Julius Randle's unimaginable spiral could lead to end of Knicks tenure

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Julius Randle inspired so much goodwill in New York last season, it was easy to see the start of something special. Maybe this pairing of star and market would never approach what, say, baseball’s newest Hall of Famer, David Ortiz, had with Boston, but the big man and the big city looked happy enough together to picture them in a blissful, long-term marriage.

Now all you see is the body language of inevitable divorce. A very bright light for the Knicks in 2020-21, Randle has become a distant and sometimes dour figure in 2021-22, telling the fans to “shut the f–k up” when he was talking to them at all.

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Entering Wednesday night’s game at Miami, last year’s second-team All-NBA force had devolved into a vulnerable, ill-fitting player who consistently avoided talking to the paying customers (through the media) and who thanked team owner Jim Dolan for absorbing a league fine because of it.

How, exactly, did Randle go from being the toast of the town to a guy whose Knicks career could be toast if things don’t change? It’s hard to believe how fast Randle transitioned from the source of so much joy into a seemingly joyless figure trudging through a 23-25 season and, perhaps, trudging his way toward the door.

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Over the summer, when he signed his new $117 million deal, Randle sounded like a 26-year-old man who had found his permanent basketball home, or at least a home for the balance of his prime. He said that staying with the Knicks was best for his family and his career, and that the contract matched up with his vision of building a championship contender from the ground up. Randle said he felt there was no better place to win a title than in New York.

julius randle, nba, new york knicks

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Julius Randle goes up strong.

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He had won the league’s most improved player award, and he had delivered a career year by averaging 24.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists and by leading the Knicks to their first playoff appearance since 2013. Randle had given pandemic-weary New Yorkers a wildly entertaining ride, and seemed to understand just how good he had it as the lead option on a developing team.

“At the end of the day, I’ve had stops along the way in my career where I haven’t been happy playing,” he said after agreeing to the extension. “I understand both sides of it, and how hard this game could be and how hard it can be being on a team where the chemistry’s not right and it’s tough showing up to your job every night.”

Fast-forward to late January, 2022, when the Knicks’ chemistry isn’t right, and it appears tough for Randle to show up to do his job every night. Before facing the Eastern Conference-leading Heat, Randle was engaged in a lot of fights on a lot of fronts. He was fighting the fans, fighting the media, fighting social media trolls and fighting himself.

He was shooting a career-low 41.2 percent from the floor, after shooting nearly the same percentage (41.1) last year from 3-point range. Though Randle was making just 31.1 percent of his 3s this season and averaging 5.2 fewer points than he did a year ago, his story over the Knicks’ first 48 games wasn’t merely about bad numbers and worse aim.

RJ Barrett is slowly but very surely emerging as the Knicks’ best player, and the Garden crowds prefer to chant his name. They also adore Randle’s backup, Obi Toppin — an acrobatic leaper with a catchy name who, like Barrett, enjoys the benefit of being a homegrown guy.

Fans love homegrown guys as much as they love ticker-tape parades. Randle? He was drafted by the Lakers, signed as a free agent by New Orleans, and signed as a consolation prize by the Knicks after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving landed in Brooklyn. Steve Mills, then the Knicks president, effectively told the fans he was sorry for sticking them with Randle. Two years later, nobody had to apologize for acquiring this lefthanded closer.

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Julius Randle argues with a referee.

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But now that Randle is struggling and, perhaps putting too much pressure on himself under the weight of a bigger paycheck, he probably wishes he’d been a first-round Knicks pick like Barrett and Toppin. The same people who used to celebrate him with chants of “M-V-P” are now overly eager to boo him when given the chance.

“I don’t want anyone to get wrapped up in any personal dilemmas,” coach Tom Thibodeau said this month.

Randle has clearly been wrapped up in his own personal dilemma. Of course, he has the choice to play his way out of it, which started with an opportunity Wednesday night to deliver a huge performance against the 30-17 Heat.

But if he can’t rediscover his game and his passion for being a New York Knick, this once-loving marriage will be heading to divorce court sooner rather than later.

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