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NYK101 with The Professor: Midterms — Grading the starting five

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No rubrics need apply.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at New York Knicks Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I hate grades. I never assigned any during the semester and only did at the end after each student told me via email or an in-person conference what grade they felt they deserved, and why. As a professor, I rejected grades as utterly irrelevant for assessing performance or reflecting growth. As a sportswriter, I embrace them due to nostalgia for pieces I grew up reading and the need to keep the bosses happy for at least one more paycheck. So today I’m grading the 2021 Knicks’ usual starters. We’ll get to the bench in a day or two.

Julius Randle = A

After Kevin Durant, fresh off his Achilles tear, surprised no one two summers ago by joining forces with Kyrie Irving but surprised many by doing so in Brooklyn rather than Manhattan, the Knicks pivoted to signing Julius Randle, after which this they/them wrote:

“...while no one would argue Julius Randle will ever be at the level of a KD, the larger holistic truth is rather than have Durant eat 36% of their cap in a year he won’t even suit up, the Knicks signed a 24-year-old not coming off a devastating injury to a deal that takes up 19%. A 24-year-old who’s shown steady Improvement and already hit marks as high as 25 points, 13 rebounds and 4.5 assists per 36 minutes. What’s better for the development of R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina and the other young guys next year? Playing alongside Randle? Or a ghost?”

In retrospect, my theory never took into account something very obvious and very human. Randle’s entire context had changed. He went from the third option on a team featuring All-Stars and All-Defense standouts Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to the lead on one whose co-stars were Marcus Morris and a teenager. It was a bigger jump than even Randle could anticipate, and he struggled. His shooting fell off (2P = 56% to 52%; 3P = 34% to 27%). His free throw attempts dropped about 25%. His turnovers were actually less frequent than his career average, but so many of them were just so dispiriting. A lot of fans would’ve been happy to ghost him.

That drop so dizzying is now drip so dazzling. Randle came into the season in incredible shape, and while his physical conditioning is often praised, don’t discount the mental strength underpinning his renaissance. He could have shrunk. He could have come back the same player, content to get his numbers and get his money. Once you sign a contract the money’s yours, whether you win or lose, and Randle could retire at year’s end with a career earnings of $60M.

He didn’t shrink. He came back a different player entirely, on both ends. Do you know how rare it is for the Knicks to sign a free agent who goes on to represent them as an All-Star? Before Randle, only two players this century had done so: Amar’e Stoudemire and Allan Houston. The three accomplished the feat 10 years apart, so it’s never too early to start thinking about the 2030 free agent class.

I realized today if I don’t move this year (fingers crossed!), it’ll be the first time I’ve gone two years without moving since I was in my 20s. I’m 42. Trust someone who moved five times in 18 months and 15 times in my 30s: stability is a helluva drug. This applies to Randle and the Knicks.

Even though 2020 was a rough trick, think of the foundations that were being forged. That year Randle and RJ Barrett played more minutes together than any other Knick played period; this year they’ve played more together than any two-man lineup in the league. The 841 minutes he spent alongside Taj Gibson last season made the latter’s recent return remarkably rippleless — Tajulius has a +11.0 rating in 80 minutes together. Watch any game and the chemistry Randle and Reggie Bullock share is clearly farther along thanks to the nearly 500 minutes they played together in 2020.

As for the club, Randle’s rise puts them in a surprisingly complicated position (“surprising” because every #%&$*!@ lockout ends with the owners getting their way in some way that doesn’t seem to help the Knicks and is designed to help small-market teams keep their free agents, yet the one time the Knicks have a bright young star hit free agency the system’s no help). The Knicks have the option of paying Randle $4M to go away or $19M to stay another year. Would the team want to extend Randle beyond that based on this half-season? Mike Vorkunov broke down exactly what kind of deal New York can offer this summer:

“The Knicks can offer Randle a four-year extension on top of the year he has remaining for the 2021-22 season. The salary for the first year of the extension can be worth no more than 120 percent of his salary in the final year of his current contract. Randle is slated to make $19.8 million next season, so he could earn $23.76 million in the first year of the extension.

