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Nobody Saw the Knicks Coming

Behind Julius Randle, the Knicks have become one of the N.B.A.’s most surprising — and best defensive — teams. Kristaps Porzingis, who?

If the Knicks had known how well Julius Randle would play for Coach Tom Thibodeau, presumably they would not have selected Obi Toppin, who essentially plays the same position, with the eighth overall pick in November’s N.B.A. draft.

If Knicks fans had known what Randle would become in his second season in New York, maybe they would not have despaired when Kristaps Porzingis was traded to Dallas in January 2019.

If anyone had known Randle could transform himself from a career 29.5 percent shooter from 3-point range into a 40.5 percent shooter this season, and dared to say so, chances are such bold souls would not have been believed. Randle’s improvement from deep, after all, is the most significant midcareer increase in long-distance shooting proficiency in league history.

You can look it up: Randle is on pace to become the first N.B.A. player to enter a season with a 3-point success rate below 30 percent (on more than 500 attempts) and then shoot 40 percent or better on 3s (with a minimum of 150 attempts), according to research from the noted statistical expert Justin Kubatko.

“The big thing is, when he added the 3-point shot,” Thibodeau said last week, “that just opened up everything else.”

Thibodeau was referring to Randle’s game, but he might as well have been talking about the entire franchise. Ignited by Randle’s improvement, the Knicks are having the kind of enjoyable season that so many teams, even with better records, have not had because of pandemic challenges and injury woes.

It’s a season that, based on pretty much any reputable projection in December, was supposed to end with, at best, 25 wins for the Knicks. Into Tuesday’s home date with Charlotte they instead toted a 31-27 record, and a six-game winning streak that ranked as the N.B.A.’s longest active one. The Nets are New York’s championship contenders, but the Knicks — the city’s true basketball love — appear headed, at worst, for a spot in the playoff play-in round after missing the postseason for seven consecutive years.

The Knicks, largely at Thibodeau’s urging, chased Gordon Hayward in free agency, when the gruff new coach wasn’t sure that his team had a foundational player. Hayward chose to sign with the Hornets, who were willing to go to a financial level ($120 million over four years) that Thibodeau’s bosses deemed too rich, given Hayward’s age and injury history. Randle soon illustrated that the roster wasn’t nearly as barren as feared.

“The biggest thing is Ju is setting the tempo every night with putting pressure on the rim, putting pressure on the defense, and we’re trying to play around him,” said Derrick Rose, the former All-Star acquired by the Knicks from Detroit in February to bolster the bench.

Randle became the Knicks’ only current All-Star when he was named to the team for the first time, in March. As of Monday, 58 games into the 72-game schedule, he had played in 57 and was averaging 23.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.1 assists, while shooting that 40.5 percent from 3-point range. Those offensive numbers have been matched or exceeded by only one player this season — Denver’s Nikola Jokic, a favorite for the Most Valuable Player Award — and only one player reached them before this season: Larry Bird in 1984-85, one of three M.V.P. seasons for the Boston Celtics star.

After four consecutive 30-point games, something no other Knick had managed since Carmelo Anthony in 2014, Randle on Monday was named the N.B.A.’s player of the week in the Eastern Conference. Yet it was Friday’s masterpiece in Dallas, Randle’s hometown, that gave the Knicks their most significant jolt of positivity since, well, who can even remember?

Lined up against Porzingis, and a Mavericks team many thought had fleeced the Knicks in the Porzingis deal, Randle rumbled for 44 points, 10 rebounds and 7 assists in the Knicks’ 117-109 victory. Perhaps it’s no accident that Randle had such a big game in his lone appearance of the season back home. The franchises and their fan bases have seemingly been locked in a staredown since the trade, constantly seeking validation that their team chose the right course. Dallas is also where Randle did most of his shooting and fitness work in the off-season.

While performances like that can’t undo how little the Knicks got out of the Porzingis trade — Dennis Smith Jr. was ultimately traded to Detroit to get Rose, and DeAndre Jordan left in free agency for the Nets — Randle’s shooting and playmaking have allowed fans to stop focusing on the downsides of the deal and look toward the future. That means focusing on the two first-round picks the Knicks got from Dallas.

One season of strong 3-point shooting doesn’t put Randle in the same sentence as Golden State’s Stephen Curry, but one thing Randle and Curry share is that they made the most of their extended off-seasons. Curry told me in February that he’d had the most productive off-season of his career. The same holds for Randle, who recently described himself as “obsessive over” broadening his shooting range before this season.

