Julius Randle and the New York Knicks had a rocky relationship in their first year together that many thought they were headed to splitsville.
The chatter got louder when the Knicks drafted Obi Toppin, who plays Randle’s position when their most pressing need was a lead guard.
Randle had heard all the nasty things and acknowledged his shortcomings. He let it all out in a passionate essay entitled “Reputation,” which he wrote for The Players’ Tribune.
Last year’s debacle and Toppin’s arrival only fueled Randle more to change his ways.
“You just look at him physically. He’s in much better shape,” Knicks legend John Starks said on MSG PM on Thursday following another All-Star performance from Randle that sealed a winning record for the Knicks heading into the break.
“Last year, he’s just gonna wear down, especially during the latter part of the games. Now you see that he’s playing the whole 48-minute ballgame with his energy both on the offensive end and defensive end of the court. And that translates to the season that they have right now. It’s because he’s in better shape. And just being the leader out there on the court—making plays for others says a lot about his mentality as he came into this season with a whole different mindset on how he can be productive for this team.
In just 37 games, Randle was able to flip the script and repair his and the Knicks’ reputation around the league. His bravery to turn the mockery into a revolutionary performance halfway through the season has been the biggest storyline in the league, bar none.
The Knicks are winning, with Randle emerging as the All-Star the draft analysts thought he would become when he entered the league in 2014 as a lottery pick.
Finally, he’s arrived.
But what comes next will dictate his future with his beloved Knicks.
He professed his unconditional love for the Knicks. But will that be equally reciprocated?
We had seen this play out across the borough when another former Laker and reclamation project D’Angelo Russell blossomed into an All-Star and the best player of a fringe playoff team.
We all know how it ended.
These Knicks will go as far as Randle goes. If he can sustain his All-Star form and lead the Knicks to a playoffs berth, then an extension in the offseason worth $106-million over four years is a no-brainer. The Knicks would be foolish not to extend the offer in addition to the $19.8 million he’s due to make next season, the last year of the original three-year $62-million he signed.
But what if the Knicks fail to advance? Will Randle still be part of the Knicks’ future?
A player with an expiring contract will be easier to move in the offseason or next year’s trade deadline, but the risk of losing Randle for nothing also poses a significant risk.
“If he’s extended after August, he’s not trade-eligible,” ESPN Front Office Insider and former Brooklyn Nets assistant general manager Bobby Marks told Empire Sports Media.
Randle has thrived this season as the lone star of a young team knocking on the playoffs’ door. If the Knicks want to bang the door and go all the way, they will need more than Randle.
“He’s not a franchise player. He’s a solid third option on a high-level team,” Marks said.
Randle is still 26, and his stocks are at an all-time high. Is it time to sell high?
There’s no telling if this is already Randle’s ceiling or he’s just still scratching his potential. That’s a debate the Knicks front office will be having in the months to come.
A four-year deal starting at $24 million is still a bargain, and the Knicks would still have plenty of cap space to pay for a superstar.
The next burning questions that need answers are:
Is Randle going to be a superstar on a high-level team?
Is he willing to cede his current leading man status to fit in next to the superstar ESPN’s NBA Insider Brian Windhorst predicts that would force his way to New York?
What if Randle is the price the Knicks have to pay to get that superstar?
An extension deal in the summer has a six-month expiration date before it can be moved, Marks noted.
So if the Knicks delay extension talks, they have an expiring deal on a player in his prime years that teams would covet. But if they extend him on or before August, they have a player locked up in his prime years they can keep or move in a trade for a superstar.
Randle can bet on himself and play out the last year of his current deal, then enter unrestricted free agency. If he elevates his game further next season, he would command a bidding war for his services in the open market. That would hurt the Knicks’ chances of retaining him and the current core and creating cap space for another superstar.
“Yes, [other teams can offer him higher than the $106-million] and so can the Knicks,” Marks noted if ever Randle bets on himself and becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
Randle and the Knicks have come a long way since their rocky start. But sooner rather than later, they have a big decision to make. Are they in for the long haul or just a fling?
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