What Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier struggles mean for Julius Randle's Knicks role

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Julius Randle holding ball near his shoulder white uniform
Julius Randle holding ball near his shoulder white uniform

Many believed the Knicks had a successful offseason, with the pitch being stocking up on offensive weapons to relieve Julius Randle of having to be the entire offense. We saw that strategy flame out in the Playoffs, and New York signed Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier in response.

A quarter way into the new season, the former is out of the rotation and the latter not playing up to his standard or contract. Randle is back running things out of the mid-post, having to play up to his All-NBA season in what’s been a shaky follow-up.

How did the Knicks have to take a step back to move forward, and what does that mean for Randle and his team’s chances?

Following last season’s surprising fourth-seed finish and near-immediate subsequent exit from the Playoffs, New York decided to rejigger its subpar offense at the expense of its vaunted defense, thinking new additions could prop up the former while its core pieces maintained the latter. They brought in Walker, a four-time All-Star who was good for 20 and eight at 80% of his usual self, and Fournier, a near-20 points per game career scorer.

The expectation was Walker and Fournier could demand enough attention with their shooting, driving and passing to allow a move away from Randle Ball. In theory, the Knicks would democratize their offense, and their star could trade his mid-range isolations for catch-and-shoot threes through increased and easier-flowing team and ball movement. Randle would no longer be his team’s lone offensive creator and could somewhat lean on multiple 20-point scorers.

This obviously did not come to pass. Though there were successful stretches in which the Knicks looked like a wholly new threat, a hot start out of the gates was quickly erased. Their defense was abysmal, and their new additions began sinking the team once their shots stopped falling.

Walker looked more like 50 or 60% of his usual self offensively, lacking the burst to get around aggressive pick coverages or attack the rim with real consistency. His free throw rate hit an all-time low, with rim attacks ending with a miss often and with Walker on his behind nearly every time.

He knocked down over 40% of his threes, but it wasn’t enough justification to keep him in the rotation. While his offense came and went, his defense tanked the Knicks, reflecting in the worst +/- numbers on the roster. Though he tried and drew charges at an elite level, guys just shot over him on closeouts and in isolations with little hesitancy, making Walker impossible to switch or hide.

Now he’s riding pine, replaced with Alec Burks, a dependable swingman who ironically stepped in during last year’s Playoffs when the Knicks needed a change.

As for Fournier, he still has his job, though it’s not quite what was anticipated. Fournier averaged 17 points per game in his last five seasons before becoming a Knick, and is currently putting up 13.2 a night. For comparison, Reggie Bullock, the 3-and-D archetype New York believed needed replacing, averaged 10.9 last season.

In Fournier, the Knicks signed up for a multi-faceted wing scorer that could punish defense like Bullock or another pure shooter couldn’t. Instead, he's resigned himself to the three-point line and struggled to do anything with his handle.

His free throw rate is at a career low, with his three-point attempt rate at a career high. He’s shooting a solid 39.5% from deep, but the Knicks need more. His 44.3% shooting from two-point range is a career low, worse than Bullock’s from last year.

Fournier looks uncomfortable making things happen. He’s attempting fewer shots at the rim than ever before, and shooting worse from in-between range than he has in his career. His inability to scare defenses led to a brutally low assist rate, less than half of what he’s usually put up.

Per NBA.com tracking data, Fournier is averaging two fewer drives per game than last year, a decrease of about a quarter. His efficiency in pick-and-roll is down the tubes as well.

What’s behind this sudden drop-off in effectiveness? New teammates always need time to develop chemistry, and it’s possible the new officiating rules had an impact on Fournier’s forays into the arc. But these can’t fully explain this big a gap in production.

Whatever the cause, Fournier and the Knicks better find a solution soon. With Walker’s benching, New York effectively scrapped the leading theory of their offseason and put the offense back in Randle’s hands. If Fournier doesn’t pick it up, Randle’s going to be left with a rerun of last year’s team and the Knicks front office with a wasted summer.

Since moving on from Walker, the Knicks offense looked more reminiscent of last year’s. Randle has been far less passive and is in the thick of everything on that end, making it imperative that he return to his peak dominance from last year.

It’s no secret Randle hasn’t shot the ball well this year. He looked uneasy transitioning into a different role and is quite simply not scoring as well as he did: 43% and 32% from the field and three compared to 45% and 41% in 2021, respectively.

Regressing from being able to make Kobe Bryant post fades every trip down was somewhat predicted and ultimately written off as inconsequential with the upped offensive talent. But now that talent is benched or worse than anticipated, putting the pressure back on Randle to be an absolute monster again.

If it turns out that Randle can’t repeat the historic carrying job he put on last year, or Fournier can’t get back to some form of his former self, the Knicks are in trouble. Even if they can still cobble another slightly above .500 season and early postseason exit, it would render this past offseason an utter failure. Not a good look for a relatively new front office that appeared to be on a roll.

Despite all of the above, this Knicks season is far from lost. They’re in the middle of the playoff hunt behind an improving defense and young core. Randle, Fournier and RJ Barrett are due to shake off their poor shooting.

Still, it’s no fun watching them all but abandon their offseason prescription for last year’s woes. The onus is back on Randle to continue being the franchise savior with essentially the same roster.

New York needed to take a step back to move past this up-and-down start. Now we see how it plays out, and if it spurs even bigger moves down the line.