The Knicks suddenly have a Julius Randle problem.
Tasked with leading the team to a second-consecutive playoff appearance after his breakout, All-Star campaign last season, the 27-year-old power forward has been more of a liability as of late than a leader.
It came to a head on Wednesday night down in Miami against the Heat when Randle posted 11 points with four turnovers in 27 minutes while posting a minus-34 differential while on the floor.
No sequence was more indicative of his struggles than early in the third quarter. A badly air-balled attempt led to a Heat three-pointer leading to an ensuing possession that saw Randle drive into a sea of defenders before ricocheting a pass off the backboard. Miami came away with possession and hit another three to extend their lead 22 and effectively end the game there.
In his 10 games since the now-infamous thumbs-down gesture to the Madison Square Garden fans, Randle has averaged 15.2 points per game with an average game score — which measures the productivity of a player in a single game — of 10.2. A game score of 10 is average, and the Knicks can’t afford for Randle to be this average, especially with a max contract kicking in next year.
Yet head coach Tom Thibodeau continues to go to Randle — whether it’s out of loyalty or desperation — despite the Knicks having lost five of their last six and now being three games under .500.
“Players are going to go through things,” Thibodeau said. “There are a lot of things that he can do to help us. Defense, rebounding, pushing the ball, attacking the rim, and making reads.”
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But Randle clearly is letting his and the team’s struggles get to him. He’s avoided the media as of late, prompting the Knicks to eat a $25,000 fine for him. It’s also evident in his body language, his demeanor on the floor, and even how he carries himself on the bench. There wasn’t much excitement when his backup, Obi Toppin, put on a strong showing of 18 points in 21 minutes while posting a plus-20.
Over the last two games, Toppin has been a plus-40 on the floor while Randle was a minus-56. Yet Thibodeau isn’t wavering from the veteran.
“His scoring is always going to be there,” he continued. “At the end of the day, he’s going to score.”
If he’s going to score, he has to start sooner rather than later. Randle is averaging nearly six points fewer per game this season than he did last year, which is putting more offensive pressure on the young RJ Barrett — who continues to enjoy a breakout season of his own.
“Over the course of a season, you’re going to go through a lot of things,” Thibodeau said. “There’s a lot you have to get through. That’s why you have to stick to your routine, be mentally tough through the adversity, and just keep working. The only thing you can control is what you put into each and every day. If you’re thinking about what happened yesterday or what’s coming down the road, you’re not going to be focused on today or what we have to get done.
“He’s proven to be a good player and he’ll get back to that.”