After yet another Julius Randle stinker seemingly enabled by his head coach, it's hard to decide where to point the finger.
Good morning! If you spend the weekend watching college ball and ignored the Knicks, kudos to you for making a smart decision. Yes, New York won a game, but no, it wasn’t without its frustrating elements. And then last night, what was a four-point contest with under five to go ended up as a 15-point loss, and wound up being defined by an inexplicable decision on who got the chance to close it out. We’ll get to it all in a bit. As always, if you’d like to receive this newsletter every weekday, click on the subscribe button below.
Lets get into it.
Game Recap: Knicks 93, Jazz 108
The Knicks came out on fire from downtown, parlaying a 7-for-11 start from deep into an early nine-point lead. The Jazz used a 31-11 run to flip the game, but the Knicks hung around until the fourth, never letting the lead balloon past 15. In the fourth, the kids had their revenge, and behind Immanuel Quickley, used a 16-8 run to get the lead down to four. Then, with just under five to go, Tom Thibodeau brought Julius Randle back in, and the Jazz promptly blew the game open.
Which brings us to…
With all due respect to RJ Barret (on the good end) and Kemba Walker (on the not so good end), this Knicks season has been defined by two men and only two men: Julius Randle and Tom Thibodeau. That is the case for the second year in a row, but with slightly different results.
Last season, Thibs and Randle became arguably the most iconic coach/player pairing the team had known since Riley and Ewing, maybe not in terms of success, but in the symbiosis they achieved. The coach brought more out of the player than anyone ever had, and the player rewarded the coach for his belief by having one of the most decorated seasons by a Knick in recent memory. Of all the questions the franchise faced coming into this season, those two men headed up the list of sure things, or at least the surest of the lot.
This season, the conversation once again centers around them, and once again, there is relative surety amongst the fan base regarding their status. Just not the good kind.
No Knicks fan - not the ones who are still watching, at least - needed to see the final 4:48 of this one to know how it would end.
That’s when Randle checked back into the game, in between a pair of Rudy Gobert free throws that would take the lead to six points. He had been out since the end of the third, when a lineup of Immanuel Quckley, Obi Toppin, Quentin Grimes and a combination of Barrett/McBride and Sims/Robinson - seven players who are on rookie contracts - got the Knicks back in it in the same manner they always do: with a relentless energy that defined the team last season.
Did Randle come in with the same level of ferocity and unselfishness, perhaps to make up for the fact that he was 5-for-18 up to that point, on his way to 6-for-21? No, no he did not.
Randle’s first play after being reinserted - a missed bunny off a beautiful feed from RJ Barrett - almost made you feel bad for him. It was the sort of shot that went in for him during last season’s magical run that just hasn’t gone down as consistently this year.
And if missed shots were the only problem with Randle’s 2021-22 season, we’d all be a lot more willing to forgive him, and in turn, forgive his coach for sticking with him through tough times. Players can still help their team win games even when shots aren’t dropping. They do so with their approach, their attitude and their leadership. They set an example that good shooting isn’t the only path to good play.
But players who do that are the opposite of what Julius Randle has been this season, and there is perhaps no better example than last night.
The above three plays are not an exclusive sample size of the night Randle had, but they are a representative one. In less than a three-minute span to close the first half, we saw Randle:
Give zero effort in transition defense on Donovan Mitchell - a fact that was highlighted by no less than Mike Breen on the MSG broadcast.
Disregarded not one, not two, but three shooters behind the arc in favor of going one-on-one with soon-to-be four-time Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert. And then, in the play immediately above…
Carelessly bring the ball up while willfully ignoring a pursuing Mitchell, who of course stole the rock and led a break in the other direction.
There are other plays I could throw in here to drive home the point - pick almost anything from his terrible shot selection, or maybe when he gave up baseline in the third so Donovan could throw down a hellacious dunk - but you get the gist.
Tom Thibodeau should have gotten it as well. Thibs was watching the same game we all were. He knew full well that not only did Julius Randle not have it, but that he was making no great effort to find it, or even figure out what “it” is, save for some bullshit mano a mano pissing match with Gobert that spilled over after the final buzzer sounded. He knew that for the umpteenth time this season, Randle wasn’t playing to win; he was playing for himself.