“He’s prepared himself for this,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t forget that.”

This pairing of player and coach also turned out to be a better-than-anticipated match. Randle was regarded for years as a major defensive liability but has responded the hard-driving Thibodeau’s prodding with more engaged defense. For all the skepticism about Thibodeau’s ability to nurture a younger team, the Knicks awoke Tuesday with the league’s third-best defense.

Thibodeau, as a result, is up there with Phoenix’s Monty Williams and Utah’s Quin Snyder as a contender to be named coach of the year, while Randle is a favorite for the Most Improved Player award — and a potential All-N.B.A. selection.

I must reiterate that I still find it jarring to see Randle wearing No. 30, which the Knicks should have retired long ago in tribute to Bernard King, who was my favorite player throughout high school. He won a scoring title in 1984-85 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. Those achievements trump any suggestion that he wasn’t in New York long enough for his number to hang in the Madison Square Garden rafters.

I called King on Tuesday to get his view. “It’s always strange for me, just a little bit, when I see No. 30 running up and down the court,” he said, but added that he is a Randle admirer who watches every Knicks game he can from his home in Atlanta.

“I’m a Knick,” King said.

For those of us who have lost hope that the Knicks will ever remove those digits from circulation in King’s honor, there is a hint of consolation in the knowledge that Randle, the fourth player to wear No. 30 since King left the Knicks for Washington in 1987, is the first to perform at a level reminiscent of King.

What it says on the front of the jersey apparently means just as much to Randle, too.

“I’m damn proud to be a Knick,” Randle wrote in March in an essay for The Players’ Tribune.




A reader said that he was a fan of Julius Erving (6) in the 1970s and that “nobody I’ve ever watched since has recreated that kind of excitement and electricity.”
Associated Press

You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.

(Questions may be condensed or slightly edited for clarity.)

Q: Knowing your fondness for both basketball and soccer, what was your perspective on the proposed European Super League? The idea that there would be reserved slots in a breakaway soccer league for 12 to 15 founding clubs and a few rotating slots set aside for qualifying teams looks very much like the current EuroLeague basketball setup. Why is this format deemed OK in basketball but not soccer? — Stew Levine (Plano, Texas)

Stein: If European basketball had all the best players in the world, as do the elite teams in European soccer that wanted to break away from UEFA and form their own version of the Champions League, there would be a similarly raucous outcry about the EuroLeague template. EuroLeague basketball doesn’t have anywhere near the same mass following as soccer’s Champions League because the best basketball players in the world are overwhelmingly in the N.B.A.

Yet it’s great that you brought up the EuroLeague, because the link here wasn’t being mentioned enough. Many in Europe described the Super League proposal as a desire among the owners of the 12 breakaway clubs in England, Spain and Italy to adopt an American major league sports model, at least in part because of the influence of American owners in the group who also own N.F.L., N.B.A. and Major League Baseball franchises. Another handy way of looking at it was that they wanted to adopt a EuroLeague basketball approach, in which Europe’s traditional powers were essentially assured of staying in the league no matter how they fared in their domestic leagues, with elements of the American franchise system mixed in.

Owners of the richest soccer clubs abroad surely envy many things when they compare the Champions League to the N.B.A. or the N.F.L. They want a league that their teams don’t have to qualify for every season, that carries no threat of relegation, and that has the most high-profile clubs playing each other more often — all to collect more television and commercial revenue without having to share as much as they do now. Even though their ambitions swiftly unraveled this week, I think we can safely presume that they would prefer the EuroLeague structure, which still falls under FIBA’s jurisdiction, over fully embracing the N.B.A.’s template.

To truly adopt the American model for major league team sports would mean signing up for a salary cap (with luxury-tax penalties) and, if not some sort of draft procedure, likely a league office headed by an independent commissioner to keep order. The teams at the heart of the Super League proposal don’t have to deal with any of that now and are presumably prepared to go only so far in reinventing themselves.

Also: There is an interesting N.B.A. footnote to all of this. Leading up to the Champions League final, I wrote this piece in May 2019 about the N.B.A.’s growing interest in working a soccer-style cup competition into the middle of its regular-season schedule. The N.B.A.’s thinking: Adding an extra trophy for teams to chase might give the 82-game regular-season grind more meaning and excitement.

