Stefan Bondy: Knicks ate the fine and only made toxic Julius Randle situation worse

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·4 min read
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NEW YORK — In those better times for the Knicks last season, which today seem further away than ever, coach Tom Thibodeau would often refer to Julius Randle as the team’s “engine.”

It was easy to interpret: a car doesn’t work without the engine, and a car only travels as fast as the quality of said engine.

But now, with the Knicks plummeting to 11th in the Eastern Conference, we’re suddenly supposed to downplay Randle’s impact, as if a sputtering engine is equal to a broken taillight.

“It’s easy to say that,” Thibodeau said of blaming Randle after Thursday night’s eyebrow-raising dud against the Pelicans, “but it’s really our entire team. When things aren’t going our way, Julius is gonna take a lot of blame. He gets a lot of the credit, but that goes with the turf. But it’s a team game, and we didn’t get into it with any one individual.”

That’s not how this works. Especially not in basketball, where success and titles are built around two or three players. Randle was happy and eager to shoulder the burden of franchise player when it was easy, when he was rocketing above the low expectations last season and fans were largely absent from arenas because of the pandemic.

Then he signed a $106 million extension in the summer, and I asked Randle about the skeptics who viewed his 2020-21 campaign as a fluke.

“People who say that just know s--- about me,” Randle responded. “If you watch my career, if you watch me play every year, I’ve gotten better, so that just speaks to my mindset as a player. So if you think that, have fun with that take.”

It’s not exactly a fun take, especially to Knicks fans, but it’s certainly been correct. Randle is not only freefalling on the court — where he’s shooting just 36% and averaging 15.4 points in his last 11 games — he’s declared war on the fans, an unwinnable battle, while going seven straight games without talking to the media.

That’s not “leadership.” If an engine only works well on the open highway but shuts down in the muddy terrain, it’s time for a new one. Or at least time to get an estimate from Sixers executive Daryl Morey on Ben Simmons.

To be fair to Randle, the front office sets the tone for the lack of transparency and accountability. Leon Rose, the team president, doesn’t put his face or voice behind his moves. He’s spoken twice in two years, which removes his accountability from any disappointments. How can Rose’s plan go poorly if he never acknowledged a plan, or acknowledged anything, for that matter?

The organization’s most recent enabling maneuver was telling the media and NBA that Randle — who scored just four points Thursday while blowing up at a referee — didn’t speak postgame on orders from the Knicks. As a result, the team, not Randle, was fined $25,000 on Friday for skirting the availability rules.

If the purpose was defiance or protest because the NBA fined Randle for profanity in an interview two weeks prior, the only real message was eyeroll-inducing enabling. It’s tough to believe the Knicks told Randle he wasn’t allowed to address the media. And even if they did — which, again, is very difficult to believe — it’d just be contributing to his downward spiral.

I’ve defended Randle because he was failed by a front office that didn’t upgrade the roster despite $50 million in cap space. I’ve defended Randle against the fans because, frankly, he’s never received the same benefit of the doubt as his teammates. If RJ Barrett were held to the same standard, for instance, he’d also get jeered during his semiweekly letdowns.

But this is a toxic mix with Randle and MSG: He’s a target for negativity and highly sensitive to it. Randle’s game, his body language, his effort — they’re all affected.

In what is becoming a nightly occurrence, the Garden crowd booed Randle on Thursday and chanted for his replacement, Obi Toppin, who might own the best chants-to-minutes-played ratio in franchise history.

We get it: Toppin is exciting and fans always have a soft spot for homegrown draft picks, but there’s a reason his minutes are limited. The 23-year-old remains a defensive liability, and we saw what his extended opportunities might look like while Randle was shelved for two games with COVID-19 (blowout defeats to the Thunder and Raptors).

It’s got to be tough for an All-Star to hear the fans urge for his unseating, which is why I understood Randle flashing his thumbs-down gesture at MSG. Everybody has a rough day at the office.

But now we’re 14 days later, and the situation has only gotten worse. There are no positive destinations on a course without an engine.