We all reacted with euphoria when it happened.
On opening night against the Boston Celtics, Julius Randle drove down the paint in the fourth quarter. It was shades of prime Carmelo Anthony if he were a southpaw. The whole court was hovering towards the right wing where Randle was positioned. After getting Boston’s Grant Williams to bite on a pump fake, Randle dashed to the paint and emphatically jammed with authority. In a game full of Fournier’s act tragicomedy act of turnovers and three pointers, RJ Barrett’s turnover dunks, and Jaylen Brown doing his greatest Michael Jordan impression, that play from Randle was the loudest I had heard the arena this season. When Randle landed, his head jerked with a shout towards his wife and son.
It was a late-game bucket that brought the Garden faithful to their feet but it also functioned as confirmation. It told us that last season wasn’t a fluke, that in fact, Randle was bringing about a new dawn in Manhattan. Maybe we had gotten a Top 20 player out of the disappointment of not signing Kevin Durant. Maybe Randle had the blow-by quickness he showed when nobody was in the stands, the face-up threat, the athleticism, and the lean, unorthodox floor game that brought us the best offensive season the Knicks have had since the Obama Administration.
My first thought, in a drunken haze, was that we had found our guy. Even at his best, watching Randle doesn’t compare to watching the likes of Nikola Jokic, but the Knicks have always prided themselves on a grittiness on the court fit for a Safdie Brothers movie. If the Lakers are showtime, then the Knicks are bruisers. The brutality and discomfort in Randle’s game not only got defenders off guard but fit the image that New Yorkers want for themselves: Abrasive and unrelenting. Randle always moved awkwardly and herky-jerky but his pull up jumper was devastating last year, as was his ability to find the open man when defenses would cater to his side too much. Julius Randle was a star that opening night and was set to lead the Knicks to a solid record. Or, so we thought.
The NBA is in its third season in two years. COVID-19 has done damage to the league. They had three quarters of a season, a bubble season/playoff run, and then another season and they players are paying for it. The league has made millions while players are hurt, still playing back-to-backs, and mentally exhausted. LeBron’s post on Instagram where he compares COVID to the common cold was much maligned by writers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar alike, but you can argue it was about situational fatigue as much as ignorance. Players are tired, confused about the rules the league has, and not built to play this many games in such a short amount of rest.
To say that last year’s surprising Knicks team benefitted from it being a COVID-19 season last year is lazy thinking. Teams can only play who (and what) is in front of them. If the Knicks benefitted from COVID, so did everyone who played that season. Mitchell Robinson missed half the season and Thibs started Elfrid Payton, the first point guard with no thumbs ever to start in the NBA. But the team definitely benefitted from a weaker East. The Raptors weren’t allowed to play their home games in Canada yet. The Hornets lost LaMelo Ball for two months with a wrist injury. Still, the Knicks and Randle had wins against quality teams, beating teams like Dallas on the road (a game in which Randle put up 44 points). Randle was better than Porzingis, who we had traded the year before he got to New York. Where Porzingis struggled with footwork and consistency, that was Randle’s greatest strength last year, along with his hot three-point shooting. The four-year contract that Randle signed in the offseason was a coup for the organization. Once again, so we thought.
This year, Randle’s play is mystifying. He’s been looking off teammates, often putting his head down when they make mistakes ... mistakes, it should be noted, that he also often makes. Randle and Evan Fournier have had several dust-ups this season. He has been holding onto the ball too long, playing with a slow pace, sulking when things do not go his way, and not fulfilling his duties to the press after the game. His three-point shooting is down, going from 41% to 30.3% from beyond the arc. Last week against the Bucks, when teammate Obi Toppin went to the ground, Randle looked at him and then turned around to let his other teammates help Toppin up. On the daily, you can find several videos that show a checked out Randle on the opposite end of the bench during a team huddle. Against the Grizzlies, he was thrown out of the game for several verbal battles with Grizzlies players, including one where he went over to their bench to congregate with them during a commercial break.
Above all else, there’s been a disturbing lack of professionalism this season. To see Randle last season was to see that work ethic could turn a player from a disappointment to an All-Star, a stopgap to a franchise pillar, and from a problem to the solution. He was someone who had been in the gym improving his game since his underwhelming first season in New York. This year he’s lacked the motor this team needs to be successful. The thumbs down controversy glossed over the true problem: Julius Randle seemed to be becoming the malcontent that Knicks fans thought we were past having to deal with.
This season’s disappointments are not all on Randle, of course. Kemba Walker is no longer a player that should be starting at any capacity. Fournier, who is playing better, has proven to be a bit of an awkward fit for a team that needs athletes to compete on defense. RJ Barrett is steadily improving but he is still inconsistent with his shot that sometimes comes up as brick as a “Merm” coat. Head coach Tom Thibodeau doesn’t do Randle any favors by saddling him with players that are ineffective like Kemba or even Alec Burks, who has been asked to run the Knick offense despite not being a point guard.
But it starts with Randle, who once told New Yorkers that he was here for us. He hasn’t been here for us in the way we expected this season, and that’s hovered over the season like a dark cloud, bringing us thunder and gloomy rain.