In the midst of another up-and-down year, the Knicks may need to make a choice between Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.
The time has come to break up the band.
Two years ago, the Lucky Lefties were the hottest ticket in New York once COVID-19 mandates were lifted. For once in forever, the New York Knicks were good. On certain nights, they were really good. At the forefront were Julius Randle and RJ Barrett.
Randle put together one of the best seasons in franchise history. Barrett, not far behind, had his best shooting season as a professional to date, including 40.1% from beyond the arc. At the moment, it felt like a new duo had forged—two left-handed bullies made of steel would usher in a new era of enjoyable Knicks basketball.
Things have not gone as planned since then. Randle had as drastic a turnaround season as he had in 2020-21. His three-point percentage cratered from 41.1% to 30.8%, in addition to modest dips in his field goal and free throw percentages. Then there was his war with the New York faithful. Randle’s thumbs down to the fans, over what could easily be understood as a short memory after the season prior, was the boiling point. Randle headed into last summer as a lame-duck star player.
While Randle was going through hell, RJ Barrett seemed to find himself. He too struggled out of the gate before going on a tear in the second half of the season. Barrett became a 20-point-per-game scorer and foul-drawing savant. His play to end the season was so encouraging that the chances the front office would pull the trigger on a star trade were the highest it’s been since 2011.
Instead, Barrett was the possible centerpiece in said star trade, which the team passed on, putting their faith in a trio of Barrett, Randle, and another lefty, Jalen Brunson. The Lucky Lefties added a new member.
Thus far, the new edition has not had the same impact as the original. Brunson has not been the problem, he’s been the only solution. The problem is Randle and Barrett. It is not that both are playing poorly. It is quite the contrary for Randle. With Brunson taking playmaking duties off his plate, Randle has settled into more or less the player he is: 20-point scorer, ferocious rebounder, and a wild card in every other facet of the game.
Depending on the type of night he is having, Randle could be the heart of the team or the anvil holding the energy down. Barrett’s problems are much more performance-based. He is shooting career lows from the field (39.4%) and three (26.5%)
Randle and Barrett have somehow become the same player
Neither guy has a go-to move, but both are capable scorers at all three levels. They are both most effective when using their strength in the paint. Both are good rebounders. They like setting up shop in the same spaces on the floor. Both are hot or (very) cold from three. Both get a bad case of tunnel vision when they are struggling.
At the end of the day, both deliver results, sometimes with ugly shooting numbers behind them. But most importantly, neither are consistent enough to justify keeping the other.
Despite their redundancies, Randle and Barrett could coexist if one was a no-doubt 25-plus point scorer every night. That is the type of player the front office hoped Randle, who did it for one season, and then Barrett heading into this season, could be. It was that thinking that landed Brunson.
Brunson came in at a $100 million price tag (which feels like a steal already), but not with the expectation he was the savior, more so a key piece to keep the contending timeline moving forward. The hope was that Barrett would mature into a consistent top-two scoring option, a development held back by his annual early-season shooting slump.
Randle has remained the top-two guy, coming second only to Brunson in points per game. He’s done so being third in the pecking order, yielding to Barrett, who leads the team with 16.5 field goal attempts a game. Randle is also the much better finisher of the two, yet generates a lot of his buckets through nauseating isolations.
Barrett on the other hand is the better playmaker and defender. Pending a progression to the mean, he has an easier roadmap to becoming the type of scorer the team needs.
If any potential trade was merit-based, Randle has every argument for staying. Once you factor in the timeline and financial commitment, it is a no-brainer. If the Knicks were a move away, keeping Randle to pair with a star and Brunson makes sense. That is not what the plan appears to be, whether the front office wants it to be or not.
The team is mediocre in every sense of the word, with the numbers to back it up. Their ceiling is the play-in game, which could still be reached if Randle were moved. Depending on who you ask, it could actually improve the team’s situation.
Obi Toppin has had a forgettable stretch of games lately but has largely played well enough to get the minutes bump he remains patiently waiting for. Tom Thibodeau is still reluctant to play Randle and Toppin together, resulting in Toppin playing under 20 minutes a night.
Toppin is a better fit with Barrett and Brunson, even if you are still not buying into his three-point shooting improvement. With his limitless energy and movement without the ball, it decongests the floor just enough that the offense can get back to their early season ball movement. Barrett has bulked up so much that he and Cam Reddish could share minutes at the four to relieve Toppin.
When Randle signed his extension, he said he wanted to spend his prime in New York City. As much as we want the storybook ending, business is business. Randle’s trade value is allegedly improving after hitting rock bottom last season. A team in contention could use someone like Randle.
The Knicks took a measured shot on Randle and Barrett as a nucleus for a contending team. It didn’t go as it initially seemed it would go. The worst thing the team could be now is stubborn.
There are still good pieces in the core, they just need to be shaken up.