On the Back of Greatness
Today, I litigate Julius Randle's MVP case. Plus, a recap of last night.
Gooooood Morning Knicks Fans! Congratulations on being a supporter of the team that had the best net rating in the NBA for the month of April, and has started off May as No. 2. We’ll start today by recapping the blowout in Houston and then spend most of our time exploring why Julius Randle - yes, Julius Freaking Randle - deserves to be in the conversation for MVP.
But first, a reminder that if you’re not a full subscriber, there no better time to change that! 👇🏼
Game 63: Knicks 122, Rockets 97 - “We Here.”
⌚️ Quick Recap: The Rockets are very bad. Very bad. The Knicks knew that, but didn’t let their guard down, going up 15 early in the second and then, on the back of the man who has carried them all season long, put this one away in the third.
🏆 Turning Point of the Game: The opening tip, if we’re being honest.
In fairness, the Rockets trimmed the lead to a dozen midway through the third and had several opportunities to cut it even more. But New York’s defense held, and Julius Randle scored eight points in 86 seconds, including two step back triples, the second of which is the one that got his boss a little fired up:
They pushed the lead above 20 a few minutes later and never looked back.
🤔 That’s Odd… Elfrid Payton played 14 minutes last night, less than half of Derrick Rose’s total and the third time in four games he’s played under 15 (which is still 15 too many if you ask me, but I digress…) Here’s the funny part though: the thing that everyone was most concerned with before the season actually hasn’t been that big of a problem lately.
No, Payton still doesn’t shoot a ton of threes - just 1.5 a night in the 20 games since he’s returned from injury - but he’s made 40 percent in that time, including nine of his last 16. Volume matters as much here as accuracy, so please don’t mistake this as an argument in Payton’s favor, especially since he continues to struggle immensely in other areas, like…oh, I don’t know…consistently hitting the rim on shots within five feet.
Still, I thought this was kind of funny.
🍿 Opi Poppin: A nice moment last night for anyone still on “Obi is a future small ball five” Island:
Overall, Toppin played some more solid defense across the board, and is eminently crisper with his rotations than he was early in the season. He no longer feels like a massive liability on the court, and Thibs made sure to say after the game how well he thinks the rookie has been playing.
💫 Stars of the Game 💫
⭐️ RJ Barrett: Crazy that we can now look at 21 points on 16 shots as just a ho-hum night for Barrett, but that’s where we’re at. It’s not a bad place to be. Throw in the seven rebounds and five assists, and he sneaks in above a few other worthy candidates here.
⭐️ ⭐️ Derrick Rose: Thanks to a 4-for-5 night from deep, Derrick Rose ended up needing just 11 shots to get his 24 points. A quick scan through his game logs reveals that this is the most efficient 20-point scoring output of Rose’s career, with the closest comp I could find coming when he put up 29 points on 14 shots against the Clippers on December 30, 2011.
He also tossed in six boards and four dimes , and after the game, downplayed the notion that he was playing too many minutes, saying that he goes hard in practice for upwards of an hour and a half, so why should 30 minutes of game action be a big deal? No lies detected.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ Julius Randle: Who else did you expect?
Forget the threes (he had four of them on nine attempts) and the final line (31, 7 & 6) and even the freight train finishes he still flashes from time to time.
How about the fact that right after his two straight step backs that had Worldwide Wes screaming his accolades at the top of his lungs, Randle had a wide-open three on the very next offensive possession…and did this:
This play won’t show up in the box score, as is the case with a lot of what he does on a nightly basis.
Much more on the unselfish, unstoppable, unflappable Randle in a bit.
📈 Standings Check In 📉
Celtics lost at home to the Blazers and the Heat won in Charlotte. Tonight, keep an eye on Atlanta hosting Portland.
🔜 Game Night 🔜
🏀 Who: Memphis Grizzlies (32-31, 8th in the West, 3.5 GB of 6th, 0.5 GA of 9th)
🔢 Stat Central: The Grizzlies were fine in April - 10-7, positive 2.9 net rating - but are coming off a bad loss to the Magic. They’re just 2-3 since Jaren Jackson Jr’s return.
⌚️ When & Where: Tonight, 9 pm in Memphis
½ Halftime Zoom: Click here to enter.
🤕 Who’s Out: Nerlens Noel, probably…more on that below. We’ll see about Alec Burks. For the Grizzlies, Grayson Allen has missed some recent games with a hand injury, and his status is unknown.
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Nerlens Noel went down after a Rocket rolled into his ankle midway through the third. He didn’t return to the game, and had x-rays afterwards, which Woj reported came back negative. Thibs didn’t have an update after the game and according to Woj, Noel will be evaluated again today. When asked about a possible rotation adjustment, Thibs was noncommittal afterwards, saying only that they had different options.
