No more hyperbole. No more ambiguity. Let’s get this out in the open to discuss this as a Knicks family. It’s time to trade Julius Randle, our mercurial All-NBA power forward. However, it doesn't have to be before the season. In fact, it makes sense to wait for Randle to increase his trade value as the season progresses while playing next to an above-average point guard in newly acquired Jalen Brunson. Randle is sure to improve upon the mess of a season he had last year.
Randle is too good of a player not to return to a form closer to his All-NBA season during the 2020-21 season. Even on a “down” year last season, he was one of a handful of players to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists. But the stats do not tell the whole story. Those numbers were built upon horrific shooting splits of 41/31/76. Those were a far drop from the splits that earned him the Most Improved Player award: 46/41/86.
The need to trade is also exacerbated by his aggressive back-and-forth with the fanbase, telling fans to “shut the f*** up” with a thumbs-down gesture during a game last season. It’s hard to remember a player developing a contentious relationship with their fanbase in such a blatant and public manner.
There was the carefully curated press release soon after the explosion. Still, Randle never really tried to make amends with the fanbase who supported his signing in 2019, even as the media criticized the Steve Mills front office for signing four power forwards. That game was against the Celtics and featured a heroic RJ Barrett game-winner. It exposed a clear dichotomy between the Knicks' two best players: one that is built for the pressure of New York and one that isn’t.
The need to trade Randle comes down to three big reasons, all of which are not solely predicated upon last year’s downturn. Moving Randle shifts the timeline to fit emerging star Barrett, who still needs to make improvements himself, but appears to have the demeanor to handle the New York pressure and genuinely loves playing for the team’s fanbase. Let’s get to the three reasons moving Randle will actually allow the team to maximize its young core and fully take advantage of it’s best assets.
Reason #1: What’s Between the Ears
This summer, we saw another round of social media videos showing Randle’s elite commitment to physical conditioning and working on his game. But that’s never been the issue. Since arriving at the Knicks, Randle has remained the most chiseled and conditioned player on the team, setting the standard for the rest of the guys to follow suit.
The issue has always been the mental side of the game for Randle. During his 2020-21 campaign, he relished the attention and praise he received from the Knicks faithful, telling New Yorkers “We Here.” When preseason starts on Oct. 4 at Madison Square Garden, Knicks fans should refrain from showering Randle with boos. We have seen the physical evidence of how fragile Randle can be when the fanbase questions his motives and abilities. As well, every new season should present a clean slate. Randle deserves to be celebrated until he gives us reason not to.
That being said, Randle has shown enough in the last two years that he is built to handle the pressures which come with being the face of this team. It’s not just about the back-and-forth with fans. There was a point, starting in January of last season, where Randle gave up on defense, becoming a turnstile in the paint and refusing to run back on defense. That was a complete 180 from the standard he had set the prior year.
It also harkens back to the first-round playoff series against the Hawks, where Randle first showed signs of mental fatigue. Before the playoffs started, he had finished a campaign where he averaged career highs in points (24.1), assists (6), rebounds (10.2), and steals (0.9). Not to mention hitting highs in 3P%, FT%, and minutes played. Once the playoffs started, all that changed. For most of the series, the Hawks threw multiple defenders at Randle. The defensive attention forced him into dramatic drops in averages: 18 PPG and 4 APG. Most embarrassing was the shooting splits through a five-game defeat: 30/33/85.
That should have been enough evidence for the front office to tell that Randle was deeply affected by fans returning to the arenas. His career-highs were all reached by playing in front of mostly empty arenas due to Covid-19 precautions. Once the playoffs hit, Knicks’ owner Dolan did his best to return MSG back to capacity, adding immense fan noise and expectations on Randle’s shoulders as the team's first option.
Randle was exposed in his first post-season appearance, and that anger and humiliation seemingly followed him into the following regular season, impacting his all-around game and motivation. Because of the massive media market, the Knicks play within, to be the face, you need to have thick skin. The team’s fanbase has never been afraid to criticize their own players, especially when it’s deserving. And perhaps more than any player or season before, Randle deserved all that he got from Knicks fans last season.
Reason #2: Obi Toppin
If Clarence Weatherspoon or Othella Harrington were backing up Randle, Knicks fans would be much more hesitant to call for a Randle trade. But Obi Toppin possesses the perfect match of untapped potential and joie de vivre to make fans salivate at the thought of him starting. Everything that Toppin is, Randle isn’t. Toppin knows his strengths and plays to them. He doesn't demand the ball. He’s a willing passer. He goes after loose balls. No player has a shorter Thibodeau leash than Toppin, but you wouldn't know it from his attitude. Toppin’s million-dollar smile is infectious, and when he subs in the game, instant energy comes along with him.
When the Knicks used the eighth pick in the 2020 Draft to select Toppin, the confidence around Randle was low, as he was an assumed asset signed by the previous Knicks administration under Mills. Toppin was thought to be the future of the position, but that was quickly complicated when Randle turned in one of the greatest individual seasons in franchise history, earning All-Star, All-NBA, and Most Improved Player awards.
Since his rookie year, Toppin has languished behind Randle, playing an average of 14 minutes per game over two seasons. Toppin has never been able to truly showcase his talents because of the franchise’s steadfast commitment to Randle. Knicks fans are desperate to see Toppin fully unleashed. But as neither he nor Randle are capable defensively to play any other position beyond the power forward, coupled with Thibodeau's antiquated reliance on rim protection, he is forced into a backup role.
The fanbase’s quick trigger with Randle has most to do with their obsession with seeing Toppin fully unleashed as a starter. That the Knicks' highest ceiling player is stuck behind the most mercurial only adds to the melodrama.
Reason #3: Tom Thibodeau
It’s completely unfair to criticize Randle’s play last season without also criticizing head coach Thibodeau as his enabler. Thibodeau’s over-reliance on Randle’s isolation play, even though it has proven to be inefficient and easy to defend, ties the biggest fault between player and coach.
Since taking over as head coach, Thibodeau has been flagrantly arrogant, over-relying on Randle as the point forward, primary ball-handler, and isolation-heavy scoring option. Some of that is out of necessity, as the team was without a viable above-average point guard. But most of it has been a decision made by Thibodeau, who has held Randle’s backup Toppin on the shortest leash possible while allowing an almost endless leash for his number one boy, Randle. Watch any game throughout last season, and one would have witnessed Thibs yanking Toppin after missing a defensive assignment. All the while played the second-highest minutes per game at 35 MPG.
Randle has been and continues to be the focal point of the Knicks' offense because of Thibodeau, even though Barrett has been a more exciting and better fit with the fellow starters. Even though playing both Randle and Mitchell Robinson together in the frontcourt limits both their spacing. Even though Randle, as the primary ball-handler and facilitator, has never worked on paper or on the court. Not in any metric. Thibodeau must be looking at stats only he understands to continue to do the same thing over and over, even though it leads to the same disappointing result.
It feels the only way to pry Randle out of Thibodeau’s game plan is to force him via trade. If Taj Gibson was still on the roster, it would be almost assured Thibodeau would try to start him if Randle was traded. But the front office wisely let Gibson walk and traded fellow vets Kemba Walker, Alec Burks, and Nerlens Noel this summer. This was way past due, to fully let the kids take over the lion's share of the minutes and see what we have in these kids. This has opened the door for Robinson, Barrett, and Quentin Grimes to take charge of the starting unit. Only one hurdle remains for Toppin to become the starter. And only a Randle trade gets it done.