There’s no getting around those five playoff games against Atlanta. Julius Randle stunk. All that improbable midrange stuff he had been draining during the regular season became exactly as difficult as it seemed and the shots didn’t fall from deep either. He passed out of pressure straight into the waiting arms of Hawks wings, was slow and handsy on the defensive end. To his credit, he stuck with it, didn’t have one of those confidence meltdowns that leaves a lacuna in the offense. No seven-shot shot nights; he went 8-for-21 like a true pro. He hit the boards hard. He tried. But the performances were poor, the whole way through. The series wasn’t close. Randle wasn’t anything like the star we thought he had become.
Can we give the guy a break? If Julius Randle came up much smaller than the moment required, it was at least partially because he’d never experienced anything like this before. We generally don’t think of 26-year-olds in their seventh seasons as green, but Randle came into the league while the Lakers were dispensing to Kobe his spiritual pension. He played for Byron Scott and Luke Walton. Then he spent a year in the bayou purgatory of New Orleans before joining a Knicks franchise that was in flux, half building a young core and half keeping their itinerary clear in case a superstar got restless or quixotic, or just wanted to live in Manhattan.
Last season was the first time Randle was in anything like a good basketball situation, with a motivated coach—we perhaps underestimated how much that failed stint in Minnesota burned Tom Thibodeau up—who knew what he wanted to accomplish and a team of castoffs and developing talent pretty well locked into what he was trying to teach them. Thibs’ instruction for Randle was apparently more of a question: Jules, how’s your Carmelo Anthony impression? Turns out it’s more than serviceable. (To boot, Randle’s actually a better and more willing passer than Melo ever was.) Everybody on the Knicks chipped in—they had to—but Randle’s scoring chops levitated the squad. You didn’t need to generate good looks for him. He made it all look good. That the serene beauty of his game abandoned him in his first ever playoff series was disappointing but not wholly unexpected. There are chokers, really gifted and even great players who can’t find their typical rhythm in big games. We have to allow Randle a couple more chances, before we place him in that condemned group. Who among us has not botched a first date? (And dwelled on it for the rest of our lives.)
Besides, he’s the best New York has got, and they’re grateful to have him. The conventional wisdom used to be that if the Knicks got their act together—if James Dolan sold, or at least receded quietly into the background—they could build a contender rather quickly. Because who doesn’t want to be in New York? Who doesn’t get a thrill out of playing in the Garden? That theory hasn’t been fully tested, not with Dolan still beefing and bluesmanning, but it feels flimsier as the years pass and big names enter free agency and make trade demands without so much as casting eyes in New York’s direction. Rumors were that Kyrie and KD wanted to become Knicks and then changed course after they got a load of Dolan. But LeBron, Kawhi, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Paul George, James Harden, even Durant himself in 2016: none of those guys seriously considered New York as they were on their way out of their respective towns. Hell, the Knicks couldn’t even get a meeting with LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015. You’ll notice there’s only very faint Ben Simmons to MSG heat. He wants Los Angeles or San Francisco. Kyle Lowry went to Miami. The Knicks are, by all available evidence, not a huge draw. They’re not the Timberwolves or Cavs, but they’re not the Lakers either.
So it means something that Julius Randle left some money on the table to re-sign with the Knicks for four more years. He is clearly somebody who likes and cares about the whole New York Knicks Thing™, which can’t be taken for granted in 2021. “I don’t think there’s a better place to win,” he said after the extension was announced. “I don’t think there’s a better place to win a championship than here, and I want to be part of that.” He’s playing to the fans’ vanity, as anyone who just inked a $100 million-plus contract would, but he also seems to have a meaningful relationship with them and a trust in what Leon Rose is doing in the front office. There is a sense that he is where he belongs, having had until recently only an understanding of where he didn’t fit or wasn’t wanted.
The weather changes rapidly in the NBA. Coaches lose buy-in, players get bored or restless, one bad trade or contract knocks the title build-up off its axis. Randle’s not a lock to be as excellent as he was last year for the duration of his deal—or any of it, for that matter. But as of right now, he is standing on solid ground. He knows who he is and feels valued by the folks he’s working with. He likes Thibs; teammates new and old excite him. By the standards set everywhere else, it’s an exceedingly stable situation, an ideal platform upon which he can improve, and work through what were hopefully just first-time playoff jitters. Randle has made himself into a player who could probably put up numbers anywhere. That he’s choosing to do it in New York makes him a rare breed.