🏀 Alec Burks, cleared out of health and safety protocols, sat out another game. Thibs said beforehand that he’s still working his way back.
🏀 Mitchell Robinson is healing “as planned” but Thibs doesn’t want to put a timetable on his return, emphasizing that the team will be patient and cautious.
🏀 We learned this weekend that the Knicks have a 4-point line in their practice facility, and that Immanuel Quickley has become quite comfortable behind it. IQ hit a 30-footer last night not far from the Rockets logo, and another 3-pointer on a step back en route to 13 points and four dimes. He’s a rookie, in case you forgot.
🏀 On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kevin Knox made a late appearance last night and looked…not great (Bob). It wasn’t an encouraging sign for anyone who thinks he deserves a spot in this rotation (or who is still defending that pick. Bueller? Bueller??)
🏀 The rumor mill heated up a bit at the end of last week, with Marc Berman reporting that the Knicks will be “ready to pounce” if and when the Blazers make Damian Lillard available via trade. I’d heard some similar scuttlebuttearlier in the week, so this isn’t coming out of thin air. The question is whether Lillard ever gets to a point of frustration that he asks out (the only scenario under which Portland would move him). To that end, last week’s Yahoo piece from former Blazer scribe Chris Haynes, in which he makes the case that Portland has done a poor job of surrounding Dame with sufficient talent, is a good sign.
🏀 Lastly, Julius heard some MVP chants during the game last night, which notably was not played in New York. Speaking of which…
“Get On My Back”
Before we get to Julius, let’s start with the obvious, because it needs to be said up front: There is no actual MVP race.
To suggest as much implies that there is more than one person who can win this award, and that simply isn’t the case. Nikola Jokic is the Most Valuable Player for the 2020-21 NBA season, and it’s not particularly close.
Even putting aside the fact that he’s putting up 26.2, 10.9 & 8.6 on 56/41/85 splits, and is one of a few handfuls of players in the league this year not to miss a game, and that the Nuggets haven’t skipped a beat since Jamal Murray went down…on top of all that, the advanced stats say that he is in a race not against his peers, but against history.
Jokic’s .3004 win shares per 48 minutes currently ranks as the 11th best season of all time, trailing only campaigns put forth by Jordan (3x), Kareem (3x), LeBron (2x), Steph and Wilt. 10 of the 12 seasons ahead of him were awarded the MVP, with only one Kareem season (due to voter fatigue) and one Wilt season (due to an almost equally absurd Oscar year) failing to take home the prize. Three of the four seasons after him (LeBron twice and KD once) also won MVP, with a David Robinson 2nd place finish tossed in between.
As it stands, the difference between Nikola Jokic’s Value Over Replacement Player rating (7.7) and the second best figure (Steph at 4.9) is the same as the difference between Curry and 34th place. There is a similar gap in win shares - Jokic has 14.0 while Gobert is in second at 10.1, which is the same gap that exists between Gobert and 26th place.
Again, for emphasis: the race is over. There is no race, not for first place at least.
But the rest of the ballot? That is wide open. And the names that go on to be listed in spots two, three, four and five matter immensely. Everyone judges greatness differently, and so much goes into determining a player’s place in the pecking order of all-time NBA legends. Basketball’s Hall of Fame may be the Hall of Very Good in reality, but it still matters, and the number of times a player ends up among the five or seven or 10 best in the sport arguably means as much as any other component of their argument.
So yes, it is a worthy expenditure of my time to explain why, in this strangest of NBA seasons, Julius Randle is deserving of a spot not only in the top 10, but securely in the top five, and perhaps even a bit higher.
Before we even get to Randle’s numbers - both traditional, advanced, and everything in between - or his impact on this team, we have to take a tour through NBA history, and how the rest of this field of candidates simply doesn’t fit the bill where MVP precedent is concerned. That field, according to Vegas Insider, is as follows:
We’ll start with four of the 12 names on this list - Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, LeBron James, and James Harden. With two weeks to go, those four players have missed substantial portions of the season. Here are the exact numbers of games missed, along with the resulting percent of the season they’ll have played assuming they don’t miss a single additional game (which in the case of James Harden we know won’t be the case):
Kawhi – 16 games missed (77.7% of season played)
Embiid – 19 games missed (73.6% of season played)
LeBron – 21 games missed (70.8% of season played)
Harden – 22 games missed (69.4% of season played)
Dating back to the 1977-78 season (when the voters shrugged and gave it to defending Finals MVP Bill Walton as sort of a thank you for being the best player on the best team despite only playing 58 of 82 games for a margin of 70 percent) only one player has even finished in the top five in voting while playing less than 79 percent of his games: Shaquille O’Neal, who finished fourth in 1998 despite missing 22 of 82 games, good for 73 percent.
