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Why Julius Randle’s season-ending surgery is such a tough blow for the Knicks

In Sports
April 05, 2024

Players who are out of sight often slip out of mind, so it’s perhaps worth noting that Julius Randle is an All-Star. And not, like, conceptually, or in some far-flung past; he made the All-Star team two months ago.

Only five players have averaged more than 24 points, nine rebounds and five assists per game this season. Randle’s one of them; the rest of the list is an MVP ballot. Filter out a frigid six-game start to the season, during which he missed 70 of his first 96 shots while working his way back into rhythm after offseason surgery, and Randle averaged 25.5 points per game on .594 true shooting while finishing more than 30% of the Knicks’ offensive possessions with a shot attempt, turnover or foul drawn — superstar-level production.

The glass-half-empty take on Randle often includes a jaundiced view of his work on the other end of the court. Justifiably so: Tune into any random Knicks game, and chances are you’ll be able to spot at least a couple of instances of inconsistent defensive work — off-ball inattentiveness, lackadaisical closeouts, an occasional lack of effort. Even so: New York still got stops at an above-average clip in his minutes, and at a league-best rate when he shared the floor with OG Anunoby in a bruising, physical frontcourt that profiled as one capable of handling the most rugged assignments the Knicks might face in the playoffs.

When Anunoby joined the Knicks from Toronto, immediate reactions varied. Some wondered whether New York would rue the decision to part ways with Sixth Man of the Year runner-up and plus-minus god Immanuel Quickley; others wondered whether the ex-Raptors forward was enough of a difference-maker to be worth not only importing, but likely committing to pay a hefty salary in unrestricted free agency this summer. Randle, though, needed only one game — a 112-106 win over the Timberwolves on New Year’s Day — to become an ardent supporter of the swap.

“Seems like the perfect piece that complements our team very well,” he said.

Randle was dead on. The Knicks would win 12 of their first 14 games with Anunoby in the lineup, outscoring opponents by a whopping 16.5 points per 100 possessions in that span. With Randle, Anunoby and All-Star point guard Jalen Brunson on the floor, that differential rose to an obscene 26.1 points-per-100.

Suddenly, a Knicks team that had spent most of the past two seasons scratching and clawing their way to the middle of the Eastern Conference pack seemed to have the combination of firepower and ferocity to punch in a higher weight class. Suddenly, the Knicks — emboldened to take big swings at the trade deadline — looked like a dark-horse candidate to make the conference finals.

And then Randle went down hard on a drive against the Heat, dislocating his right shoulder. And then Anunoby started having inflammation in his right elbow, necessitating surgery. And now Randle needs surgery to repair that injured shoulder, ending his season and any chance that the lineup that rampaged the league will see the floor again this season.

The news came as a brutal stomach punch for a Knicks team that’s been reeling through a rash of injuries since that gilded January run, barely going .500 in the 29 games since Randle last played and falling to fifth place in the East. As it stands, multiple postseason projection systems — Basketball Reference, Inpredictable, Dunks and Threes, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, Playoff Status — see New York finishing fifth behind the surging Orlando Magic and the similarly injury-impeded and slumping Cavaliers.

But while the most likely outcome is fifth place, a range of other outcomes — from climbing all the way up to second to sliding all the way down to eighth — still exist for the Knicks. Which makes the state of Anunoby’s elbow — he’s back on the shelf after what was termed “injury management” due to inflammation in the elbow, but is now being termed “right elbow tendinopathy” — one of the most important swing factors in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 27: Julius Randle #30 of the New York Knicks reacts with Jalen Brunson #11 after grabbing a rebound and drawing a foul in the final seconds of the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena on October 27, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The Knicks have barely played .500 ball since Julius Randle went down with a shoulder injury. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

If Anunoby is able to make a healthy return to the lineup, Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau can slot him in at power forward next to Isaiah Hartenstein at center, with Villanova buddies Brunson, Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo manning the perimeter. Lineups featuring Brunson and Anunoby minus Randle haven’t played much — just 329 total possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass — but they’ve blown teams’ doors off by more than 32 points-per-100 in that small sample, balancing size, defensive toughness, physicality, versatility, playmaking and shooting.

Combine strong play from that group with steady contributions from the rest of the rotation pieces New York’s developed during its two-month-long rash of injuries — Miles McBride at backup point, the recently returned Mitchell Robinson at center, spot frontcourt minutes for Precious Achiuwa and Bojan Bogdanović — and you’ve got a team that, depending on the matchups, can win a playoff series. Maybe even more than that; Brunson, a surefire All-NBA selection this season, has been that good.

