As much of the NBA moves forward in the postseason, the Knicks have already turned their attention to the future, and while much of the focus might be on the young players on the roster and the NBA Draft Lottery next month, there is an elephant in the room that might be the most important factor in the plans.
Julius Randle was the star of the 2020-21 season, earning second-team All-NBA honors and being named the league Most Improved Player. In that breakout season he was serenaded with chants of "M-V-P" from the Madison Square Garden fans. This season it was replaced with boos, insults and chants for his backup, Obi Toppin, who quickly replaced him as the darling of the local fans.
Toppin may not have the diverse skill set that Randle possesses, but he did have a breakout ending to the season, averaging 27.2 points per game over the final five games, including a 42-point effort in the season finale, with Randle sidelined. Do the Knicks look to move on from Randle, who was troubled through much of the season, and hand the keys to Toppin?
“Julius is a passionate player,” Knicks president Leon Rose said in an interview on MSG Network before the final game of the season. “He’s a person who — last year everything went right. This year things didn’t go right . . . Things happened on the court, we saw some emotion coming out, saw some things happening. I think it affected his play at times.
“It was just not comfortable at times. It was just not being comfortable. He gave it his best effort. The three-point shot just didn’t go like last year and you had teams keying on him more this year. At the end he made some adjustments. He carried the burden. I was proud of the fact he did fight through it.”
Rose pointed out that Randle, even through the struggles and battles with fans, averaged 20 points, 9.9 rebounds and five assists per game. But it was more than just numbers for Randle that mattered this season. He responded to boos from fans during a game against the Celtics at the Garden on Jan. 6 by flashing a thumbs-down gesture to them. He issued an Instagram apology later, even though that was against his wishes, according to multiple team sources.
He said that Randle, as he insisted to the media, told him that he wants to remain in New York. “Yes he did,” Rose added. “Julius loves it here in New York, wants to be in New York.”
The Knicks have shopped him in the past, but would certainly be selling low right now. As the team leader in scoring, rebounding and assists, he might have more value to the Knicks than he does on the trade market — particularly with the four-year, $106 million contract extension he signed last summer that kicks in next season.
Randle did not speak at the season’s end, but he did say earlier that he remains committed to New York.
“I think the big thing is, let’s not mistake how talented he is,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “He didn’t shoot the three as well as he did a year ago, but he’s still, you know, 20, 10 and five. That’s talent. That’s a lot of talent. And I think we had our ups and downs this year and when you’re that type of player, he’s gonna get criticism. I’m gonna get criticism. That goes with the turf here. So, you deal with it; come back; use it as motivation. I know one thing: Julius will be in the gym all summer.”