And if you hold Thibs at his word, that is in violation of his Rule No. 1. It is how you lose time in his book, not gain more of it. And yet, despite a season full of plays like this…
(which effectively ended this game, especially after Randle fouled Mitchell on the other end, allowing Utah to push the lead to 10), Randle has now played more minutes than all but three players in the league.
I myself have defended Tom for his continued reliance on Randle, for two simple reasons: the Knicks have a dearth of players who draw the attention of the defense, and he is signed to a four-year, nine-figure extension that hasn’t even kicked in yet. Even if Thibodeau wanted to, seriously diminishing Randle’s role or minutes isn’t really an option. If you think the Knicks are going to have a tough time trading Randle now, imagine if the entire league knew the coach who had his back more than anyone wanted him gone.
But here’s the thing: yesterday was one of those nights that made it clear Thibs doesn’t want to hold Randle accountable, or at least that’s how it felt. In truth, New York wasn’t going to win that game regardless of who closed it out, but that’s all the more reason to let the guys who gave a damn finish it. No one would have questioned keeping Randle on the bench, not with the way he had played, and not with the effort the kids were bringing.
Marc Berman @NYPost_BermanJulius Randle falls to pieces as #Knicks lose to #Jazz on Donovan Mitchell's big night https://t.co/29SjkttJki via @nypostsports
But back in he came. Why? Maybe Thibs saw the kids running out of gas and figured the slim chance Randle (and Fournier, who could at least boast some hot shooting) gave them to win was better than the alternative option. Maybe he’s worried about the perception around the league. Maybe he’s worried about losing Randle even more than he has now. Or maybe, as Kevin Danishefsky theorized on last night’s postgame livestream, Thibs is so used to having coached guys like Ewing, Garnett, Rose and Butler that he refuses to accept the fact that not every star is built the same.
Whatever the reason, it has become clear that this partnership cannot continue. If Thibodeau cannot hold Randle accountable, and refuses to respond adequately to the resulting situation, then someone needs to go. I have argued (at my peril) that Thibs is still a good coach, especially when it comes to defensive game plans and properly motivating the vast majority of his roster. He is also flawed in several ways that have been exposed this season, arguably his worst as coach. There is a sound argument that even if this season is not his fault per se, it doesn’t mean he remains the best coach for the job.
Randle, on the other hand, seems far too volatile to trust under any coach. He also might be far harder to move on from, adding a layer of complexity to this debate. In the end, I trust Thibs to offer a baseline of competence without a highly mercurial lead dog more than I do Randle to suddenly revert back to what he was last season before he got paid (and I’m not even talking about his shooting woes, a significant issue in their own right).
Whatever happens, we are a far, far cry from a little more than a year ago, when Randle said the following of his coach:
“He's done a good job of putting me in positions on the court and playing me in good spots in general, but the biggest thing is just holding me accountable on a game-to-game basis to continue to push me to do more. Also, holding me accountable to bring leadership to the team.”
And Thibs said this about his star player:
“He plays with a lot of toughness, and there’s a lot of multiple-effort plays that he’s making, but he’s also playing very unselfishly. If you cut and you’re open, he’s going to hit you. He can handle the ball, he’s got very good skills with the ball…Playing big minutes, comes in the next day and works, takes care of his body, great with recovery, great in the film sessions, and it’s the type of leadership that’s invaluable to a team.”
Invaluable to a team.
It’s staggering how fast we went from that to unvaluable. There’s little question about that transition, which now seems complete. Less certain is who gets most of the blame…or more importantly, what’s the best path to fixing the problem.
Stat of the Day
The Knicks have now played close to 1000 minutes without Julius Randle on the court this season, and have outscored teams by 6.7 points per 100 possessions in that time. Only the Suns and Jazz have better full season net ratings than that number.
Game Recap: Knicks 100, Wizards 97
Very much a glass half full / glass half empty kind of game. On the fuller side:
The Knicks won a game with their defense and rebounding, two signs of a team still fighting hard. This is the first time New York won while shooting under 35 percent from the field since 1992. Their rebound margin of 22 also tied a season high, set previously in Milwaukee back in November.
Young guys made the difference. Immanuel Quickley continues to emerge from his slump and was the best player on the court, Mitchell Robinson and Jericho Sims combined for 14 offensive boards that led to 17 second chance points, and RJ Barrett persevered through a dreadful shooting night and came through with nine fourth quarter points, including two clutch free throws to close it out.
