Julius Randle’s spiral could lead to end of Knicks tenure

Julius Randle inspired so much goodwill last year, it was easy to see the start of something special. Maybe this pairing of star and market would never approach what baseball’s newest Hall of Famer, David Ortiz, had with Boston, but the big man and the big city looked happy enough together to picture them in a blissful, long-term marriage.

Now all you see is the body language of inevitable divorce. A second-team All-NBA dynamo in 2020-21, Randle has devolved into a distant, distracted and dour figure who consistently avoids talking to the paying customers (through the media), and who thanks team owner Jim Dolan for absorbing a league fine because of it.

How, exactly, did Randle go from being the toast of the town to a guy whose Knicks career could soon be toast? Why has Randle transitioned from the source of so much joy into a seemingly joyless figure trudging through a 23-26 season and, perhaps, right out the door?

Wednesday night in Miami, Randle finished with 11 points (seven in what Marv Albert would call extended garbage time) and four turnovers in a 110-96 loss to the Heat, who led by 30 in the third quarter. His signature moments included an inbounds pass that all but sailed into a concession stand at the end of the first half, an airball from the right wing, and a reckless drive and shot that he slammed off the glass. Randle was badly outplayed by his backup, Obi Toppin, and his plus/minus was minus-34 in 27 minutes.

This feels like a good time to point out that Randle is eligible to be traded starting Feb. 3.

Julius Randle
Julius Randle goes up strong.
Getty Images

“Players are going to go through things,” said Tom Thibodeau. But when the scoring isn’t there, Thibs added, “Don’t let that take away from any intensity that you have. Oftentimes it’s the hustle plays that get you going, that’s probably the biggest thing.”

The coach was talking to reporters in the interview room, but it sure sounded like he was talking to Randle in the locker room.

“He’s proven to be a good player,” Thibodeau said, “and he’ll get back to that.”

Over the summer, when he signed his $117 million extension, Randle sounded like a 26-year-old man who had found his permanent basketball home. He said that staying with the Knicks was best for his family and his career, and that there was no better place to win a title than in New York.

He had earned the league’s Most Improved Player award, and he had delivered a career year by averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists, and by leading the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 2013. Randle had given pandemic-weary New Yorkers a wildly entertaining ride, and seemed to understand just how good he had it as the lead option on a developing team.

Julius Randle argues with a referee.

“At the end of the day, I’ve had stops along the way in my career where I haven’t been happy playing,” he said after signing the nine-figure deal. “I understand both sides of it and how hard this game could be and how hard it can be being on a team where the chemistry’s not right and it’s tough showing up to your job every night.”

Fast-forward to late January 2022, when the Knicks’ chemistry isn’t right (the starting unit is consistently embarrassed by the energetic second unit) and it appears tough for Randle to show up to do his job every night. He’s been engaged in a lot of fights on a lot of fronts. He’s been fighting the fans, fighting the media, and fighting himself.

Though his percentages and averages are way down, his story over the Knicks’ first 49 games isn’t merely about bad numbers and worse aim. RJ Barrett is emerging as the Knicks’ best player, and the Garden crowds prefer to chant his name. They also adore Toppin, a bouncy acrobat with a catchy name who, like Barrett, enjoys the benefit of being a homegrown guy.

Fans love homegrown guys as much as they love ticker-tape parades. Randle? He was drafted by the Lakers, signed as a free agent by New Orleans, and signed as a consolation prize by the Knicks after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving landed in Brooklyn. Steve Mills, then the Knicks president, effectively told the fans he was sorry for sticking them with Randle. Two years later, nobody had to apologize for acquiring this lefthanded closer.

But now that Randle is struggling under the weight of a bigger paycheck, he probably wishes he’d been a first-round Knicks pick like Barrett and Toppin. The same people who used to celebrate him with chants of “M-V-P” are now overly eager to boo him when given the chance.

Randle needs to block out the noise ASAP and rediscover his game and his passion for being a New Yorker and a Knick. If he doesn’t, this once-loving marriage will soon be headed for divorce court.

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