The Knicks have won nine straight, and Julius Randle is in the MVP conversation. Let's talk about why, what it means, and where he can go from here.
Good Morning, and WWWWWWWWWelcome back to another week of newsletters about the hottest team in the league and the story of this NBA season. Most of today’s newsletter will focus on Julius Randle and whether he has a real MVP case (and if not, what it would take to change that in the future). First we’ll focus on New York’s latest win though.
Before we get there, a reminder: if you’re not a regular subscriber, feel free to change that! It feels like as good a time to run a 20 percent off special as any, so here you go:
Game 61: Knicks 120, Raptors 103 - “End the season now.”
⌚️ Quick Recap: Another day, another game that stayed too close for too long, another fourth quarter where the Knicks pulled away. Julius Randle did most of his damage early, while Obi Toppin and Nerlens Noel made their presence known on opposite ends of the court late. This team continues to make all the right plays at all the right times.
👶 Raising Obi: Finally! Obi Toppin was in some ways the star of the show against Toronto, connecting on three 3-pointers, including two early in the fourth quarter that helped put the game away. ABOUT. DAMN. TIME.
You’ve also never seen someone so happy to be doing a postgame media session as he was after this one.
✋ 🚫 Nerlens Strikes Again…and again…and again…and again: That’s right…four more blocks for New York’s fill-in starting center who doesn’t seem keen on relinquishing his role anytime soon, regardless of if and when Mitchell Robinson gets healthy.
As I’ve noted before, Noel has a real sense of timing on some of these swats, and they often wind up shifting or cementing momentum in the Knicks’ direction. His back to back blocks in the late third bookended the beginning of a 26-10 run, and this late rejection of Pascal Siakam sealed the deal:
📈 Team Stat of the Day 📉: The Knicks have by far the best fourth quarter net rating in the league since the start of the winning streak at positive 21.5. The Clippers are second during that time at 15.7.
This is a far cry from how this year started out, when New York began games well enough but couldn’t close. At negative 4.3, they had the sixth worst 4th quarter net rating before the All-Star break.
📈 Stat of the Day (Players) 📉: Over the nine-game winning streak, Immanuel Quickley has the highest plus/minus in the NBA at plus 97. Not highest of all rookies, highest of all players.
When he’s been on the floor during this stretch, the Knicks are outscoring opponents by 25.4 points per 100 possessions. On the flip side, Elfrid Payton - who was abysmal on Saturday, even by his standards - is a negative 4.6 per 100. In the 275 minutes Payton hasn’t been on the floor during this stretch, New York is outscoring teams by 18.1 points per 100 possessions. My goodness.
🗣 Quote of the Weekend: After the game on Saturday, Tom Thibodeau invoked the name of the patron saint of any Knick fan under 50, Patrick Ewing, in taking about Julius Randle. Specifically, he referenced Ewing’s work ethic, and being the first in the building even when he was the best player, in speaking about what leadership really is. According to Thibs, who saw Ewing up close when he was a Knicks assistant in the 90’s, Randle is cut from the same cloth.
That wasn’t may favorite quote of the weekend though. Before the game, Thibs spoke on Julius' recent comments about wanting a coach who holds him accountable, and how important that quality is to have in a star player. Here was his response:
“I think it’s critical for success, and I saw that right away. I asked him when I first got hired to come in for a few days because I wanted to see where he was conditioning-wise and get to know him a little bit. When I saw the way he came in and I saw the way he worked, and we had our first conversation, I pretty much knew. And I worked him out, so I felt like ‘OK, this guy has great capacity for work, he has the ability to concentrate, he’s in great shape’ and you start there. He’s been tremendous. I’ve said it many times: he’s our engine. He’s been a great leader right from the start, and he’s growing. He’s still getting better.”
It was always said that the San Antonio dynasty was spawned as much from Duncan’s willingness to be coached like the 15th man on the roster as it did from his greatness as a player.
Randle isn’t Duncan, but as we continue to contemplate just how crazy it is to think that the Knicks could contend with Randle as their best player, the role he’s taken on as a leader and conduit for the head coach can’t be understated.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ RJ Barrett: The kid puts up 25 points on 16 shots, grabs a team-high 12 boards, dishes four dimes, and he has to settle for third here. Demand a recount.
