As the NBA season heads toward the finish line, Nikola Jokic almost certainly will earn his first Most Valuable Player award. But as the Knicks ready to face Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday night, they aren’t ready to concede the honor.
The Knicks, with 12 wins in their last 13 games, have been lifted from years of dysfunction and struggles and enter this game as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. And at the center of the rebirth of the franchise has been Julius Randle.
Randle earned his first All-Star Game spot this season, seems the likely winner of the NBA Most Improved Player Award (one betting site has him at 1/20 odds) and has begun to garner a belief that he deserves a spot on the All-NBA Team.
But with numbers that are hitting historic footnotes, Randle has slowly crept into the argument for MVP votes. He almost certainly won’t win it and he might have a hard time cracking the top five. But the debate has spread into the Knicks' locker room.
Jokic has flirted with his own historic spot, and he likely will win the award and deservedly so. The Nuggets center leads the NBA in player efficiency rating, win shares, value over replacement player and has played in every game this season for Denver, carrying them even when Jamal Murray was lost for the season.
"For sure, I’m not going to shy away from it," Randle said after the Knicks' win in Memphis on Monday. "For me, it’s about getting better from game to game, improving as a player. I’m not focused on it. The praise obviously is great and everything but I’m not focused on it. For me, all I’m worried about is getting better, keep leading the team game to game. Like I said before, our team, I feel like we can compete against anybody."
And the Knicks believe that Randle can compete against anybody, too. He is averaging 24.2 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.9 assists. The biggest change in his game has been his shooting, converting 42.7% from beyond the arc after shooting 27.7% last season. If he can push his assist average to 6.0, he would join a group that includes Jokic this season, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and Russell Westbrook as the only players to average 24 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.
The most likely argument for Randle is that he deserves a vote somewhere on the five-man ballot, having missed just one game and leading the Knicks to unexpected heights.
But the Knicks would point to intangibles — leadership on and off the court — as an argument for recognizing Randle. When he went against another MVP candidate recently in the Mavericks' Luka Doncic, he led the Knicks to a win with 44 points. And now, when he goes head to head with Denver and Jokic, there is another opportunity to put the argument to the eye test.
Knicks veteran center Taj Gibson praised Jokic, but he said the MVP race should not be over.
"It’s good that he’s getting recognition," Gibson said of Jokic. "But I wouldn’t sleep on Chris Paul just yet. He’s doing a great job.
"[Randle is] at the top as well. You look at the body of work that he’s put together on a night-to-night basis, just being real professional, growing every night, especially in a tough market. People don’t understand how tough it is to play in New York and he’s bringing a winning mentality back to the Knicks. You got to give him his credit. Julius has earned his credit for being in the MVP race. He deserves it."
Measuring the credentials of MVP front-runners:
Player Efficiency Rating
1. Nikola Jokić, Denver 31.0
2. Joel Embiid, Phila. 30.3
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mil. 29.4
39. Julius Randle, Knicks 20.3
1. Nikola Jokić, Denver 14.2
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah 10.3
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mil. 9.2
14. Julius Randle, Knicks 7.6
Value Over Replacement Player
1. Nikola Jokić, Denver 7.8
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mil. 5.0
3. Stephen Curry, GS 5.0
9. Julius Randle, Knicks 3.7
26.3 Points 24.2
10.9 Rebounds 10.3
8.5 Assists 5.9
56.4 FG% 46.3
40.9 3FG% 42.7
86.0 FT% 81.1