Last season, Kemba Walker was from the outside looking in as he watched Julius Randle grew into an NBA All-Star and an All-NBA player for the New York Knicks.
The last three weeks confirmed what he already thought all along.
“My first impressions were that he loves being in the gym,” Walker said Monday during the NBA Media Day. “You can tell. You can always tell when somebody’s living in the gym and working on their games because he improved so much, overall, like his game was just on the money last season. It’s pretty exciting to watch, actually.”
“You love to see guys who just get better. He’s one of those guys who just really turned it on. I’m looking forward to being out there with him.”
After a disappointing first year with the Knicks, Randle took a historic leap last season, averaging career-highs in points (24.1), rebounds (10.2), assists (6.0), 3-point percentage (41.1%), and free throw percentage (81.1%). He became the first Knick to win the Most Improved Player award since its inception in 1985.
Randle also joined Larry Bird (1984-85) as the only players in NBA history to average 20 points, 10 rebounds, and five assists per game while also shooting 40% from deep in a single season.
Randle was rewarded with a $117 million, four-year extension that could become a bargain if he continues to improve over the life of that contract.
Along with Evan Fournier, Walker was brought in to ease the heavy load Randle carried last season. Tom Thibodeau banked heavily on Randle, who led the league in minutes playing a league-high 2,667 minutes (37.6 per game) in 71 games, sitting out only one game during the pandemic-shortened regular season.
While Walker was building on his lower body’s strength at the Knicks’ practice facility these past three weeks, he saw firsthand why Randle had accomplished those feats and became the face of the Knicks’ resurgence last season.
“I love the way he carries himself,” Walker said. “He goes super hard. He works super hard. He’s a leader, which I love. And I’m kinda trying to help him in that aspect as well. He’s just a dog. You love being around guys like that. I’m looking forward to adding to his intensity and his passion and love for the game.
SB Nation’s Fear of the Sword Editor Evan Dammarell poured more fuel to the fire when he floated that a package of Obi Toppin, Kevin Knox, and one of the Knicks’ 2021 first rounders appears to be an option.
A package that would include Obi Toppin, Kevin Knox, and one of New York’s 2021 first rounders appears to be an option for Collin Sexton after reaching out to a source. https://t.co/n4czhlMTGg
If the reports are true, Brock Aller’s imprint should be all over it.
After all, Aller, the Knicks VP for Basketball and Strategic Planning, started his career in Cleveland. He served as Dan Gilbert’s personal assistant before transitioning to a front office role, where he raised his profile as one of the finest capologists around the league.
Aller was part of the Cavaliers’ front office that drafted Sexton in 2018 using the eighth pick, the key piece in the Kyrie Irving trade with the Boston Celtics.
On top of landing Sexton, the Knicks would also open up an additional $4.6 million in cap space.
Sexton has blossomed into one of the better scoring guards in the league, increasing his scoring, assists, and efficiency throughout his first three years with the Cavaliers. But there was a red flag raised by another The Athletic report on May that painted him a “ball hog.”
“Various Cavs players still grow frustrated by the way Sexton dominates the ball, and opponents taunt them by saying during games, ‘You know he’s not going to pass you the ball,” Cavaliers’ insider Joe Vardon wrote.
The plus/minus numbers are staggering…
Sexton posted the worst +/- rating (-672) in the NBA in 2018-19.
Sexton posted the worst +/- rating (-397) in the NBA in 2019-20.
Sexton "improved" to only the sixth-worst +/- in the NBA (-377) in 2020-21.
It may also be one of the reasons why the Cavaliers are reluctant to keep him with his rookie extension on the horizon. But Aller’s valuable direct intel on Sexton could be the key in the Knicks pushing for a deal.
But to Collins’ defense, he played with a bad Cavaliers’ roster devoid of an elite offensive threat.
If the reported package is true, it’s going to be a low-risk, high-reward move for the Knicks akin to the Derrick Rose mid-season trade.
The bet is for Sexton’s ball-dominant style of play to impact winning and create space for Julius Randle. Sexton’s 28.6 usage rate this season ranked 17th among guards in the league, per NBA.com. Meanwhile, Randle’s 28.5 usage rate this season ranked 15th among forwards, per NBA.com.
There’s no question Sexton’s shotmaking and toughness, despite being undersized, will be a huge upgrade over Elfrid Payton. But the question is can he thrive more as a facilitator next to Randle?
Sexton will be aiming to raise his stock to get the rookie max extension he wants, which is roughly $168 million over five years.
At the very least, he can shot up his value next season while running the Knicks offense, hopefully back to the playoffs. Sexton’s value would still be relatively higher than Knox, Toppin, and the 19th or 21st pick combined. Then the Knicks will have to decide whether to keep him long-term or flip him in a sign-and-trade deal. Sexton’s value would still be relatively higher than Knox, Toppin, and the 19th or 21st pick combined in any deal next summer. At best, he becomes the Knicks’ best point guard in a long while.