That the Knicks haven’t floundered offensively in Randle’s absence owes to a number of factors: DiVincenzo’s emergence as one of the league’s premier high-volume, high-efficiency 3-point marksmen; the capacity of lower-usage contributors like Hart and Hartenstein to scale up their complementary playmaking to help grease the skids of an offense that can get stuck; Achiuwa proving to be a steal of an add-on in the deal that brought Anunoby to Manhattan; McBride blossoming into a 42% 3-point shooter when pressed into service by various injuries. Mostly, though, it’s a testament to just how remarkable Brunson has been as a No. 1 option capable of shouldering a Herculean scoring and playmaking burden without seeing his efficiency plummet or his turnover rate spike.

Since the injuries that sidelined Randle and Anunoby, the Knicks have scored 120.5 points per 100 possessions with Brunson on the floor, according to NBA Advanced Stats — equivalent to a top-two offense over the course of the full season. In that 29-game span, though, when Brunson is off the floor, New York has scored a ghastly 101.9 points-per-100 — a level of offensive ineptitude more frequently associated with historically bad teams like the 7-59 Charlotte Bobcats and the Process-era 76ers than squads with designs on postseason success.

That might be where extinguishing hope of Randle’s return hurts most. New York’s cleanest path to surviving Brunson’s vanishingly brief periods of rest — for the remainder of the regular season and especially in the playoffs — was Randle returning, looking more or less like himself and being able to successfully generate shots in those Brunson-free minutes.

No other Knick can approximate Randle’s ability to bulldoze his way to the paint, whether from the post or getting downhill as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll. No other Knick is as much of a scoring threat, which means no one else is as likely to draw an extra defender and get a teammate open elsewhere. And no other Knick is as adept at leveraging that additional attention by slinging the ball across the court to that open teammate, often stationed behind the 3-point arc. Despite playing just 46 games, Randle is still second on the Knicks in assists leading to 3-pointers this season, according to PBP Stats; among 232 players to log at least 1,000 minutes this season, he’s 16th in 3-point assists per 100 possessions.

That shot creation didn’t lead to elite offense: New York scored 114 points-per-100 in Randle/no Brunson minutes, a bottom-10 rate about on par with what the Heat have produced over the full season. But that’s still a hell of a lot better than what New York has mustered in Brunson’s absence since Randle’s injury … and, with the way the Knicks can clamp down, it was enough for them to win those no-Brunson minutes. If they could replicate that formula in the playoffs — blitz teams with the starters on the court, stagger the stars’ minutes, stay afloat when one’s resting, profit — that would make them an awfully tough out against even elite competition.

“Replicating the formula in the playoffs,” of course, is where Randle’s game has generated the loudest, sharpest critiques; that All-Star, All-NBA, star-level regular-season production hasn’t carried over when the games matter most.

Following his All-Star, All-NBA, Most Improved Player breakthrough in 2021, Randle sputtered in New York’s first-round matchup with the Hawks, shooting a disastrous 28-for-94 from the floor (29.8%) with more turnovers (23) than assists (20). After Trae Young and Co. drummed New York out of the playoffs in five games — a loss that made it clear to Knicks brass just how much they needed a high-end playmaker at the point, eventually leading to their pursuit of Brunson — Randle sought the opportunity to rehabilitate his postseason reputation last spring … only to suffer a severe ankle sprain in late March.

He rushed back for the start of the first round against the Cavaliers, but was clearly hampered throughout the series before re-aggravating the injury in the Game 5 clincher. He would miss Game 1 of the second round against the Heat, play inconsistently through the remainder of a series that Miami went on to win in six and eventually go under the knife to repair the balky ankle.

You can imagine those twin disappointments weighing on Randle. He was the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft; this summer makes a decade in the league for him, and he’s got one postseason series win to his name, and he was well below 100% even for that. The Knicks team that took the floor in January is the best one Randle’s ever played on. Maybe that’s why he reportedly went so hard on the rehab route; of course you don’t want to just give up the chance to see that through, to rewrite the story of who you are, of who you can be, on the sport’s biggest stage until you hit the point where you’ve exhausted every option available to you.

Randle hit that point Thursday. His season is over, and with it, so is the Knicks’ dream of seeing the team that stomped the league in January take the court again in spring. Randle will have to wait another year for the chance to rewrite his story; now, we’ll see what kind of ending to this season Brunson, Thibodeau and Co. can author in his absence.

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