The Knicks seem to be wandering the desert, looking for direction. One idea for consideration: trading Julius Randle. 

I think it’s fair to say that the New York Knicks have hit a wall. Viewing them from a glass-half-full perspective, this is a team with a multitude of young players and draft picks that should allow him to acquire a star player. From a glass-half-empty, this is a team full of young players, none of whom are high-level trade chips, especially with a few of them approaching their next contracts, and few draft picks that would strike opposing teams as a can’t-miss asset.

Either way you slice it, New York is set up to play some pretty boring basketball. The Knicks are a play-in level team despite making one of the best moves this past offseason: luring Jalen Brunson from Dallas to the tune of a four-year contract worth $104 million. The Knicks know things must change, which is why they’re entertaining calls on Immanuel Quickley and have Cameron Reddish, Evan Fournier and Derrick Rose, all currently out of Tom Thibodeau’s nine-man rotation.

Personally, I think the next step for the Knicks would be, once again, to consider trading Julius Randle. The thought of trading Randle isn’t a new one. Many thought the Knicks should move on after his first season and this past season, where he struggled to live up to the All-Star status from the 2020-21 season. However, this feels like a moment where it might make sense for both sides to depart.

Julius Randle is actually playing well (on offense)

Nestled in between Jalen Brunson’s All-Star candidacy and RJ Barrett’s concerning season is a solid bounce-back season from the former Kentucky Wildcat. Currently, Randle is averaging 21.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per contest. The shooting is the first thing that stands out – after shooting a rough 30.8% from the outside last season, Randle has rebounded to a more manageable 33.7% on a career-high 6.8 threes a night.

But that’s not all. Randle has nearly eliminated the long-two from his shot diet. Per, Randle’s shot chart from the middle of the floor has dissipated – 10% of his shots this season are from 10-to-16 feet and just 4% from 16-to-3-point range, a far cry from 13% and 14% the year before.

Shooting Table
% of FGA by DistanceFG% by Distance% of FG Ast’dDunksCorner 3sHeaves
4 seasonsLALNBA2386622.4936.9.943.488.
4 seasonsNYKNBA2328121.44413.2.703.
1 seasonNOPNBA732232.5248.3.821.446.
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/8/2022.

The results? A fine-tuned secondary scoring option. Along with the change in shot diet, Randle has started off hot– 67.0% at the rim, 49.3% from 3-to-10 feet, and 48.8% from 10-to-16 feet. In other words, Randle eliminated a bad shot, took better shots, and is hitting them at an elite rate. The combination of Julius Randle and Jalen Brunson has been on fire offensively. Randle has been solid on the Knicks, but I can’t help but think about him in another role where he has a bit more spacing and players who can continue to generate better shots for him.

For all of his offensive success, the defense holds him back severely. Per TKW’s Jake Brown, I found this graf to be the most damning in his most recent article:

According to Cleaning the Glass, Randle ranks in the 1st percentile for opponent’s effective field goal percentage, boosting their shooting by 7.6% when he’s on the floor. To make matters worse, he also ranks in the 3rd percentile for opponent’s field goal percentage around the rim, as teams shoot +9.8% better with Randle “protecting the paint”. Lastly, he ranks in the 2nd percentile for opponent’s mid-range field goal percentage, as the opposition shoots +9.7% better in Randle’s presence.

To add some further context to that: Randle currently sports a defensive EPM of -.05, good for the 45th percentile, and a -0.3 defensive box plus-minus. In theory, Randle could be a nice defender. Eliminate the idea of him as a rim protector, as Randle never projected it, Randle does have great feet and can slide and switch amongst several other types of players. In a switch-heavy scheme, Randle has the skills to properly impact the defensive side of the ball and offer a team a slightly negative to a natural-level defender. The issue now that we’re eight years into the league is a lack of consistency.