The Knicks can also offer Randle eight percent raises off that first year of the extension for each subsequent season. That means the Knicks can give Randle a four-year, $106.44 million extension ($26.6 annually, on average) on top of the $19.8 million he would make next season.”

Add that to next year’s salary and the Knicks can offer Randle $25M per year for five years. Vorkunov explains why that’s not exactly encouraging:

“The best comparisons might be players such as Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, Nikola Vucevic and Gordon Hayward, all of whom made their first All-Star team in their mid-to-late 20s. All but Vucevic eclipsed $106 million when they hit free agency.

If Randle were to get the max extension offer from the Knicks, he’d have to weigh whether he can get more money the next summer. Fifteen players have signed for more over the last three offseasons.”

The freshest air around the Knicks these days is their consistency. They defend consistently; they win consistently enough to avoid the season-ending long losing stretches that have been all too common the past 10 years. The heartbeat of the offense is Randle’s scoring and creating and that beat is steady as a metronome. Consistent excellence is a consistency every team craves. Re-signing the player they bet on a few years before would be cause for pride in the franchise. But what does the franchise want? What does Randle?

Leon Rose didn’t sign Randle to the Knicks. That was the now-departed Steve Mills and Scott Perry, who’s either so quiet because he’s always up to something, like Michael Corleone, or so rarely seen because he’s more like Fredo. If Rose’s grand plan is pairing Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns with Steph Curry in two years, he may not be willing to punt on that dream because Julius Randle’s had himself a terrific couple of months.

And what if Randle decides to bet on himself? The Knicks could pick up next year’s option and then offer him as much as they want. That presents the player with a few risks. Exhibit A, courtesy of Vorkunov:

“Victor Oladipo might be the best comparison for Randle this year. He was also a high lottery pick on his third team who broke out after getting into tremendous shape. Oladipo was 25 in his first All-Star season (Randle is 26) and in his first year with the Pacers. He made the All-Star team again the next season, but his production was down almost across the board. He also suffered a major injury and played in 36 games. All told, he has played just 79 games the last three seasons...”

James Dolan’s history with contracts may be cause for optimism if you’re rooting for New York to retain Randle. Dolan’s first big-money signing was in 2001, when Allan Houston signed his $100M contract. Houston turned 30 in year one of his six-year deal; by 33 his career was over. Dolan’s next big output was for Amar’e Stoudemire, who was 28 and had uninsurable knees. Carmelo Anthony signed the biggest contract in franchise history at age 30. Those deals, plus the money Dolan committed to big men with medical red flags (Antonio McDyess and Eddy Curry) suggests an iota of intelligent design in the Knicks not giving Kristaps Porziņģis a full max with no injury protections and Dolan not wanting to offer KD a larger max deal when he was 30 and fresh off a torn Achilles.

Boy, that got off-topic, huh? Anyway, yes. Randle has played at a level his critics never thought possible and even his supporters couldn’t have imagined. He’s having one of the best seasons in Knicks history. That’s a gold-star A.

Mitchell Robinson = A-

Robinson’s development over his first three seasons is a case study in less is more. In 2018-19 Mitch committed 5+ fouls in 7 of his first 27 games, fouling out three times. Last year in his first 27 games he had 5+ fouls 10 times and fouled out in six of them. In 27 games this season before fracturing his hand, he had 5+ fouls only three times and hasn’t fouled out once.

As a result, we’re seeing more of him on the floor, which is always a good thing. He’s already played more than 30 minutes 10 times in 27 games versus 5 of 61 a year ago. More Mitch minutes means more reps and more recognition. In the past Robinson was 20 minutes of balls-to-the-wall relentlessness — spectacular, but unsustainable.

Today’s Mitch is more restrained, but more powerful — think Luke in Return of the Jedi. Note the patience in this clip against Donovan Mitchell. While Robinson’s home runs are down — his blocks per 36 have fallen from 4.3 in 2019 to 3 last year to 1.9 this year — his impact, though less viral, is no less vital.