⭐️ ⭐️ Derrick Rose: Gets the nod over Barrett for one simple reason: even amidst this streak, there seem to be tense moments during every game where you’re watching and aren’t quite sure where the next basket is going to come from. It seems like every time, Rose manages to come up with a big make.
Derrick’s 12 first half points compensated for Barrett’s early struggles, and his seven assists (to just one turnover) were a team high. Over the last five games, Rose is playing a hair under 30 minutes per game and has a 64.8 effective field goal percentage. This is, without question, the best basketball he’s ever played in a Knick uniform.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: 31 points on 17 shots, 10 boards, and another step closer to this season’s MVP conversation. This was Randle’s fifth game of the season with at least 30 points, 8 boards and 5 made threes, which is third in the league behind Luka Doncic (7x) and Steph Curry (6x).
Much more on him in a bit.
🔜 Next Game
🏀 Who: Phoenix Suns (42-18, tied for 3rd in West, + 6.0 net rating; 4th best in the NBA)
⌚️ When & Where: 7:30 pm at MSG
½ Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter.
🤕 Who’s Out: For New York, Alec Burks remains out due to Health & Safety Protocols. Jae Crowder (right ankle sprain) has missed three straight for Phoenix, and could be out. OAKAAK Langston Galloway also missed yesterday’s loss against Brooklyn for personal reasons.
✍️ News & Notes
🏀 The Knicks had a busy weekend off the court that won’t have much consequence aside from the personal finances of the players involved. Jared Harper was converted from a two-way deal to a 10-day contract, Myles Powell took Harper’s two-way and was subsequently waived, and as per Ian Begley, Simi Shittu will be given the two-way spot next. Shittu averaged 14 points and 10 boards for Westchester this season.
Basically this is New York doing these guys a solid and giving some extra dough to their G-League contributors. Once Harper’s 10-day runs out, they’ll have the opportunity to use the final roster spot on someone else. Oh, and for the conspiracy theorists out there, Harper’s agent, Aaron Turner, also reps Victor Oladipo and 2022 free agent Terry Rozier.
Standings Check In:
Reevaluating Randle’s Ceiling
Early on in New York’s nine-game winning streak, the one that has taken them from “oh, the Knicks are kinda fun again” to “preeminent national sports story going,” something incredibly rare happened involving the Knicks’ do-it-all engine nay MVP candidate.
It is the only time this event happened during the entire 366 minutes he’s played during the streak; the only instance out of 88 made field goalshe has scored.
Blink, and you might have missed it:
Did you catch it?
This is Julius Randle scoring an assisted basket at the rim in the half court setting.
A few of his other 87 made shots during this stretch were assisted looks he finished at the rim, but all came in transition or semi-transition. This dime, where Randle cuts baseline after Pascal Siakam loses sight of him, was the only assist in the half court that ended in the restricted area.
This play was a big deal for a few reasons, starting with the fact that Julius Randle, MVP candidate isn’t a better version of Julius Randle, enigmatic lottery talent. The latter is what we’d become accustomed to over the previous six seasons. The guy we’re seeing now is a wholly different basketball player altogether.
The former Randle lived in the paint, and was once in the 79th percentilein frequency of shots taken around the rim for his position, when nearly seven out of every 10 attempts he took came at close range. Now, he’s in the 12th percentile league-wide, with just 24 percent of looks in the restricted area. Kristaps Porzingis, the papier-mâché power forward who welcomes contact less than a Ford Pinto, has a higher frequency.
This may come off as an insult to Randle, but it’s anything but. That percentile is comparing Julius to other big men in the NBA. Between shot attempts and fouls drawn, he’s put up nearly 300 shots at the rim, which is more or less in line with other non-Giannis big wings league-wide.
That’s what Randle is now. He’s gone from a man without a position (a big who lived down low because he couldn’t stretch the floor but also couldn’t protect the rim) to a super-sized version of the Kawhi’s and PG13’s and Tatum’s of the world. There was one stretch during this win streak (the two games in New Orleans and Dallas) when only two of his shots in a stretch of 35 attempts came inside of 10 feet.
