s putting so much pressure on those kids. He’s such a trainwreck, nobody’s going to be able to look away…but, a lot of these guys don’t have fathers. If he chooses to be present — it’s unique — at least it’s something.’”

At the very least, we know Lonzo was raised with good manners.

Along with lefty European point guards and physical small forwards, my basketball kinks include smart players who’d rather pass and defend than score. Lonzo would pro’ly immediately become my favorite Knick.

3) If the Knicks make no trades and have both their 1st-round picks...let’s say in the 10-20 range...what should they realistically target? Two-guards who don’t need the ball in their hands? A thicker, big-bodied defensive center to back up Robinson, etc.?

— TheWallBreakers

3-and-D wings and a big who can protect the rim and step out behind the arc sounds good to me. Alec Burks and Reggie Bullock have their moments, but I’d love to see the Knicks get younger and more athletic in their spots. And while he isn’t a draft option, someone like Harlem’s own Mo Bamba, whom Orlando appears to have no use for, could fit the bill as a center who intimidates on the defensive end and adds some spacing to the offense. Bamba may not be Terry Mills from deep, but he’s Larry Freaking Bird compared to the Knicks’ current men in the middle.

4) Is there a memory you have that you would get rid of?

— Unmitigated Gall

In life? God, yes. That’s the sort of story I should write on my blog. If you mean Knick-specific memories, I also have many. I’ll offer the three that come to mind first. Some of you oldheads may wanna avert your eyes.

I kid, I kid! I love Frank. I just also love when my fellow writers at P&T or The Strickland tease/accuse me of hating him.

What about you? What Knicks memories would you erase? Comment, Commendant!