Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks drives to...

Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks drives to the net over Jae'Sean Tate #8 of the Houston Rockets during the second half at Toyota Center on December 16, 2021 in Houston, Texas. Credit: Getty Images/Carmen Mandato

One by one, the players have departed from the active roster, perhaps more painful because each placement in the NBA’s health and safety protocols have come after the player emerged with a stellar performance on the court.

It has left the Knicks shorthanded, but their star, Julius Randle, is still in place.

So even before the COVID-19 crisis hit again in the NBA, you might think the Knicks, struggling through a miserable start to the season, needed Randle to aggressively seek to reclaim his status and form from last season, when he was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player and earned second-team All-NBA honors. And you’d be fair to think that right now, with six players in the COVID protocols, any hope the Knicks have rests on his shoulders.

You’ve seen it in Brooklyn as Kevin Durant has taken on the burden for the Nets (before going into the COVID protocols himself). In their last 10 games, Durant averaged 41 minutes and 33.8 points per game.

Now look at Randle. In the first game in which the Knicks lost a player to the protocols, he had eight points and seven turnovers against Milwaukee. He followed that with 31 points against Golden State, but 25 of them came in the second half after the Knicks dug a hole for themselves. In Thursday’s win over the Rockets, he had 21 points and seemed an afterthought to Immanuel Quickley and Miles McBride. Quickley entered the protocols the next morning and McBride followed him Saturday.

"I just try to continue to make the right plays," Randle said last week. "Like, I can start forcing it, but what would that say about my trust in my guys? So I just try to go out there and make the right plays. At least my intentions are to make the right plays. Just try to take what the game gives me."

But Randle knows he’s in a delicate spot, trying to balance being a floor leader while also trying to adhere to coach Tom Thibodeau’s preaching to play the right way and let the game and defense dictate his decisions.

"When I’m naturally just myself, I naturally do those things," Randle said. "I’m hesitant and overthinking and I got an open shot and I don’t shoot it or whatever it is, or I’m trying to play the right way and get other people going, it kind of takes me out of rhythm. It takes away from my aggressiveness. It’s crazy because then I start to get turnovers and stuff like that.

"When I’m naturally aggressive and playing with force, everything falls into place. I get in a rhythm and I start not overthinking, open and shoot it, if close out, then get into the paint and find people."

But there are moments such as the second half against Golden State when he shrugs off the constraints and tries to take over. Right now, that might be the Knicks’ only shot.

"You know I think when he’s aggressive like that, it makes us better," Thibodeau said. "I love to see him when he’s attacking the rim; it puts a lot of pressure on people and it opens things up for us. And I think he got into a good rhythm doing that . . . but we need everyone."

"Everyone’’ is a strange term these days with Quickley, McBride, RJ Barrett, Obi Toppin, Kevin Knox and Quentin Grimes all in the COVID protocols and Derrick Rose nursing a sore right ankle. What’s left is Randle.

What about Kemba?

On Wednesday, the trade market was opened to include players signed in the offseason and rookies. With the Knicks struggling, it might be time for them to clarify their future — and the future of Kemba Walker as well.

Heading into Saturday night’s game in Boston, Walker had not played in 10 straight games, but he got the call to start with Rose hurting and half of the team in the COVID protocols. He responded with 29 points in the Knicks’ 114-107 loss to the Celtics.

The only thing that would seem to make sense is that the team had placed him in bubble wrap to keep him healthy for a possible trade.

What does Walker bring back? Well, he’s not the player he once was, and the Knicks have run out of patience with an undersized, defensively challenged point guard who doesn’t get to the rim the way he once did. But in a league in which teams are seeing players disappear because of injury or illness — including one team that desperately added an unvaccinated player who can’t play in half the games — Walker is available and a beloved teammate.

That might mean the Knicks can find a taker for him. The better question is: What can they get back?

Could they pair him with Mitchell Robinson, who is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end? With the trade deadline Feb. 10, the answer might not come for a while, but there may never be a greater need for teams to find a relatively healthy point guard.