That ‘98 campaign was a strange one, with the league in transition from the stars of the 90’s to the LeBron generation, except the group that was supposed to bridge the gap fell flat on their face. As a result, the 1998 voting saw a rookie (Tim Duncan) finish 5th, Tim Hardaway Sr finish 6th despite a fairly average season by his standards, David Robinson finish 7th as the second best player on his own team, and the immortal Vin Baker finish 8th.
In other words, the notion of someone playing below 79 percent of their games and finishing in the top five is unheard of. Twice a player has finished at exactly 79 percent and ended up in the top five (Kobe in 2004 and Kawhi in 2020, who both finished fifth), and then 30 other times, someone has missed at least 10 games (playing between 80 and 89 percent of games) and finished in the top 5.
That 10-game mark is exactly where Giannis Antetokounmpo is right now, and it’s 11 if you don’t count Thursday night, when he played just 46 seconds before leaving with an injury. It’s enough to get him on the ballot, although I’d argue that if the Knicks finish just a few games short of the Bucks, there’s reasonable cause to put Randle ahead of the guy who gets to play with two All-Stars.
But let’s put Giannis in the top five, and exclude the other three. Yes, I’m excluding Embiid. I’m sorry, but you can’t miss more than a quarter of the season and be as valuable as someone who has missed just one game, not when NBA history has judged this volume of missed games as harshly as it has.
One other name on the list deserves mention here is Donovan Mitchell. He’s missed 11 games and it’s been reported that he’ll miss at least the next three. Four more would leave him short of the 79 percent mark, and frankly, his statistical argument against Randle is weak to begin with. He’s out.
Lastly, there is no COVID-19 exception to this games played criteria. Being extra careful in this most unique of NBA seasons is part of the job of being an NBA player, and this is the MVP race we’re talking about here. It is the very definition of a situation where picking nits is not only warranted, but necessary.
Which brings us to issue No. 2: team performance. In the last 40 seasons, only 15 times has a player on a team which failed to garner a top-six seed finished in the top five in the voting, and only three times has such a player finished higher than fourth:
Moses Malone: 4th place in 1981 (Team finish: 6th, 40-42)
Michael Jordan: 2nd place in 1987 (Team finish: 8th, 40-42)
Charles Barkley: 4th place in 1988 (Team finish: 10th, 36-46)
Dominique Wilkins: 5th place in 1993 (Team finish: 7th, 43-39)
Kevin Garnett: 5th place in 2001 (Team finish: 8th, 47-35)
Tracy McGrady: 4th place in 2003 (Team finish: 8th, 42-40)
Allen Iverson: 5th place in 2005 (Team finish: 7th, 43-39)
Kobe Bryant: 4th place in 2006 (Team finish: 7th, 45-37)
Kobe Bryant: 3rd place in 2007 (Team finish: 7th, 42-40)
Chris Paul: 5th place in 2009 (Team finish: 7th, 49-33)
Kevin Durant: 2nd place in 2010 (Team finish: 8th, 50-32)
Kobe Bryant: 5th place in 2013 (Team finish: 7th, 45-37)
Russell Westbrook: 4th place in 2015 (Team finish: 9th, 45-37)
Anthony Davis: 5th place in 2015 (Team finish: 8th, 45-37)
Luka Doncic: 4th place in 2020 (Team finish: 7th, 43-32)
You’ll notice that the three top-three finishes on the list belong to Kevin Durant when his team won 50 games and finished 8th in a brutal West, Michael Jorden when he averaged 37 a night, and Kobe when he led the league in scoring for a 45-win Laker squad.
At the moment, Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors are in 9th place while Dame Lillard’s Portland Trail Blazers are in 7th. Should those places in the standings stay as they are, history says that at most, one of them might be deserving of a 4th or 5th place finish. In Curry’s case, the Warriors would almost certainly need to finish above .500 for him to even land that high, as no player since the Chuck Wagon 33 years ago made the top-five on a team that wasn’t above .500.
So that leaves us with Luka Doncic, Chris Paul and Devin Booker to consider. Assuming Dallas holds onto a top-six seed (they’re currently fifth), Doncic has to be on the ballot. On so many nights, watching Luka lead the Mavs reminds me of the mid-aughts Kobe on those decrepit LA teams, except Doncic is doing it with obscene efficiency considering his usage.
That leaves the two Suns. If they finish in the top five, one deserves to be on. Should it be Chris Paul, who with a 21.8 usage rate would have the sixth lowest usage number of anyone to finish in the top five in the last 40 seasons, trailing only two Jason Kidd seasons, one each from Magic and Steve Nash, and the low man on the totem pole, Joakim Noah in 2014? Or should it be Devin Booker, who probably isn’t even going to be named to an All-NBA team?
