On Thursday it was announced by Shams Charania of The Athletic that New York Knicks star forward Julius Randle will miss the remainder of the regular season and perhaps a playoff game or two as he battles an ankle sprain he suffered in the win over Miami.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the Knicks score 8.5 more points per possession, post a 2.7% better effective field goal percentage, and turn the ball over 0.9% less when Randle is on the court. All of those are in the top 75th percentile in the NBA in terms of a player’s impact on their team’s offense.
So how will the Knicks adjust without their All-Star and leading scorer?
The quick answer is that head coach Tom Thibodeau can give more minutes to Obi Toppin. The former 8th overall pick has been a bit of an afterthought in the rotation over the last couple of months, but he has flashed when given an opportunity. In fact, when Julius Randle missed time in April of 2022, Toppin flourished, posting 27.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.0 blocks, and 46.3% shooting from beyond the arc in five games.
However, even though Toppin has flashed as a three-point shooter, he is shooting only 32.7% from deep this season. That doesn’t quite match up to Randle’s 34.3% rate and could mean that the Knicks’ lineup would lack a little bit of floor spacing if they simply insert Toppin in for Randle.
It’s also highly unlikely that Toppin will go from playing 13.2 minutes a game in March to playing over 25+ to close the season.
So what else could the Knicks do?
We got a little taste of another potential option on Wednesday night when Thibodeau closed the Miami game with Immanuel Quickley, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Josh Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein. It was a unique lineup with Randle out and Jalen Brunson being eased back in after returning from injury.
In fact, according to Cleaning the Glass, Quickley, Grimes, Barrett, and Hart had played just 18 total non-garbage time possessions together and that was with Julius Randle playing a small-ball center. That means the lineup Thibodeau closed the game with had never been on the court together.
Since Thibodeau generally hates to deviate from his preferred plan, only injury could have forced this on him, but the good news is: it worked.
This lineup allowed just eight points in the final nine minutes of game action and put the game away for the Knicks. In fact, the 16 points they allowed in the fourth was the second-fewest the Knicks have given up in the fourth quarter all year.
There are a few clear reasons for this. First of all, Quickley, Grimes, Hart, and, Hartenstein are four of the team’s five best defensive players, according to FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric. Grimes and Hart in particular offer good switchability, which enables the Knicks to defend pick-and-rolls better than they do with their normal lineup on the floor.
While it would be unlikely that Brunson remains off the floor in the closing minutes when he’s healthy, there’s also the chance that the Knicks elect to be cautious with their point guard since they are essentially locked into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The lineup Thibodeau ended with on Wednesday also showcases a potential silver lining in playing without Randle. No doubt the Knicks will be hard-pressed to replace the offense that Randle can provide, and the season their power forward has had has been nothing short of sensational.
However, the Knicks are a better team defensively when he’s off the court.
With Randle on the court, the Knicks allow 7.9 more points per possession and allow opponents to post a 3.6% better effective field goal rate. Both of those are in the 5th percentile in the NBA in terms of how a player impacts a team’s performance.
Considering Toppin is also not a consistently solid defender, allowing him to close games in place of Randle would keep the Knicks vulnerable on defense without adding the same offensive output that Randle gives. Switching to a closing lineup that is more of a defensive menace, the Knicks could lean into a new identity that’s forced on them by the absence of Randle.
While it may not be the type of identity that can help them win a playoff series, they will have to hope that Randle’s ankle heals in time and it doesn’t come to that. However, it’s time for Thibodeau to use this opportunity to see how many identities this Knicks team can have.
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