Even Saturday, only two of Randle’s 10 makes were inside of 19 feet, and they were both when Pascal Siakam got switched onto him. The rest of the time, when Nick Nurse attempted to shut Randle down with the burly OG Anunoby, Julius either took advantage of the space OG provided him or simply made space of his own:
Compare what we’re seeing now to last season, when after Julius attempted two 3-pointers and a 10-footer as three of his first seven shots, 28 of his next 36 came from inside 10 feet. He had other stretches last season where 30 of 36 and 28 of 38 came from inside of 10 feet. On the whole, Randle took 46 percent of his shots within four feet of the basket, which was in the 48th percentile league-wide.
Unlike the previous two seasons before his first New York campaign though, when Randle hit 69 and 66 percent of shots at the rim, his accuracy up close dropped to 60 percent last year. It didn’t help that this mack truck of a human being was constantly driving into multiple bodies and putting up looks amidst a thicket of appendages.
Fast forward to this season, when everything is sunshine and rainbows, and that 60 percent conversion rate has jumped all the way up to…60 percent.
Before the season, the chorus from the fan base was about how the organization’s offseason moves need to prioritize spacing to ease RJ Barrett’s forays into the paint, but affording Randle the same benefit was just as vital. And while the Knicks have quietly become one of the deadliest 3-point shooting teams in the league and the offense has looked eminently more cohesive as a result, one result that hasn’t occurred is Julius (or, for that matter, RJ) getting a ton of easier looks at the cylinder.
In fact, the percentage of Randle’s assisted baskets in the restricted area has plummeted from 47 percent to 41 percent. The same goes for his assisted hoops in the midrange, which has dropped from 30 to 29 percent.
The obvious flip side to this coin, and the reason why Julius is on the outskirts of the MVP discussion, is that he’s become Kawhi Leonard from the long midrangeand Paul George from deep.
This is fantastic, but it doesn’t change how Julius Randle’s life in the Knicks’ offense has become harder, not easier. That’s not to be confused with how much easier Randle has made everyone else’s life, but the fact remains that the rest of the roster is benefiting from his ability to hit outside shots and thus draw attention, not the other way around.
This right here is perhaps the biggest section of Randle’s MVP portfolio, and why his inclusion in that discussion isn’t hyperbolic in the least.
To be clear: there are MVP candidates and then there are MVP candidates. Is Randle going to win? No, but that’s not an insult. Only two players - Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid - have a “real” chance to win, and even that assumes that Jokic will miss some games and/or the Nuggets go into a complete tailspin. Maybe the field expands to three if Golden State can somehow make a run into the top six and Steph goes to yet another level of Supernova.
That’s it though. Everyone else - Giannis, Harden, LeBron, Dame, Luka, Kawhi, Gobert - is just fighting for a place on voters’ five-man ballots. To that end, Randle belongs in the discussion. He does more with less help than anyone, and the results speak for themselves.
There are a bunch of stats, advanced and otherwise, to support why he belongs, but as it pertains to our discussion here, how about this one: of the three All-NBA level players averaging 20, 10 & 5, Randle’s percentage of unassisted field goals (45.9 percent) is much closer to Giannis (41.2) than Jokic (55.8). This takes a little bit of the edge off Jokic’s dominating lead in eFG% (60.6 to 51.9), and while it’s impossible to make a coherent statistical case against Antetokounmpo, it’s also impossible to deny the fact that he is almost always on the floor with four shooters whereas Randle usually has only two or three. Given that their playmaking numbers are about dead even, the two-time MVP’s lead lessens just a bit.
I could also point to the fact that a number of Randle’s “assisted” looks are the result of some generous scorekeeping, to put it kindly…
…but you get the point.
Even if just a handful of voters sneak Randle onto the bottom of their ballots, it’s still a massive achievement, and one that could wind up being the beginning of a trend instead of a one-off career year. Remember, Jimmy Butler didn’t get an MVP vote until his age-28 season. Steve Nash was 27. Chauncey Billups, perhaps my favorite comp for the level of impact we hope is coming for Julius, was 29.