I’ll go Paul, which leaves my ballot - as of today, which is of course subject to change - as follows:
Is this a homer placement? You betcha. Can I back it up with some pro-Randle evidence? Damn skippy:
Randle entered last night tied with LeBron for 10th in Value Over Replacement Player, trailing Jokic, Curry, Giannis, Luka, Vooch, Butler, Zion, Dame and Kawhi.
He’s 15th in Wn Shares, trailing all of the above except Vooch, plus Gobert (2nd), Chris Paul (8th), Bam (11th), Deandre Ayton (12th) and Clint Capela (14th).
His on/off numbers are skewed by a certain starting point guard, but digging a little deeper, the difference Randle makes is as stark as any of the big boys. When Julius plays with Elf, the Knicks get outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions. When he plays without Elf, they outscore teams by 9.3 points per 100 possessions. When Randle sits, the Knicks get outscored by 1.0 point per 100 possessions.
Randle is the only player in the NBA besides Jokic in the top 15 in total points (11th), total rebounds (8th) and total assists (14th).
Only two players every have put together 24, 10 & 5 seasons while shooting at least 42 percent from deep: Larry Bird in 1984-85, when he was a nearly unanimous MVP, and Randle this season. Bird had 56 made threes that season. Randle is on pace to have three times as many.
Randle went into last night averaging 5.9 assists. The 24, 10 & 6 club includes three Oscar seasons, two Wilt seasons, two Bird seasons, two Russ seasons, and Jokic this season. Final MVP tally of the group, assuming the Joker wins this year: six MVP’s, two 3rd place finishes, two 5th place finishes.
One more: Assuming he stays at 24, 10 & 5, with an effective field goal percentage above 52, Randle joins Wilt (4x), Giannis (3x, including this year), Kareem, Larry, Barkley, Jokic this season, and Boogie Cousins during his injury-shortened 48-game campaign in 2017-18. Putting aside Cousins, the MVP tally for the other 11 seasons: 8 MVP’s, one 2nd place finish, and Jokic and Giannis this season.
And he’s doing it all for a team picked to finish dead last, and without a single other player that garnered even a scintilla of All-Star buzz. Every…other…player in this race with the exception of Luka and Steph has a teammate who either made the All-Star team or was in serious consideration, and both of those guys play with former All-Stars.
Put it all together, and it’s no longer a fanciful goal that has no shot of happening. If voters don’t see the black and white evidence in front of their faces, they’re ignoring it to their detriment. Randle has a case, and it is a legitimate one.
Now let’s channel our inner Worldwide Wes and let everyone know about it.
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
Only because I wasted several hour of my life on this:
2020 – Giannis – 1st – 10 games (63/73 – 86%)
2020 – Luca – 4th – 14 games (61/75 – 81%)
2020 – Kawhi – 5th – 15 games (57/72 – 79%)
2019 – Giannis – 1st – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
2019 – Curry – 5th – 13 games (69/82 – 84%)
2018 – Harden – 1st – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
2016 – Kawhi – 2nd – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
2016 – Durant – 5th – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
2015 – LeBron – 3rd – 13 games (69/82 – 84%)
2015 – Russ – 4th – 15 games (67/82 – 81%)
2015 – AD – 5th – 14 games (68/82 – 82%)
2013 – Melo – 3rd – 15 games (67/82 – 81%)
2013 – CP3 – 4th – 12 games (70/82 – 85%)
2012 – Kobe – 4th – 8 games (58/66 – 87%)
2008 – KG – 3rd – 11 games (71/82 – 86%)
2005 – Duncan – 4th – 16 games (66/82 – 80%)
2004 – Duncan – 2nd – 13 games (69/82 – 84%)
2004 – Kobe – 5th – 17 games (65/82 – 79%)
2003 – Shaq – 5th – 15 games (67/82 – 81%)
2002 – Shaq – 3rd – 15 games (67/82 – 81%)
2001 – Iverson – 1st – 11 games (71/82 – 86%)
2001 – Webber – 4th – 12 games (70/82 – 85%)
1998 – Shaq– 4th – 22 games (60/82 – 73%)
1996 – Hakeem – 4th – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
1995 – Hakeem – 5th – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
1994 – Pippen – 3rd – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
1993 – Nique – 5th – 11 games (71/82 – 86%)
1992 – Robinson – 3rd – 14 games (68/82 – 82%)
1991 – Barkley – 4th – 15 games (67/82 – 81%)
1988 – Magic – 3rd – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
1986 – Magic – 3rd – 10 games (72/82 – 88%)
1986 – Hakeem – 4th – 14 games (68/82 – 82%)
1984 – Magic – 3rd – 15 games (67/82 – 81%)
1978 – Walton – 1st – 24 games (58/82 – 70%)