Today at The Athletic, Fred Katz wrote about the Knicks’ “unconventional” offense and if they can dominate again this season. (paywalled)
A primary player in said offense remains starting power forward Julius Randle.
If you review Randle’s statistics at Basketball-Reference.com, an odd trend emerges. From year to year, his numbers go up and down. The cycle dates back to 2017-18, his fourth year with the Lakers. That season, he averaged 16 points per game. The next year—this time with the New Orleans Pelicans—Randle improved to 21.4 points per night. And a sine curve has continued through his time with the New York Knicks.
Sure, you can blame Randle for his fluctuating stats. It is also fair to consider the circumstances and surrounding personnel.
Randle Year One, 2019-20
Randle’s first season with New York was the 2019-20 campaign. The team finished 21-45, and 12th in NBA Eastern Conference. David Fizdale coached the club to 4-18 before being replaced by Mike Miller. (For the record, I liked Miller.)
Elfrid Payton was the starting point guard that season. Rookie RJ Barrett was the starting small forward beside Randle, and his 45% eFG did little to help with floor spacing. Marcus Morris started 43 games as a shooter. Maurice Harkless started ten games. Taj Gibson started 56. Bobby Portis pitched in as a back-up big. The roster was a mess.
Sandwiched in with that bunch, Julius averaged 19.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists in 64 games. He shot 46% from the floor and 28% from downtown on about three and a half attempts per game.
These Knicks were no world-beaters. Julius did not look like he would wear the orange and blue for long.
Randle Year Two, 2020-21
The We Here year. Two significant changes came in the offseason before Randle’s second go-round in Manhattan.
First, the team replaced interim coach Mike Miller with veteran sideline screamer, Tom Thibodeau. Then, in the Draft, the Knicks used the eighth pick to select Obi Toppin. The high flyer from Brooklyn by way of Dayton was considered by many to be Randle’s eventual replacement.
Julius took the challenge to heart and averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, and six assists over 71 games.
That season, Thibs let Randle spin, spin, spin to his heart’s content in the paint. Why not? Once again Elfrid Payton started as the lead guard that season and could be charitably called an absent-minded ball-handler. Reggie Bullock was a 3&D wing with an emphasis on the D. In February 2021, the team traded Dennis Smith, Jr. and a draft pick for Derrick Rose, who brought true point guard skills off the bench. And sophomore RJ Barrett put up encouraging numbers (17.6 ppg, 40% from deep). Overall, the team still had limited firepower and had to ride their bull as far as Randle could take them.
Their final destination would be a first-round playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Could they have gone farther if Mitchell Robinson had not been injured? Sure. What has Clint Capela done since then? Yet, for all the good feelings about the club, no one expected them to go deep into the postseason. ‘Twas a nice Cinderella year for an over-performing team that finished 41-31 and fourth in the Eastern Conference.
That season, Julius played in his first All-Star game and won the Most Improved Player award. Thibs claimed his second Coach of the Year honors. The vibes were quite nice.
Randle Year Three, 2021-22
The Thumbs Down year. The team fell back to Earth. Everyone knew that Elf had to go. Unfortunately, Kemba Walker, the All-Star brought in to replace him, had already passed his Sell By date.
Walker was the starting point guard on opening night, alongside Evan Fournier. Kemba’s failing knees would last for 37 games, off and on, until Thibs finally replaced him with Alec Burks. Fournier would set a record for most threes in a season by a Knick, and was nevertheless largely inconsequential. Despite scoring 20 per night, RJ regressed as a shooter (41% FG, 34% 3P)
Randle regressed, too, averaging 20.1 points, 9.9 boards, and five dimes in 72 games. His iso-ball ways were wearing thin. In a January game, having grown tired of boos, he gave Garden fans a thumbs down. The vibes were . . . less immaculate. The team won 37, lost 45, finished 11th in the East, and missed the playoffs.
Randle Year Four, 2022-23
New York’s big splash heading into the 2022-23 season was their signing of point guard Jalen Brunson.
The backcourt tandem of Brunson and sophomore Quentin Grimes was a refreshing improvement. (Evan Fournier was still hanging around, but . . . you should ask him about it.) The team took a while to rise above mediocrity, eventually finding its identity when Thibodeau reduced his playing roster. Then, in February, the Knicks traded Cam Reddish to the Portland Trail Blazers for Josh Hart, who provided another upgrade on offense and defense.
The team would finish 47-35 and fifth in the Eastern Conference. Randle averaged 25.1 points, ten rebounds, and four assists in 77 games. He changed his repertoire to include a LOT more three-point attempts. He increased from a career average (up until then) of 2.6 attempts to 8.3 per game that season while maintaining a 34% average.
Throughout his time in New York, Randle’s emotional state has raised concern. When his fire is aimed at the other team, the results can be impressive. When he turns that intensity toward his teammates (e.g., on-court squabbles with Fournier and Immanuel Quickley), it can be alarming. There were times when Julius appeared to be locked in and unstoppable, as when he dropped 57 points on the Timberwolves in March. Other times, he seemed aloof and nearly unplayable. Which version of Julius would show up from night to night was anyone’s guess.
Normally indestructible, Randle suffered an ankle injury at the end of the regular season and re-aggravated it during the playoffs. Over those 10 postseason games, his averages slid to 16.6 points and 8.3 boards. (Still better than I could do and did it on one good leg.) The team fell to the Miami Heat in the second round.
With impressive stats, Julius was selected to play in his second All-Star game, deservedly so. Most NY fans continue to regard the tempestuous Randle with a jaundiced eye, however.
Randle Year Five, 2023-24
Heading into this season, the 28-year-old Julius appears to be healthy and his ankle has been surgically repaired. While convalescing, he watched game film and Bruce Lee movies. And, for the first time since he arrived in New York, the core players and coach of the previous year are carrying over into the new season.
The Knicks are in Charleston, SC for training camp, preparing for preseason and chatting up the media. In the aforementioned article, Katz quoted the two-time All-Star as saying, “I think my efficiency will be a lot better this year […]. I think I understand the game at a higher level, so I think it will allow me to be a more efficient player.”
Here’s hoping. Bleacher Report ranked him 15th on their list of top NBA bigs, behind Sabonis, Mobley, Draymond, etc. He should have rated higher. This summer, his backup power forward Obi Toppin was dealt to the Indiana Pacers, which decreased the Knicks’ size off the bench but also took some heat off Randle’s neck. He is definitively the power forward on the team. No one will be clamoring for Isaiah Roby to supplant him anytime soon.
With Jalen Brunson directing traffic and a stable structure in place, the table is set for Julius Randle to break the cycle. I bet it ends here.