It was reported yesterday that the Knicks’ All-Star power forward, Julius Randle, will miss at least two weeks with a sprained ankle. Soon afterwards, fans were likely seized by many questions, which was a reasonable reaction considering this is pretty unfamiliar territory for both the team and the fans. Randle has played in every single game this season. And as is the case when a team’s leader in minute played, scoring, and rebounding goes down, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding the Knicks.
Knicks say Julius Randle will be re-evaluated in two weeks due to ankle sprain.— Ian Begley (@IanBegley) March 30, 2023
First off, how will the Knicks compete with Randle out? New York closes out it’s regular season with games against the Cavaliers, Wizards, Pacers, Pelicans, then the Pacers again. That may not be a cake walk but it’s also not too bad of a schedule. They aren’t playing any of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, and they aren’t playing any of the top six teams in the west either. And the both the Wizards and the Pacers are under .500, while the Pelicans are just one game over .500. It’s not even impossible for the Knicks to win out. The Cavaliers game may be difficult to pull off, but all the other games are incredibly winnable, especially for a Knicks team that has often done the unexpected.
That being said, this is also a team that has lost games to a Timberwolves team without Anthony Edwards and Karl-Anthony Towns, and a Hornets team without LaMelo Ball, both within the last month. Realistically speaking, the Knicks should go 3-2.
Who will step up and lead the Knicks into the playoffs? The logical first name that comes to mind is Jalen Brunson. The Knicks will obviously rely heavily on Brunson. The point guard is currently averaging 23.6 PPG and 6.1 APG on 48.8% shooting amidst an incredible season. However, Randle carried a lot of the offensive burden, and with him out, Brunson will have to do more for the Knicks to finish strong. We should expect a couple more isolation opportunities, a couple more pick and rolls, and should see his 17.3 FGA/game and his usage rate increase as well.
With the offense running through Brunson more, he may be in for some really big nights a kin to his playoff series against the Jazz in which he averaged 27.8 PPG on 21F GA/game. But hopefully, we see just slight upticks in his overall responsibilities as the Knicks will need Brunson, who has been dealing with a few minor injuries lately, to be as close to 100% as possible for the playoffs.
In other words, everybody else will have to pick up the slack. Immanuel Quickley, who has been very good as of late, must continue being a masterful orchestrator of the pick and roll, a capable shooter, both off the catch and off the dribble, and a threat to drive and get to the lane. RJ Barrett has to be more consistent overall and take a step in being the shooter and the playmaker that the team so badly needs. Obi Toppin, who should see the biggest increase in minutes and expectations, finally has the opportunity to turn this season around. A strong showing by Toppin, which would entail a lot of rim running, knocking down open shots, and playing improved defense, could even lead to some more minutes in the playoffs. Josh Hart, who could see extended minutes at the power forward position, will have plenty of opportunities to showcase everything he does well. He’ll be guarding multiple positions, asked to continue being an elite rebounder, and be a key playmaker whenever he sets screens and ends up as the short roll man. And even a guy like Jericho Sims, who saw some minutes at power forward earlier this season, could be relied on to provide sparks in some short spurts.
What might be kind of exciting and fun to watch, though, is the way the Knicks play. While Tom Thibodeau is no offensive genius, he has been more inclined to switching things up offensively and being a bit more creative. With Randle out of the picture for at least the rest of the regular season, the Knicks may look to implement some new things. They could go small with Hart at the power forward and either Robinson, Hartenstein, and maybe even Toppin (very unlikely) at center. This would allow the Knicks to stay a solid rebounding team while having good ball movement. Going small could also mean having a smaller backcourt and wing as well. Potential lineups could see both Brunson and Quickley sharing the floor more often, or Grimes playing the small forward, shoot, maybe even Barrett playing power forward. And despite whatever lineup they end up running, they’ll have to be better defensively. To make up for the offense they’ll likely miss without Randle, the Knicks must return to the kind of defensive team they were earlier in the season.
It’s never easy, and sometimes impossible, to fully replace a player of Randle’s caliber. Regardless of what you think about Randle’s style, or decision-making, the fact is, he’s been there every single night and has, for the most part, been one of the better players in the league. If New York wants to replace or even come close to replacing Randle’s 25.1 PPG, 10 RPG, 4.1 APG and 2.8 threes per game, it will have to be multiple guys stepping up with Thibodeau getting creative and thinking outside the box. But it’s certainly possible. The Knicks have enough depth and firepower to survive two weeks without Randle given their somewhat easy schedule. It was a tough blow for Randle, the Knicks, and the fans, but try to keep your head up.