Before the season started, I advocated loudly to trade Julius Randle. In the article, I listed out my top three reasons for this sentiment, which included freeing Obi Toppin, breaking the symbiotic relationship between him and head coach Tom Thibodeau, and moving on from someone who I believed, at the time, was not built mentally to handle the pressure of playing in New York.
Randle and I were both born and raised in Dallas, Texas. I wanted badly for a fellow hometown homie to do well, especially while wearing the orange and blue. But the valley of the 2021-22 season, culminating in the gestural “fuck you” to the fans, persuaded me to want him gone. By December, I had completely changed my stance on wanting to trade him. By early January, I was calling for him to be an MVP candidate on the podcast I cohost, The Knick of Time.
Why the sudden turnaround? Sure, the stats look the same as last year — 24.8 PPG, 10.9 RPG, and 4.0 APG — but anyone who sacrifices their sanity this season to follow the Knicks game to game, much less covering it for a blog, a podcast, or a group chat, has seen Randle’s mental and emotional elevation. He’s become more vocal, a better teammate, and, dare I say it, clutch.
The skillset and athletic ability were always there — the issue with Randle was what lay between the ears. His mind was his biggest folly, foe, and archnemesis. Far too often last season, he got too inside his head, drawing him further away from his teammates and the fans. So much has been made about his pre-game meditation rituals this season. I say whatever works. I don’t care who he has whispered into his ear as long as it's another voice besides his own telling him what a bona fide badass he is. Someone challenged him to be better than the game before. Someone to tell him to pass the fucking ball out of double and triple teams. In reality, that assistant coach is probably just telling him to exhale and relax. The other stuff is the job of his coach and teammates. And it's evident Randle is finally listening.
No player has done more to help Randle's game than Jalen Brunson, the Knicks' $100 million free agent acquisition this summer who has already proven he’s underpaid. Brunson has relieved Randle of on-ball duties and lets him worry primarily about cooking whatever bums the opposing team throws at him. And cook he has, at an Anthony Bourdain level. As a result, his shooting splits have jumped to 46.1 FG%, .550 2P%, and .536% eFG%, all career highs with the Knicks.
Randle has become one of the most unstoppable offensive players in the league and should be named an All-Star and All-NBA player this year. Even NBA.com had him listed at number 10 on their MVP Ladder this week, echoing the sentiment of fans like me who saw it a month ago. The Knicks still need a true first option, a player on the level of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, or Joel Embiid, players who do not make appearances on MVP ladders but dominate them for entire seasons. But Randle has proved himself capable of being a perfect number two.
Randle seems to have risen to the challenge of being the face of the Knicks, coming with it the pressure, scrutiny, and expectations of playing in the world’s biggest media market. Not only are the optics sharper, the lights brighter, but the criticism is always harsher when you’re talking about the Knicks, thanks to the negative reputation owner James Dolan has given the franchise since it was handed down to him by his father in the late 90s.
A few months ago, Randle stock was never lower. The attitude and lack of effort he displayed the previous season made him the bane of all Knicks fans, who care more than anything about a player’s heart. Of the three grievances I brought forth when arguing for Randle to be traded, the mental part has been satisfied for now. We still need to see him perform in the playoffs. The last time that happened, in 2021, he choked against the Hawks, who threw different defenders at him, forcing him into bad habits and iso-heavy attempts. The toxic relationship between Randle and Thibodeau, which allows the player to run as many iso sets as he wants, choose when he plays defense, and turns the ball over without repercussion, is quelled for the moment — not because Thibs has changed how he disciplines and coaches Randle, but because Randle has given the coach little cause to discipline him.
Randle has given us the single best season by a Knick since Carmelo Anthony in 2013, when he finished third in MVP voting. While it has led to a resurgence in his play and the Knicks' win/loss record, we need to see it continue into the playoffs. The Knicks are on track to make the playoffs, a goal Dolan laid bare in a recent interview with NYC radio station WFAN. If Randle can continue his bully ball and high-IQ play, he could deliver to Knicks fans the type of playoff series we’ve been missing for a decade, one that would go down in Knicks records books and fans' memory banks. Madison Square Garden is a gladiator’s colosseum. It is where young players and grizzled vets go to remind fans and themselves who they are. When the playoffs return to MSG this Spring and Randle is the home team's gladiator, the hope of every Knicks fan is he and us are worthy of a raised thumb.