It was a validation of his best season yet that fast-tracked the Knicks’ timeline.
Randle averaged 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.3 3s on 41.1 3-point clip — all career-highs. He just joined Hall of Famer and three-time NBA champion Larry Bird (1984-85) as the only players in the league history to average 20/10/5 on 40% shooting from three in a season.
“It’s an honor, just because of how I view the game in the sense of when the summertime comes, that’s really where I have the most fun,” Randle told Inside the NBA crew on TNT Tuesday night.
“I enjoy the process of getting better. I always say you look at the trajectory of my career like every year, I take a step forward to get better and improve my game. And that’s what I’m really proud of. I never want to feel like I’m standing in the same spot or not getting better. For me, I think this award just really embodies who I am as a person. As far as what I put towards the game, my work ethic, just the grind, just the process,” he added.
Randle also became the second player under Tom Thibodeau to win the award since Jimmy Butler during the 2014-15 season while still in Chicago. That turned out to be Thibodeau’s last year with the Bulls after losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 4-2, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
A few years later, Thibodeau tried to work his magic on a young Minnesota Timberwolves team. But some of their young stars resisted his hard-coaching style. In New York, he found a Butler-type of player in Randle who embraced his hard coaching.
Randle thanked Thibodeau for empowering him from Day One and trusting him as the leader of this Knicks team. That, he said, gave him the extra motivation to dominate every night.
Now, more than ever, the Knicks need that Most Improved Player form from him on Wednesday night as they aim to tie the series. Randle had a sub-par game, missing 17 of his 23 shots to finish with just 15 points in a two-point loss.
Shaquille O’Neal coaxed him to slow down and let the game come to him during his interview.
“The adrenaline was going. I was hyped,” said Randle as the Madison Square Garden rocked on Sunday night in the Knicks’ first playoff game in eight years.
“It was rocking from the beginning. The energy was crazy. Shaq says, slow down, but it was hard, man! You know, the adrenaline was going crazy. By the time the second half came, I was done. My energy was crashed,” Randle said.
With his baptism of fire in the playoffs now already behind him, Randle is now ready to walk through that fire.
“Even though we lost, it was a learning experience. Just to know that we have the energy of the city. The support of the city and the way they were cheering for us is amazing. So we’ll be sure ready for the next one,” Randle added.
Randle has had 10 sub-par games in the regular season, where he scored 15 points or below. He rebounded every time with a big game averaging 28.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 6.0 assists, per Tommy Beer of Forbes Sports. The Knicks went 6-4 in the games following a Randle sub-par performance.
When Tom Thibodeau was hired, there was no doubt he has the coaching acumen to change the New York Knicks‘ identity. The bigger question was will a young Knicks team embrace him?
Sixty-three games later, the proof is in the pudding.
Thibodeau is on the cusp of driving a rugged Knicks team to the playoffs with a 26-year old, first-time NBA All-Star as its engine.
With nine games left, the conversation has shifted from “Can the Knicks make it to the playoffs?” to “Can the Knicks earn a homecourt advantage in the playoffs?”
How did Thibodeau make it work after his unceremonious exit in Minnesota raised questions about whether he could still coach in the modern NBA?
Right time. Right situation.
Thibodeau was precisely what the doctor has ordered for a franchise that has long been searching for identity, for young players looking for accountability, and for veterans yearning for an opportunity.
He came in and molded this team into his likeness — tough, workaholic, and puts winning above everything.
“I give a lot of credit to Thibs. He’s our leader, man,” Julius Randle said in an interview with Knicks die-hard fan and legendary hip hop artist Fat Joe on Instagram. “He came in from the very first day and said, yo, this is who we’re gonna be as a team. He established who we are. Every night, this is what we’re gonna do.”
Shortly after Thibodeau’s hiring was announced, he said he would build the team’s foundation around defense, rebounding, low turnovers, and sharing the ball.
The Knicks currently have a top-four defense. They are sixth (45.4) in rebounding despite losing starting center Mitchell Robinson twice to serious injuries and seventh-best in the league in terms of taking care of the ball with just 13.2 turnovers per game. It’s only on the assist department that they are not hitting the mark as their 21.4 ranks 29th in the league. But that can also be argued when you look through the lens of the Knicks playing at such a slow pace that they are battling teams possession-for-possession in a playoff-type of basketball every single night.
With the NBA evolving into a three-point shooting league, Thibodeau also laid out the ideas of what goes into winning in the modern era of basketball.
“If you’re getting layups and you’re getting to the free-throw line, and obviously you’re trying to create as many corner 3-point attempts as you can — that’s how you win,” Thibodeau said on the Michael Kay Show back in August. “And then defensively, obviously, you try to take those things away and get your opponent to take long twos.
