We can talk about the issues at the point guard spot and how the offense often looks clumsy and stagnant.
But, while the concern at that critical position is very real for the Knicks, of equal concern is the performance of the team’s top free agent signing, Julius Randle.
Don’t look at the box-score, which shows you 16 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in 36:40 of this loss in Orlando. Don’t make too much of the fact that he only — only — had three turnovers after recording 19 in the previous three games.
Just watch the final six minutes of a very winnable game, despite all of the issues on offense, and see exactly why Randle called himself out after the game while talking to the media.
“I’m honestly not playing great right now,” he said. “I’m not playing well.”
Randle went on to say he “took a little bit of stuff for it today” which suggests he heard plenty from David Fizdale and the coaching staff about his performance. When you watch the tape, you see plenty of reasons why. The good news is, it’s all correctable.
The better news is, he’s well aware of it.
Let’s take you to about six minutes left in the game, with the Knicks trailing 81-80. Randle has a post-up on the right block against Aaron Gordon, with no double-team in sight. But as Randle went into his move, he slipped and lost the ball. Randle made a desperate swipe at it while on the floor and it got to Marcus Morris about 25 feet from the basket with six seconds left on the shot clock.
The possession died when Morris tried to make a dribble move, lost the ball and was forced to chuck an air ball at the shot clock buzzer.
On the next possession, Nikola Vucevic tried a post-up against Bobby Portis on the block. Randle made a half-hearted attempt to double and Gordon slipped to the three-point line. Vucevic made the pass and Gordon drilled the three with Randle caught in No Man’s Land. That made it 84-80 and Fizdale called a timeout.
With rookie RJ Barrett running the point on these possessions, the offense had no rhythm or pace and the player movement was slow. Still, on one possession, Randle managed a drive against Jonathan Isaac and got to the rim, but he just missed the lay-in. A few possessions later, with the score 84-82 (after a Randle short jumper), Mitchell Robinson was blocked at the rim after he caught an ill-advised lob pass from Randle.
Then on the defensive end, more frustration. Robinson picked up a driving Fournier on a switch and defended him well to the rim. For some reason, Randle left his man, Vucevic, in the paint to help on Fournier, which was unnecessary. Fournier, against the shot-blocking presence of Robinson, threw up a poor shot and missed. But Vucevic was left alone in the paint to get the offensive rebound. 86-82.
On the next possession, Randle tried to drive into the paint against Isaac and lost his dribble for a turnover. Perhaps distracted by his struggles, Randle then got caught ball-watching on defense while covering Gordon on the perimeter. Portis stopped a Vucevic post-up, but Gordon hustled right by the flat-footed Randle to get the rebound to make it 91-82 with 2:22 left in the game.
A visibly angry Fizdale quickly called a timeout.
The coach didn’t talk specifically about Randle, but he also wasn’t asked. Randle also wasn’t asked specifically about his play, but he took it upon himself to be accountable. Sure, his numbers were good and there are signs he’s starting to recognize how to find teammates when defenses collapse on him.
But this is not the player the Knicks expected to get, nor that he expects to be. This season, Randle is averaging 15.6 points, 11.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game, with 4.4 turnovers per game. He is shooting just 44.3% from the field and is 1 for 12 from three. His PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is 14.4. Last season, Randle had a PER of 21 with the Pelicans and a year before that his PER was 19.9 with the Lakers.
There is definitely more to his game and he knows it.
“I feel like I took a little step forward, but I got a long way to go until I’m really starting to feel like myself and what I know I’m capable of,” he said. “But it’s early.”
He added that his play, and the team’s 1-4 start, “doesn’t discourage me. I feel like we’ve got a really good team and I’m just going to keep getting better and keep trying to improve myself and help the guys improve as well.”
— Barrett (9 points, 4 for 11 shooting) had his first “bad” game of his young career and he shrugged it off. “Today just wasn’t my day,” he said. “It’s the NBA, it happens.” With Elfrid Payton (hamstring) out and Dennis Smith Jr. (personal reasons) away from the team, Fizdale has opted to use the 19-year-old as the lead guard. It may be more of a challenge than Barrett should have to handle at this point, but there aren’t many options on the roster. “Whatever the team needs,” Barrett said. While the Knicks play an offensive system that involves a lot of East-West dribble handoffs and exchanges on the perimeter, perhaps Barrett would be more effective playing more of a high pick-and-roll set with the floor spread. He’s so strong in driving to the basket, especially to his left, that it could help him and someone like Randle in a two-man game with better spacing. The concern would be having three players standing on the perimeter not feeling engaged in the offense. Something for the coaching staff to consider, at least perhaps late in games?
— With Payton out, there was some thought that Fizdale might start Frank Ntilikina with Barrett in the backcourt, but Fizdale said he wanted to use Ntilikina off the bench to keep him out of early foul trouble. Wayne Ellington got the start, instead. Ntilikina played well (7 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists in 29:17) and hit a running three-pointer at the buzzer of the first quarter to give the Knicks a 25-22 lead. He started off 3 for 4, but then missed his last 4 shots. There was some time late in the game where Fizdale played both he and Barrett in the backcourt together. Barrett said he enjoyed it. With Smith not expected to return for Friday’s game in Boston and Payton’s status uncertain, it’s a look Fizdale may need to use more often, but the issue is who plays backup point?
— Marcus Morris played 31:19 and shot just 2 for 11, including 1 for 5 from three. He had a large ice pack on his knee while on the bench. Fizdale said it was just a little tendinitis. Morris on Friday returns to Boston, where he played the past two seasons of his career.