There are still questions around Robinson moving forward. Will he continue to show growth? Will the dribbling and shooting displays we see from Workout Mitch ever appear in an actual game? How much will he be looking for when he’s up for his next contract, and will that number fit with what the front office has in mind? For now, Robinson is a defensive anchor who creates offense for others via his threat as a lob runner for 30 minutes a night. That was his next level, and he’s leveled up.

RJ Barrett = B+

Once I taught a summer class that included a high school student trying to earn some college credits early. Her potential was clear, but she had some troubles early knowing where and how to balance what she knew she could do and what she was confident enough to try without knowing how to do. After a few reps, she became one of the better students. You could see her confidence grow. You see where this is going.

With better spacing and a year of on-the-job training under his belt, Barrett is like a sun that was trapped behind clouds, but the sky has cleared and the shine is on. He’s second on the team in points and third in rebounds and assists. His slash line is an obvious upgrade — from 40/32/61 as a rook to 44/35/73 this year, and the new line is climbing — but his shot profile marks him a heretic in today’s orthodoxy. The NBA’s bread and circuses are three-pointers and shots at the rim, yet those are the two areas where RJ is taking fewer shots; it’s the midrange where he’s planting his flag. Somehow that concentration has spread the wealth all around: Barrett’s shooting percentage from 0-3 feet has climbed from 57% to 61%, 27% to 32% from 3-10 feet, 28% to 39% from 10-16 feet, 29% to 41% from 16 feet to the arc and 32% to 35% from beyond.

While Barrett may march to the beat of his own drum as a scorer, he’s gone positively Ringo when playing with the rest of the band. Per Vorkunov:

“When Barrett drives now, he’s looking to score, but he’s also trying to set up others for analytics-friendly shots. Of his 104 assists this season, 87.5 percent have set up shots at the rim or 3s, according to PBPstats.com. Last season, that number was at 79.7 percent. The difference this year? Barrett is looking to find Knicks at the 3-point line, where he’s already assisted on 38 3s this season after doling out 36 as a rookie.”

We still don’t know where Barrett may land or peak as a player. What we do know is he’s a keeper who has a positive net rating with seven of the 10 Knicks he’s played the most minutes with. Just keep on keeping on and you’ll be fine, RJ.

Reggie Bullock = B

Bullock has established himself as a solid starter. He doesn’t try to do what he’s not comfortable with. That’s a feline energy I can get behind. His 3P% is up from 33% to 37% and he’s made multiple 3s in a game 16 times in 32 games after doing so only nine times in 29 last season. He’s also a decent chap on D and his defensive rebounds per 36 are up 45%. Bullock has a role and he generally fills it. A solid B.

Elfrid Payton = B-

These are facts:

  • The Knicks shoot more than twice as many two-pointers as three-pointers.
  • 55% of their points this year came from two-pointers.
  • Payton makes about 40% more two-pointers per 36 than Floater God Immanuel Quickley.
  • No, I’m not saying Payton > Quickley.
  • What I’m saying is this.
  • With Randle running the show as a point forward and Tom Thibodeau having different basketball ideas than David Fizdale and Mike Miller, Payton’s role has changed as much as anyone on the team.
  • His shot attempts are up 20%.
  • Everything else — assist rate; rebounding rate; steals rate; blocks rate — is down. His assist rate is nearly half what it was last season.
  • Payton struggles, and the team often does with him out there.
  • Of the 10 most common four-man lineups featuring Elf, seven have negative net ratings. With three-man lineups that number is eight; with two-man lineups it’s seven again.
  • I don’t think Payton is part of New York’s future.
  • I don’t think he belongs ahead of IQ because I hate Gen Z.
  • I think Payton is a trying to make sense of a new role in a weird year all the while knowing his replacement is either already more popular with the fans than he is or that his replacement is in college. Or high school.
  • He gets a B- ‘cuz I differentiate when I grade.
  • Don’t agree? Totally cool. This is all make-believe, yo.

There are your starters. Stay tuned this week for more grades. Gotta keep the maw mawing.