“So you have to figure out what gives your (team) the best chance to win and try to approach it that way. You just don’t want to shoot high-volume threes that are not good threes. When you look at Milwaukee, they take very good threes. If you look at Golden State, they’re similar.
“Sometimes, if you’re taking high-volume bad threes, you’re going to get beat. It’s going to compromise your defense. I think the type of threes, the type of shots, understanding the value of shots, that’s an important part of winning.”
Thibodeau took it one step at a time, focusing on establishing the Knicks identity on defense during the training camp and at the beginning of the season.
What struck opposing coaches when they play the Knicks? They have answered in unison: “They are a physical team.”
The Knicks have become one of the best defensive teams in the league by leveraging their physicality, forcing their opponents to take tough long twos, and closing out on the three-point line with playoff effort.
Their opponents are attempting half of their shot attempts from 15 feet away (50.2 percent frequency) and holding them down to just 37.3 percent in that zone, which ranks no.2 behind four teams — the Bucks, Utah Jazz, Charlotte Hornets, and the Los Angeles Clippers — tied on top with 37.2-percent clip.
Match that with their league’s top three-point defense (33.8%), and the Knicks have hovered around the top three defensive net ratings for most of the season before regressing to the top four in the last month. But despite a slight dip in their defense, their offense has started to catch up thanks to the Knicks’ Thibs-like workaholic mindset that often leads to late shooting nights even on the road.
Thibodeau made an emphasis on the corner threes, the shortest distance (22 feet) in the three-point line. The Knicks responded by jumping from 25th (36.5%) last season to 9th (40.9%) this season in corner three-point accuracy, per NBA.com stats through April 30 games.
They are above the Warriors and just two spots behind the Bucks — the two teams Thibodeau looked up to in the offseason. The Knicks’ 8.8 attempts from corner three rank seventh in the league.
Last month, when the Knicks went 11-4, including a nine-game winning streak that catapulted them into the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, they led the league in three-point accuracy with 42.4 percent. They shot 42.3 percent of their corner threes, tied for seventh with the Hornets. They were hitting 4.4 out of 10.4 attempts, a three-point bump from their season average of 3.6 out of 8.8 shots. The volume of corner threes the Knicks took during that stretch was just behind the Jazz (11.2) and the Miami Heat (10.9).
Just when almost everybody thought the Knicks would regress, they found a second wind, banking on the winning habits Thibodeau has instilled in them.
“Every day, we go in like we’re super prepared. Every team we play against is like a playoff game for us. That’s how prepared we are,” Randle added. “That’s how detailed, and he’s (Thibodeau) on top of everything from shootaround to practice, whatever it is, we are super prepared. It’s something about being prepared that breeds that confidence. Every time we go in, we feel like we’re going to win.”
That’s exactly how Thibodeau has transformed the Knicks from the league’s favorite whipping team into a playoff-contending team in such a short time. He came with a precise idea of how they are going to play every night.
But it takes two to tango.
As much as Randle credits Thibodeau for establishing the Knicks’ identity, the whole team should also take credit for matching that with playoff intensity. Every single game.
The New York Knicks have had an up-and-down season so far in 2021, but they’ve played above their weight class for a majority of their contests. They currently sit just one game below .500, with their most recent contest resulting in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. However, they strung together three consecutive victories prior to the defeat. In those three wins, they held the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic to 84 points or less and beat the Golden State Warriors by 15 points.
It has become clear to the Knicks are capable of being a quality team but still lack a few significant factors that separate good from great. It would be a bit optimistic to even consider the Knicks good right now, but they are hovering on the line of mediocrity.
One major factor that is holding the New York Knicks back:
Head coach Tom Thibodeau preaches this one factor routinely, and it is consistency. The Knicks often times take an early lead but fail to remain consistent throughout the game, missing open shots and playing spotty defense. However, they are currently the number one ranked defense in the NBA, which shows how far they’ve come in just one off-season. Their offense is their kryptonite, and whenever Julius Randle is forced to leave the court, it is noticeable.
“You’ve got to be ready to go from the start to finish,” Thibodeau said. “There’s different challenges each night whether it’s travel or back to back, you may be shorthanded, whatever it may be.
The NBA schedule is a grueling reality, as traveling and back-to-back games can be difficult. However, Thibodeau knows that preparation is key, and playing consistently during practice often translates to live-action.
“You want to build that consistency in terms of how you prepare, how hard you play, how smart you play and how together you play. It’s a team sport so you’re relying on everyone doing it together. If we fall short in one area that can impact the execution of either your offense or your defense, you want to learn from each situation and come back ready for the next one.”
Based simply on how the Knicks have performed this year so far, we can confidently say they have taken significant strides forward in their development not just as a team but individually. Thibodeau was a fantastic hire, and if the roster continues to grow at this rate, they could be a playoff-contending team sooner rather than later.