They didn’t blow it.
As for the glass half empty:
They really, really tried to blow it, yet again choking away a big lead late and allowing the Wizards to end the game on a 16-4 run in the last four minutes. In light of Utah’s subsequent 15-4 run to end last night’s affair, it’s safe to say that New York’s crunch time woes are not a thing of the past.
The offense was bad, and the matching 18 point, 6-for-22 performances from Randle and Barrett was a reminder that no other team relies on two lead dogs who are so regularly inefficient. The Knicks are the only team in the NBA with multiple players who have above a 25 usage rate and below a 48 eFG%.
What’s the point? If you’re supporting the tank, this was a bad win.
The ship, it may be sailin’
Atlanta lost last night but New York gained no ground. Even if they beat the Hawks on Tuesday night, that still leaves them four games back with 10 to play. The Knicks own the tiebreaker, but you’re still talking about them needing to go 8-2 with the Hawks going 4-6, or 7-3 / 3-7…something like that. In other words, the offseason should be here before we know it.
💫 Stars of the Weekend 💫
⭐️ Mitchell Robinson / Jericho Sims: For the second Monday recap in a row, I’m splitting the honor between these two. Robinson, who tied a career high with 10 offensive rebounds on Friday night, made his presence known against the Wizards, while Sims was the more effective of the two last night. I’ll have more on them coming later this week.
⭐️ ⭐️ Evan Fournier: Last week I compared him to bad Chinese food, and while Fournier remains an imperfect player, he’s rehabilitated his season to the point that we should appreciate him for what he is, and that is the most effective shot-maker this team has. The Knicks had 26 threes over the weekend and Fournier had 10 of them. He totaled 32 points while chipping in six assists and five steals between the two games.
Fournier and Quentin Grimes are far and away the most efficient perimeter players on the Knicks, and while Grimes is shooting it a little better, Fournier has attempted about four times as many shots, many of which have come with a high degree of difficulty. He’s one of 21 players averaging at least 28 minutes a night with at least a 20 usage rate and an effective field goal percentage of 55 or higher, and most of those guys are big men. The Knicks may not have gotten their money’s worth, but Fournier also isn’t the bust he felt like earlier in the year.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Immanuel Quickley: The turnaround in Immanuel Quickley’s season shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. His approach to the game never wavered, even as he was struggling with his shot and with finding the balance between scoring and distributing earlier this year.
Even with that steady approach though, the way he’s progressed has been significant, thanks in part to improvements in key parts of his game.
The maturation from bench flamethrower to quasi-point guard has been a bumpy one, but as he shows with a multitude of passes every night, it’s been a worthy expenditure of energy.
Of his nine total assists this weekend, the best two both came on Friday, and for altogether different reasons. The first was when he bypassed tossing the rock in to an ice cold Julius Randle, instead deciding to penetrate and hit Grimes for a better look in the corner. That’s a decision a point guard makes - one who is in command of the offense. The second pass was earlier in the same game when he hit Randle for a full-court toss ahead of the defense - a feat which he repeated with Obi last night.
The other major sign of growth has been in his recent ability to draw fouls:
After 20 total free throw attempts between both games, Quick has now attempted 61 freebies over his last seven games. He is averaging 9.7 attempts per 36 minutes over that span, a number topped only by Giannis, KAT, Embiid, Jimmy Butler and (sigh) Kristaps Porzingis in that time. He has clearly gotten comfortable penetrating and using his craftiness to manipulate defenders into disrupting his shooting motion.
Thanks to that surge, his points per shot attempt is the highest it has been all season, and is above the median for combo guards according to Cleaning the Glass. All together, he is surging with the confidence he often displayed as a rookie, and is back to being the player Knicks fans have utmost faith in when he checks in to a game.
That faith is why last night, in addition to re-inserting Randle, Thibodeau also frustrated everyone by pulling Quickley late in the fourth. He re-entered less than 90 seconds later, but Thibs’ explanation afterwards - that IQ had been playing for a while and he knew he could get him back in before the end of the game - still felt a little hollow, especially when he was the best thing the Knicks had going. In total, 31 points on 16 shots is a pretty efficient weekend for New York’s second-year pro.
Check back tomorrow for more analysis and No. 10 on the Top 75 Players in Knicks History.