Financial distress for even soccer’s richest clubs because of the pandemic was certainly a factor in the Super League proposal, but I can’t say I expected the Champions League’s existence to be challenged so overtly before the N.B.A. could launch its experiment.

Q: He’s still playing? What is he, like, 50? — @BoltBill from Twitter

Stein: I’ve been getting this question a lot since I reported on Monday that the Nets were in advanced talks to sign Mike James, the former Phoenix and New Orleans guard.

This is the Mike James, 30, who played briefly in the N.B.A. during the 2017-18 season, spent much of the past two seasons at CSKA Moscow in Russia and has mostly played overseas since turning professional in 2014-15.

The Mike James you referred to in your question is 45, last appeared in the N.B.A. in the 2013-14 season and played on 11 different teams, including two stints each with Houston and Chicago.

Q: My N.B.A. fandom started in Southern California when my parents amazingly got a television for my brother’s and my bedroom in 1968. Wilt Chamberlain had joined the Lakers, Jerry West was the resident star and I was hooked. Then in 1976, I lived for three months in Park Slope in Brooklyn in a rent-controlled apartment. One of the residents on our floor had the Nets’ games on local television and a bunch of us would crowd into the apartment to watch games.

I vividly remember that, at least once a game, Julius Erving would do something unexpected and breathtaking. Nobody I’ve ever watched since has recreated that kind of excitement and electricity. As good as Dr. J was in the N.B.A. with Philadelphia, it doesn’t compare to how good he was as a Net in the A.B.A. The next tier for me would be Connie Hawkins, Vince Carter and Zion Williamson, but Erving was at a different level. — Richard Neuman

Stein: Sometimes a nostalgic story is as good as an insightful question. I think we’ve established by now how much I love to reminisce about the 1970s and 1980s N.B.A., so thanks for sending this in.

Talk about the 1970s Nets has picked up in recent weeks given the team’s emerging status as championship contenders and the fast-approaching 45th anniversary of the Nets’ last A.B.A. game on May 13, 1976.

Allow me to refer you to this wonderful recent piece from my colleague Harvey Araton, the retired New York Times columnist, on how some of the principles from the Nets’ glory days (Kevin Loughery, Rod Thorn and Dr. J himself) still wonder about what might have been if the Nets hadn’t sold the rights to Erving to fund their move into the N.B.A. in 1976.


Larry C. Morris

The four players to wear No. 30 for the Knicks since Bernard King left the franchise in 1987 are Frank Williams (2003-4), Earl Barron (2010), John Jenkins (2019) and Julius Randle, starting in the 2019-20 season.

LaMarcus Aldridge, who abruptly announced his retirement last week because of a heart condition, was drafted in 2006. Since that draft, Aldridge and LeBron James are the only two players to record at least 19,000 points and 8,000 rebounds. With 19,951 career points, Aldridge was 49 shy of 20,000 when he walked away.

One of the most notable achievements in Aldridge’s N.B.A. career was not statistical: He was the most coveted player in the N.B.A.’s 2015 free-agent class and lured San Antonio back to the marketplace after Coach Gregg Popovich — foiled in his attempt to persuade Jason Kidd to leave the Nets in July 2003 — had essentially sworn off competing for top free agents for more than a decade.

When he scored 42 points in a recent loss to Utah, Luguentz Dort became the first Oklahoma City player to reach the 40-point plateau before his 22nd birthday since Kevin Durant, who did it 12 times in his first three seasons with the Thunder franchise, including once as a rookie in Seattle. Dort, a noted defensive specialist, also hounded Utah’s Donovan Mitchell into a 7-for-16 shooting performance in the same game. Mitchell had averaged 40.5 points in his previous four games.

Golden State’s Stephen Curry entered Monday’s game at Philadelphia having averaged 39.1 points on 54.6 percent shooting over his previous 10 games. The last player to assemble a 10-game stretch that matched Curry in both categories was Chicago’s Michael Jordan, who averaged 39.4 points on 59.4 percent shooting over a 10-game stretch late in the 1989-90 season, according to Basketball Reference.

Curry then scored 49 points in a victory over the 76ers on Monday and his April tear (nearly 41 points per game) has hiked his scoring average for the season up to a league-leading 31.4 points per game. Curry, who turned 33 in March, is on track to join Jordan on the short list of players to average at least 30 points per game for an entire season at age 32 or older.


Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to marcstein-newsletter@nytimes.com.

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