He almost got us. Four games in, Julius Randle, seemed to have returned to his 2020-21 self when he was named Most Improved Player, an All-Star, and Second-Team All-NBA. Through those first four games, Randle only had six turnovers and 35 rebounds while shooting a decent 47 FG% and netting a +16. He seemed less interested in forcing the issue on scoring (averaging 20 PPG over that stretch) and more interested in finding his shots in the flow of the offense while allowing Jalen Brunson to run the show. The Knicks were 3-1 over those first four games, almost winning their sole loss, the opening night overtime game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Over the next five games since, Randle has regressed, shooting 40 FG%, averaging four turnovers per game, only hitting 1-of-14 threes, while holding a combined -52. Nevertheless, he’s sustained a positive attitude, coaching teammates on the floor while limiting ISO attempts (3.6 ISO attempts per game this season, compared to 4.9 ISO attempts last season).
Many Knicks fans, myself included, were more than grateful to see Randle’s temperament and effort change. Especially on defense. Many times last season, when Randle’s defensive effort slacked, so did the team’s. He has always been the leader by example for this young team, which made his regression last year so impactful on both sides of the ball.
The early season return begged the question: would fans prefer to keep Randle over trading him for scraps, as many were ready to do this summer? If Randle could return close to the form he had two seasons ago, the Playoffs seemed probable, and the Play-In a lock. But many, like myself, never wavered on wishing Randle an improved season while hoping for a reclamation year. This summer, Randle was never mentioned as a trade piece in Donovan Mitchell negotiations. It was always assumed he would be paired with Mitchell, much to the chagrin of Knicks nation.
But the idea of Randle starting the season hot was promising, too. His improved play would improve his trade value, while also allowing third-year forward Obi Toppin to take the starting gig. More so than any other year of Tom Thibodeau’s coaching career, the coach has shown a willingness toward change. Many have their conspiracy theories as to why. It sure seems like the front office must have given him a mandate to play the kids. The improved minutes and production of Cam Reddish give evidence for such tin foil hat theories.
For the experimentation Thibodeau has displayed, however, Toppin still languishes on the bench. Over the Knicks’ first nine games, he’s averaging 16.3 MPG, a hair under last year’s 17.1. Nothing enrages Knicks fans more than Toppin glued to the bench behind Randle. Especially when the Knicks’ offense becomes bogged down in Randle isolations and over-dribbling.
Admittedly, Randle has improved, and he has sustained his team-first mentality so far. The hope is he continues this reversal of fortunes, improving his trade value in the process. Thibodeau has made every excuse in the book for not playing Toppin and Randle together, even though that combo had success recently against the Philadelphia 76ers and the coach looked smart to pair them. What Thibodeau apologists fail to mention is his hand was forced when starting center Mitchell Robinson went down with an injury and backup center Isaiah Hartenstein was gassed in the fourth quarter. The Toppin/Randle pairing was also aided by Joel Embiid being out with his injury, and the 76ers starting undersized big Montrezl Harrell at center.
Toppin has flaws, especially on the rebounding end, but he is too full of promise and potential to continue languishing on the bench, especially behind such an unknown variable in Randle. As a fan base, we cannot put all our hopes in Randle remaining mature. A nine-game sample doesn’t void last season. If the losses pile up, we could see a rapid regression in Randle’s efficiency and attitude. Let’s suppose Toppin can hold out a little longer by January. In that case, Randle might have shown enough to bait another team desperate to add an All-Star caliber player (Washington, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, or Philadelphia?) via trade.
Trading Randle will come with an immediate drop in standings, so Knicks fans need to prepare themselves for the losing that would ensue. Randle is our best all-around player, and removing him from Thibodeau’s game plan would tremendously impact both sides of the ball. But, at this point, the focus should be on the long-term gains. Allowing Toppin to get reps against opposition starters will only increase his confidence and all-around game. It might also be the only way for this young core to reach its full potential.