But for as amazing and improbable as this has been, Randle won’t ever be able to get into an inner-circle MVP conversation as things currently stand. He takes too many difficult shots and arguably gets fewer easy buckets than any great player in the NBA. That means his efficiency will continue to be too low to be considered in the upper echelon of the league’s elites.
It doesn’t have to stay that way though. Moving forward, with the right roster moves, the Knicks can continue reaping all the rewards of Randle’s improved and expanded game while also taking advantage of his ability to finish strong at the rim - maybe his greatest strength as a player, but one that has gone almost completely underutilized this season. The guy that dominated from close range during his last year in LA and only year in New Orleans is still in there; they just need to tap into him.
There are two ways to do this, both obvious but neither easy:
Find a stretch five who can also protect the rim. This would enable Randle to work more as the roll man in high pick and rolls where the rest of the floor is spaced out. Unfortunately, there aren’t a ton of these players that exist in the universe. Sigh.
It’s worth noting that Randle scored 1.34 points per possession as a pick & roll finisher two seasons ago. Even without a stretch five, a point guard who defenses can’t go under on would make a world of difference in being able to use Randle more on these sorts of plays. Speaking of which…
Find a point guard who can break down a defense and hit Randle for easy cuts. Right now, the league’s preeminent cutter based on volume and efficiency is Zion Williamson (3.4 possessions per game; 1.47 points per possession ), who is not human. Following him, it’s Montrezl Harrell (2.8/1.42), who gets to play with LeBron James, and then Deandre Ayton (2.8/1.41), who shares the court with Chris Paul. Slightly below them are DeAndre Jordan (2.3/1.54), who plays with James Harden, and Michael Porter Jr (2.1/1.34), who shares the court with Nikola Jokic.
Point is, playing with transcendent playmakers has its benefits. This season, Randle logs just 0.5 cuts per game, scoring just 1.10 points per possession on such plays. Just last season though, it was 1.49 on 1.2 possessions per game. He has it in him.
While it would be lovely to think that Immanuel Quickley can continue to evolve to the point of becoming the answer to this equation, the more likely answer lies outside the organization. If the Suns flame out in the playoffs, the Chris Paul drumbeat will get louder. Kyle Lowry is the other older option, and while he isn’t in Paul’s class as a playmaker, he’s certainly the second best reasonably available option.
There’s also Spencer Dinwiddie, who can make the simple pass in the pick & roll and developed a lovely rapport with Jarrett Allen last season, as well as Lowry’s former teammate DeMar DeRozan, who is averaging 7.2 assists per game.
And then we have Lonzo Ball, the apple of many a Knick fan’s eye. The organization no doubt loves his age in comparison with the above options, but he’s also much closer to Dinwiddie than Lowry as a playmaker, and is not in the same universe as Paul. Most of his assists out of the pick and roll this season have come through early passes, where he’s been able to give Zion and Jaxon Hayes a runway from which they can load up and finish:
(For those wondering whether the answer lies on the roster right now in the form of former MVP Derrick Rose, I couldn’t find a single instance of Rose and Randle connecting on a pick & roll or of Rose finding Randle on a cut).
Without question, there will be options. The solution that New York chooses could wind up determining whether Randle goes from simply being “in the MVP conversation” to actually becoming a real participant in the race.
And that’s a scary, scary thought for the rest of the NBA.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe for free to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
I will never get tired of typing those words.
4th most in the NBA since April 9 heading into yesterday.
Yes, I went back and watched all 88 makes. I have issues.
Courtesy of Cleaning the Glass; this came during his final season in LA.
This is actually an insult…to Julius. According to Cleaning the Glass, entering the weekend, Leonard was shooting 44 percent on 170 long twos; Randle was at 45 percent on 235 such attempts.
Russell Westbrook is also putting up this stat line, as well as a scintillating 46.9 eFG%
Giannis has a slight edge in AST% while Randle takes the cake in AST Ratio and AST/TO.