Is There Still Hope For Julius Randle?
When the Knicks front office held an impromptu press conference following the team's 10th game of the season and yet another embarrassing loss, it became clear that whatever "plan" Steve Mills and Scott Perry were selling to James Dolan and the fanbase had failed spectacularly. Sure, some of that could have been predicted once the Knicks struck out on every big-name free agent, but I don't think anyone was prepared for the sheer incompetency and lack of identity that a Fizdale-led contingency plan team would have. Julius Randle was the closest thing to a free agent "splash" from this past summer, and given that there isn't really any type of hierarchy to the Knicks offense Randle has taken it upon himself to be the team's alpha dog. The results of a 25-year-old big man who had built his career on finishing situations — either in the pick and roll or transition — doing his best LeBron impression have been predictably comedic. The combination of his laziness, selfishness, and propensity for taking bad midrange shots that would make even prime Melo raise an eyebrow have made Randle the clear favorite for everyone's least favorite Knick. And yet, since Mike Miller took over as head coach Randle has looked a little more like his old self, putting up 20 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 33% from deep — albeit in a 6-game sample size. There's no denying Randle's talent as a scorer, but the question will always be whether or not that skill outweighs all of the other baggage that he brings on both ends. Regardless, the chances of Randle being on a contending Knicks team are slim, so the question I'm looking to answer in this article is if he can return to being an asset of positive value — dare I say someone who's worth a first round pick?
It's still unclear whose decision it was to make Randle The Guy™ on the Knicks (my money's on the front office), but either way it was bound to be an adjustment for someone who's never had this much responsibility on offense. However to get the Randle that the Knicks paid for, they need to consider modifying the way that he's used: his usage percentage is actually lower than last season, yet his true shooting percentage has gone from 60% in 2018-19 to 52% this year, suggesting that his current shot selection is turning him into an inefficient chucker. Yet, putting up 20 and 10 on 60% true shooting at 24-years-old is nothing to scoff at and begs the question: what's the best way to use Randle? To which I say three things: get him the ball going downhill, with a spaced floor, and with a real point guard.
We saw the worst of Randle when Elfrid Payton was out for over a month with a hamstring injury, leaving Randle's archenemy, Frank Ntilikina, as the main point guard on the roster. That pairing has mixed like oil and water this season, with a -10.1 net rating in 485 minutes largely due to Randle's lack of respect for Frank. In fact, the only positive lineups with Randle this season (minimum 50 minutes) also include Payton, and that duo has an 11.8 net rating in 149 minutes together, per NBA.com. A competent point guard — something that the Knicks have lacked for over a decade — may be the key to unlocking a more efficient Randle. He is arguably most potent in pick and roll situations, where he is forced to make quicker decisions out of necessity. Check out this smooth finish off the nice feed from Payton:
Last season, Randle averaged 1.34 points per possession as the roll man — placing him in the 92nd percentile. But this season he's down to 1.00 points per possession and in the 36th percentile, likely a byproduct of subpar guard play and his own increased selfishness. The disparity between those two numbers means that Randle has a lot of room for improvement and also that a more efficient version of himself absolutely exists. Another reason for optimism: in the 6 games since Mike Miller took over as head coach Randle and Payton have a 12.2 net rating in 78 minutes. And even if he isn't as effective as a roll man anymore, under Miller we've seen more of the downhill action where Randle is at his best:
To optimize the driving lanes available to Randle on those attacks, good spacing is crucial, and it's encouraging to see the Knicks keeping at least three guys on the perimeter when Randle makes his move. Not only does it give the turnover-prone Randle a more favorable matchup in the paint, but it increases the chances of an open three, something that a team ranked 24th in 3-point attempts should always be looking to get more of. If the Knicks want to maximize shooting around Randle and the driving lanes for him, then it seems logical to play him more at center. Randle at the five means one less defender down low and one extra shooter on the perimeter, which makes sense in theory but fails to give the full story of what Randle at center means. If Randle's playing center then that means that either Knox, Portis, or Morris is at the four, and as nice as good spacing is, those lineups would be hemorrhaging points on defense faster than Mitchell Robinson picking up his first two fouls. Speaking of Mitch, the young center is as good of a reason as any to try to make it work with Randle at the four, as playing the two together is in the Knicks' best long-term interest. When Mitch occupies the dunker spot while Randle has the ball the driving lanes get predictably clogged, however as time has gone on Mitch is learning to back up for the sake of space and since Miller's taken over the pairing has a 5.6 net rating in 69 minutes together, per NBA.com. A competent point guard to keep Randle in check is as crucial as anything to his success, and with Payton back hopefully we can continue to see more of Miller getting Randle right alongside the team's most promising young center.
Even with an increased emphasis on getting to the basket and making quick decisions, Randle's selfishness still defines his offensive game. He's got tunnel vision on par with "Iso-Zo" — minus the iso — and unless a shooter is absolutely, completely wide open, good luck getting the pass from Randle. Even still, Randle passing is no guarantee, and watch how an open Knox three gets ignored in favor of Randle "capitalizing" on a mismatch from no man's land:
A quick shoutout to player-coach Taj Gibson, who was pointing at Knox for the entirety of Randle's nonsense during that possession to no avail; maybe when you're in a suit on the sideline, Taj. The ironic thing about Randle being so selfish is that he actually has enough talent to be a good passer if he embraced that part of his game, but that feels like a common sentiment for a lot of ball hogs. The biggest flaw in his passing is his tendency to look inwards, usually trying to jam a tight pass to someone closer to the hoop whether or not they're in a position to score:
In theory, if Randle operates best going downhill and with a spaced floor then ~in theory~ his drives should lead to at least some open three pointers. Yet, Randle has been mostly averse to kicking it out once he's in close, and that may be one of the best ways to improve the efficiency of lineups that include him. The one sliver of hope for that happening would be for him to take a page out of his transition game, where he seems more inclined to hit shooters on the perimeter. It's almost as if when he has less time to think he makes smarter plays:
I haven't even mentioned the two most egregious parts of Randle's game — the iso's and his laziness on defense — but we get to watch enough of those every game that I think we all deserve a break from thinking about them. Randle just isn't the fringe All-Star that some had hoped for coming into a year where he would have all of the opportunities to put up big numbers. But even if he's not that and last year was the ideal situation for him efficiency-wise, there's reasons to believe that with a real point guard and a head coach that keeps him in check that Randle can return to putting up the highly coveted 20-10 statline. Randle probably won't be on a contending Knicks team and he's not doing much to make the young core any better. An eventual trade seems beneficial for both parties, and if the team (Elfrid Payton, specifically) can hone in on the skills that make Randle useful for a modern offense then it's only a matter of time before the 25-year-old recoups most of his prior value.