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Why Knicks still need a healthy Julius Randle to be true title contenders, despite recent hot streak

Even during the “Bing Bong” madness of the 2021 season opener, there was a sense of jovial bombast to Knicks‘ fans celebrations. As they shouted, danced and hurled trademark New York insults toward everyone from Trae Young to Tom Brady outside of “The World’s Most Famous Arena,” deep in their hearts they knew, even on the first day of the season, that they didn’t have a chance at a title.

You have to journey back over a decade to find the last time that the Knicks could objectively be considered threats to win the NBA championship. After Mike Woodson’s 3-point bombing 2012-13 squad (side note: the Knicks led the NBA that season with 29 3-point attempts per game, two below this season’s 30th-ranked team) earned the No. 2 seed in the East with 54 wins, they ignominiously bowed out to the third-seeded Indiana Pacers in a six-game second-round series.

The last time the Knicks made the conference finals was just after the Y2K scare when they also lost to the Pacers.

So it’s understandable that Knicks fans would experience a bit of cautious trepidation about this year’s team, despite all the indicators that they are indeed a bona fide threat to come out of the Eastern Conference. Since OG Anunoby came over from the Toronto Raptors just before the New Year, the Knicks have gone 26-13 with the league’s third-best net rating. And that doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, because Anunoby has missed significant time during that stretch. All told, the Knicks are 15-2 when Anunoby plays, and they boast a nonsensical plus-24 net rating in his minutes.

The Boston Celtics are a juggernaut, but with a healthy Anunoby, the Knicks have proven that they’re up there with the Milwaukee Bucks and Cleveland Cavaliers on the short list of Eastern Conference contenders.

Even with Julius Randle, their second-best player, out due to a right shoulder dislocation, the Knicks have stayed above .500 for the past two months and are currently one of the league’s hottest teams, winners of six of their last seven and eight of their last 11.

Coach Tom Thibodeau credited three areas of focus for the Knicks’ ability to remain competitive despite numerous injuries, including to starting center Mitchell Robinson, who hasn’t played since undergoing ankle surgery in early December: Defense, rebounding and ball security. Over their past 10 games, the Knicks lead the NBA in defensive efficiency by a significant margin.

The recent run of winning begs the question of whether the Knicks even need Randle to be at their best, particularly given his well-publicized postseason struggles in past years. All-NBA lock Jalen Brunson has carried the offense with Randle on the shelf, and his absence has opened up opportunities for the likes of Donte DiVincenzo, Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein.

Thibodeau says the team has played with “belief” and “fight” to overcome the injury problems, but it’s going to take more than those intangible qualities to have a chance at making the conference finals for the first time in nearly 25 years.

It’s going to take Julius Randle — who, as of last week, was not yet cleared for full contact. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why they need the three-time All-Star back in the fold.

Handling Brunson traps

We’ve already seen plenty of it with Randle out of the lineup, but teams are likely going to blitz the living you-know-what out of Brunson during the playoffs. While players like DiVincenzo, Hart and Anunoby are excellent role players, it remains to be seen whether they can pose enough of a threat to make opponents pay for taking the ball out of Brunson’s hands.

Watch here as Brunson makes the right read out of the Sacramento Kings‘ soft trap, delivering a quick pocket pass to the screener, Anunoby. The Kings rotate, however, and what could have been a layup from Hart is deterred by Domantas Sabonis. After that, the ball ends up back in the hands of Brunson, who is double-teamed again, and the Knicks finish the frenzied possession with a missed, contested floater from Hart.

This isn’t to cast aspersions upon the Knicks’ supporting cast — they simply don’t have a player adept at operating as the release valve in these four-on-three situations. The best may be Hartenstein, but any postseason opponent will take their chances with him being the primary playmaker.

Now watch a similar possession, but this time with Randle on the floor.

The Chicago Bulls trap Brunson, and Alex Caruso cheats up to take away the easy outlet to Randle, essentially turning the four-on-three into a three-on-two. Brunson delivers the ball to Hart, who is wide open at the free throw line, but Randle doesn’t just stand near half court and pat himself on the back. He sprints toward the basket ahead of Caruso, putting the Bulls in ultimate scramble mode.

Hart misses him on the cut, but Randle continues to the 3-point line. Instead of protecting the basket, Caruso jumps out to guard Randle, leaving Hartenstein wide open for a dunk. This whole play is a product of Randle’s gravity and IQ.

The Knicks’ offense is pretty good with Randle on the floor and great with Brunson, but with both of them together it’s elite averaging more than 121 points per 100 possessions. Plays like this show why.

Playmaking

When Brunson is trapped or resting, Randle is the only Knick who can consistently serve as the primary playmaker, along with his ability to drop 30-40 points in any given playoff game. Randle is second on the team in assists this season at five per game, and the Knicks desperately need him to leverage his scoring ability into facilitating, whether Brunson is on the floor or not.

With Anunoby, DiVincenzo, Hart and Miles McBride, plus trade deadline acquisitions Bojan Bogdanovic and Alec Burks, the Knicks have plenty of weapons to both space the floor and attack the rim. Without Randle, however, Brunson is essentially the only one who can consistently find them.

Free points

When offense breaks down in the postseason, you need a player who can put his head down and get to the rim for either a bucket or a trip to the three throw line. After parting ways with RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, that leaves Brunson and Randle as the only two Knicks who fit the bill.

2023-24 Knicks (per game) FTM FTA

Julius Randle

5.1

6.6

Jalen Brunson

5.2

6.1

OG Anunoby

1.9

2.4

Isaiah Hartenstein

1.4

1.9

Mitchell Robinson

0.7

1.8

Alec Burks

1.2

1.7

Bojan Bogdanovic

1.4

1.7

Precious Achiuwa

1.0

1.5

Josh Hart

1.0

1.3

Donte DiVincenzo

1.0

1.3

Miles McBride

0.6

0.7

As you can see, even a player like Hart — who throws his body around with reckless abandon — still only takes about one free throw per game. Last postseason, Randle averaged over five free throws per game, and those points are crucial when trying to win a tight series.

Relief for Brunson

Thibodeau has shown ultimate restraint by keeping Brunson at around 35 minutes per game during the regular season, but we can go ahead and pencil the gritty point guard in for 40-plus in the postseason. It’s absolutely essential that the Knicks find ways to rest him, either by subbing him out of the game or allowing him to take a break for an offensive possession here and there. Randle is the key to that.

Since Randle’s injury in late January, the Knicks have averaged 118 points per 100 possessions with Brunson on the floor, which bellyflops to a catastrophic 102.3 with Brunson on the bench. Randle also has an impressive effect on the Knicks’ offense, taking it from 112 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the court to 120 when he’s on it.

Despite their myriad options, this stretch without Randle has proven that the Knicks simply cannot find a consistent source of offense without their second star. If they’re going to have a true chance at championship contention, they’ll need Randle back — and healthy — for their postseason run.

Looking for more NBA coverage? John Gonzalez, Bill Reiter, Ashley Nicole Moss and special guests dive deep into the league’s biggest storylines daily on the Beyond the Arc podcast.

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