For much of the Knicks’ thrashing of the Dallas Mavericks, Julius Randle was A Problem, in basketball parlance.
He bullied his way to the basket on Wednesday, like when he absorbed contact from three defenders to finish a layup in the first half. He pushed the ball up the floor. He deftly found open shooters (eight assists). He was engaged defensively. He grabbed 12 rebounds. The Knicks ended the game outscoring Dallas by 29 points when Randle was on the floor.
There was one hole: Randle shot a dismal 6 for 17. It didn’t matter much in the 108-85 win against Dallas, but it has been part of a season-long trend of poor offense by the Knicks’ highest paid player.
For most of the season, Randle, 27, has been a problem for the Knicks, not A Problem for other teams. After signing a long-term extension with the Knicks over the summer, he is having one of the worst seasons of his career. It’s a key reason the Knicks are only at .500, when they were expected to build on last year’s surprising run to the playoffs. And it could mean long-term trouble for the Knicks, who have committed a significant portion of their salary cap to Randle for at least three more seasons.
Randle is averaging 19 points a game, his lowest since the 2017-18 season. His field-goal percentage — 41.4 percent — is a career low. His assists (4.9 per game) are down from last season (6.0 per game) and he is averaging a career high in turnovers (3.5 per game). Multiple key players on the Knicks, including Mitchell Robinson and Alec Burks, have performed better without Randle in the game. Last month, Randle said that he had “to be better,” and that he “took responsibility for myself.”
His go-to move, the step-back jumper, hasn’t been reliable — which has made it easier for defenders to crowd him or force him into more out-of-control drives.
Randle’s struggles came to a head last week when he made a thumbs down gesture toward Knicks fans during a game against the Boston Celtics. Afterward, he told reporters, using a profanity, that it meant for the crowd to shut up. He apologized in an Instagram post. The N.B.A. fined him $25,000 for “egregious use of profane language during media interviews.” Asked about the fine and the gesture after practice on Tuesday, Randle was brusque, saying that he had “already addressed it.” That came a day after his 2-point performance against the San Antonio Spurs.
Asked if the team needed to do more to involve him, Randle was similarly short: “I’m happy we got a win yesterday.”
Randle’s stretch of underwhelming play began in last season's first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, a team he had dominated during the regular season but couldn’t solve in the postseason. Still, his struggles this season have been confounding. There’s no indication that his conditioning is off or that injuries are playing a role.
Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau said Wednesday that Randle has remained steady, despite the dip in his numbers.
“Julius is a pro. He’s navigated the ups and downs of this league for a long time,” Thibodeau said. “He knows where he stands in this league and he knows what he has to do and there is no change in his approach in practice.”
Often, the cause of a player’s struggles can be easily pinpointed. Maybe a star player’s teammates aren’t hitting their jumpers or taking enough of them, which is forcing the player to face more double teams and take tougher shots. The Knicks faced this issue last year, with Randle as the star player, though he played well and made the All-Star team. But this season, he has more shooting around him, with new additions like Evan Fournier, and is mostly able to get the same looks as before. They’re just not falling.
Randle is still an impactful player even when he’s not scoring, Thibodeau said after practice on Tuesday, because of the defensive attention he draws.
“When he gets the ball out against the overload,” Thibodeau said, referring to double teams that Randle faces, “it’s going to be the second or third pass that gets us the shot.”
In fact, some of Randle’s worst numbers are from when a defender is nowhere near him. He’s shooting only 26.6 percent on shots when a defender is at least six feet away from him, according to the N.B.A.’s tracking numbers. That number was at 44.4 percent last year at right around the same amount of shots per game. When a defender is four to six feet away from him — still considered open — Randle is shooting 41.1 percent — down from 45.1 percent last year. Open shots make up more than half of Randle’s field-goal attempts.
That gives something to both the glass half-full and the glass half-empty Knicks fans. If you’re an optimist, you assume that missing this many open shots is a fluke for Randle, that there is no way an N.B.A. All-Star will continue to shoot less than 27 percent when open, that it’s just a matter of when, not if, he breaks out of the shooting slump. A scientist might consider last season a control group: If Randle is getting the same shots as he was last year with better shooters around him, surely his stats will improve. After all, he’s still rebounding at a high level (10.2 a game) and the rest of his numbers are more or less where they need to be.
And as Thibodeau said, “You’re going to get great effort from Julius every day.”
If you’re a pessimist, Randle’s shooting struggles represent a regression to the mean — that last year was the fluke. Randle is a career 33.6 percent 3-point shooter who somehow turned himself into a 41.1 percent marksman last year. For the glass half-empty folks, this season’s poor performance lines up with Randle’s struggles in his first year as a Knick. That means that in two of his three years in New York, Randle hasn’t played well, a worrying sign given that the team has invested in him long-term.
There isn’t a systemic fix for Thibodeau. There’s no game plan that will get Randle’s shots to stop rimming out if he’s open. If Randle isn’t a shooting threat, Thibodeau could work more through him in the post. But Randle has had a habit of dribbling into double teams closer to the basket and forcing bad passes. This happened on Wednesday night against Dallas, when he had five turnovers. When Randle isn’t hitting jump shots, it can make scoring more difficult for the Knicks because his frontcourt teammate Robinson plays only at the rim — which is partially an indictment of Robinson’s inability to expand his range.
The bright side is how the Knicks are heading into the second half of the season. They’ve gone 7-3 in their last 10 games. At 21-21, they have the same record as they did last year at this point, before they ripped off a dominant second half. But it’s difficult to see how the Knicks sustain a rise in the standings without their best player producing at a high level. In the meantime, Thibodeau is projecting that the best approach for Randle is business as usual.
“Julius is passionate about the city, our fans, the game, winning. And that’s all that matters,” Thibodeau said, adding, “Keep moving forward.”