The Brunson-Barrett-Randle fit is questionable long-term

One of the biggest issues is that New York’s big three of Brunson, Randle, and Barrett just don’t fit together. In 615 minutes together, the trio has a -5.5 net rating with a 119.6 defensive rating. The defensive side of the ball is a mess. We’ve discussed Randle’s defensive shortcomings, but Brunson is a plain lousy defender; he has the feel to be a manageable team defender, but the lack of athleticism and size is striking against other talented point guards today and some teams, like the Dallas Mavericks this past week, can stick him in pick-and-rolls and attack him.

We’ve mentioned RJ Barrett’s defense in previous articles; that skill has taken a considerable step back. Before, Barrett was evolving into a strong defender who could handle bigger wings and smaller post players closer to the rim. However, his defense has fallen off a cliff, to the point where he doesn’t receive that top defensive assignment from Tom Thibodeau anymore. Barrett is currently sporting a -1.3 EPM defensively and a -1.7 defensive box plus-minus, which leads credence to the lack of success on the defensive end. We could predict Brunson’s defensive struggles or Randle’s lack of consistency, but few could predict Barrett’s defense regressing to the level it has.

To be fair, I’m more bearish on the offensive side of the ball for the trio. Even though a 114.1 offensive rating isn’t great, it’s something to build on. New York has the talent to put around that – guys like Immanuel Quickley and Quentin Grimes to both defend and space the floor, or Mitchell Robinson to offer a defensive stalwart behind them. The five-man lineup – Brunson, Grimes, Barrett, Randle, and Robinson – currently sports a +8.4 net rating in 144 minutes. The only concern is for Brunson and his three-point shooting. He simply has to increase his output from beyond the arc.

The Knicks must figure out what they have in their young kids

Ultimately, a Randle move would benefit New York’s young core, which feels on the tipping point of becoming middle-aged NBA players. Barrett is already on his second contract, while Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley are approaching contract extension eligibility. Cam Reddish is already there, but he’s currently on the outside of the rotation, while Quentin Grimes is two seasons away. The once luxury of having a cycle of talented players on rookie contracts is coming to an end soon.

At this stage, it’s clear this team needs a star, but how does playing young players in small roles help push them for an eventual trade? A Randle trade doesn’t just remove a player, but it opens up more offensive space and minutes. Suddenly, Obi Toppin moves into the starting power forward spot, and both RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish can play some backup four. That would allow smaller lineups, including another wing or even a Quickley-Brunson backcourt pairing.

The point is: the opening of more minutes and more shot attempts could allow the team to get a clear plan of what they want to do. In taking a step back on the floor, it helps in both the standings for a top pick – not tanking – and player evaluation. Maybe Miles McBride could develop as an offensive player, or maybe Quentin Grimes becomes more of a playmaker, or Reddish accepts that 3-and-D player role and works better as an off-ball player.

A push for a Randle trade isn’t to get rid of him, but to take a proper shot at figuring out which players can truly take a step forward and entrench themselves for the next good Knicks team.

The idea of trading for Julius Randle seemed like a move to get off a bad contract in the past. Now, it feels like a move where both parties can benefit. For Randle, his recent offensive play now feels like a fit with several teams. Two teams, the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns, feel like ideal fits. Miami could give Randle a great defensive culture with two talented players in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo around him. As for the Suns, the idea would be to offer them a curveball offensively who might come off the bench but be an effective offensive player for them.

It’s also important for the Knicks. For starters, it feels like a point where the Knicks can truly get value for Randle and even though the team has a bundle of draft picks, adding to the war chest gives you more to offer in your next deal, or, more to use after the trade. And finally, a Randle trade would allow the Knicks to figure out their future, which feels muddied after not acquiring a star. As the team continues to move forward and contracts continue to flip over, this is an important time for New York to figure out who to keep and who to let go.

Letting Julius Randle go at this point might be tough for the organization, but it could be the best “one step back, two steps forward” move they could make to figure out their future.

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