The New York Knicks are playing some of their best basketball in years, and the driving force behind it is…Julius Randle?
Putting up good numbers, yes, we know Randle can do that.
But good numbers and good wins?
Where did that come from?
And just as important to Knicks fans, can he keep it going with New York?
Two league officials believe Randle's strong play on such a team-friendly contract will draw interest from teams looking to add a scoring big ahead of the March 25 trade deadline. However, those same officials believe at this point New York is more interested in being a buyer by adding another high-impact player to pair with Randle.
While Randle has proved he can be a high-impact scorer, New York still ranks among the league's worst teams offensively in several categories. The team's struggles are painfully obvious when you look at its guard play outside of rookie Immanuel Quickley.
Randle needs help, and it'll likely come in the form of an experienced, high-scoring guard.
That's why Houston Rockets guard Victor Oladipo will be a name to keep an eye on. The former All-Star has had a slew of injuries in recent years but is among the more talented two-way players when healthy. League sources say the Knicks are among the teams interested in Oladipo and will be closely monitoring the impending free agent's play leading up to the deadline and beyond if he's not moved by then.
Another pair of guards to watch are Charlotte's Terry Rozier and Devonte' Graham. With the Hornets drafting LaMelo Ball, it's highly unlikely that Rozier and Graham will be around for the long haul. Rozier, 26, is in the second year of a three-year, $56.7 million deal and was a prime Knicks free-agent target in the summer of 2019. Graham will be a restricted free agent this offseason, which means the Knicks may have competition beyond the Hornets if he signs an offer sheet from another team. However, if the Knicks home in on him as their guy and he wants to be in New York, the 25-year-old Graham and Charlotte may look to execute a sign-and-trade akin to what the Boston Celtics did when they traded Gordon Hayward to Charlotte and got back an NBA-record $28.5 million trade exception.
In general, the Knicks are looking to add young but veteran talent who can help lead and grow with their young core that includes RJ Barrett and 2020 No. 8 overall pick Obi Toppin.
For now, Randle is leading a team that got off to a surprisingly strong start. The Knicks opened the season with a 5-3 record, which was their best start since 2012-13—the last time they made the playoffs.
It was the kind of start that few saw coming, especially with Randle—who has never been to the playoffs in any of his six NBA seasons—leading the way.
His teams have done more than just fail to get a taste of the playoffs. They don't even get a sniff, as they have never finished better than 11th in their conference.
But this season has been a rebirth of sorts for Randle.
"When you look at how Julius has transformed his game and the fact that New York is winning more than usual, you gotta at least have him in the conversation when you're talking about the Most Improved Player in the league this season," one Eastern Conference scout said.
Indeed, the numbers across the board for Randle stand out for many reasons. This season, Randle is averaging career highs in scoring (22.4), rebounds (11.1) and assists (6.0). He's also shooting a career-best 36.9 percent on three-pointers and 81.6 percent from the free-throw line.
While the Knicks (9-13) have lost five of their last six games, optimism remains high among the front office that they can get back on track considering their recent struggles have been primarily on the road, where they've played an Eastern Conference-leading 13 games.
Randle's assists, more than any other statistic, have been the biggest revelation for those who have witnessed his game evolve. At 6'8" and 250 pounds, the only players dropping dimes like Randle with that kind of size are 6'11" Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (8.6 assists per game) and 6'9" Lakers star LeBron James (7.5 assists per game).
"That's one of the areas where the growth of his game has shown," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Most people think when he's putting it on the floor, he's got tunnel vision. He's got court vision now."
He's doing a lot of the little things, which Knicks fans love to see. But for it to happen six-plus years into his career begs the question: Why now?
League executives have mixed thoughts on why the turnaround has been such a long time coming.
"Like a lot of young players, he has grown up a lot since coming into the league," one league executive said. "That's part of it."
Having a defensive taskmaster like head coach Tom Thibodeau has also been a factor.
"You don't have to be a great defender to play for Thibs," said one of Thibodeau's former assistant coaches. "But you have to give good effort and be accountable to the defense, to your teammates. It looks like Julius, to his credit, has taken on that challenge and for the most part, seems to be doing well."
Along with his scoring this season, Randle also has a career-best 107.7 defensive rating.
His play, on what's viewed as a team-friendly contract, reverses a trend in which the Knicks have often overpaid players who deliver underachieving results.
Randle is in the second year of a three-year deal reportedly worth as much as $63 million.
The Knicks have the league's lowest payroll this season at $92.029 million and are on the hook for $54.9 million for the 2021-22 campaign, according to Basketball Reference.
Randle makes a team-high $18.9 million this season. The Knicks' second-highest-paid player is Barrett at $8.2 million, which provides them with significant cap space for the offseason.
The next five highest-paid Knicks players after Randle and Barrett (Frank Ntilikina, Alec Burks, Elfrid Payton, Dennis Smith Jr. and Nerlens Noel) make a combined $28.6 million, and all of them will be off the books this summer.
Regardless of whom the Knicks seek out to bolster their roster, Randle has shown he can adapt to whomever he plays with and still find ways to be a driving force for winning.