One Thing I Need to See: Julius Randle at Center

Prior to David Fizdale’s dismissal, my biggest criticism of him as a coach was his inability (or refusal) to consistently put his players in positions for success. I’m not even referring to something as complex as installing an offensive “system;” I’m talking about simply evaluating his players’ strengths and weaknesses and rolling out lineups with complementary skill sets. That, to me, seemed like the bare minimum a coach could do, and yet it was a standard that felt out of reach night after night.

Mike Miller now walks into a situation where all he has to do is not play Kevin Knox at shooting guard and Knicks fans will rejoice (note: Knox played ~4 minutes at SG on Sunday night in Denver, during which the Knicks were +5….but the point stands). Beyond fixing the most egregious positional debacles, the Knicks still have several rotational adjustments they can make to potentially get more out of their players. One of those is playing Julius Randle at the five on offense.

During Randle’s now near-mythical 2018-19 season, the one in which he averaged 21+ PPG on 60% True Shooting, the one that convinced Knicks fans he was a worthwhile gamble as a possible foundational piece, Randle played 70% of his minutes at the center position, per Cleaning The Glass. This season, only 8% of his minutes have come playing at the five. The other 92% have all been logged as the power forward.

The result has been ugly: Randle’s finishing at the rim ranks in the 29th percentile among bigs as he barrels his way into packed defenses with all the subtlety of SantaCon. And, like one of those drunk elves trying to get into a bar on that god-forsaken day, he is foul-prone, often loses control and has been rejected a ton — 26 times so far this season to be exact, fifth-most among bigs per NBA.com. But, it feels like he leads the league in plays like this:

Few players in the NBA depend on space as much as Randle. While he’s frequently able to overpower opponents with brute strength and speed, he has trouble navigating crowded driving lanes. Often it seems like his hands are covered in Crisco, the ball routinely squirting out of his grip in traffic. Of the 53 players to record at least 200 drives this season, Randle ranks 52nd in Turnover Percentage at 11.5%. Ball control simply isn’t one of his strengths, so eliminating the pesky arms of help defenders is crucial to his success.

One common-sense way to clear the paint for Randle is to play him at center surrounded by shooters. In the 65 minutes during which Marcus Morris and Julius Randle have shared the floor with no other big (read: no Robinson, Gibson, or Portis), the Knicks are +14 with a 112.9 offensive rating per PBP Stats. For context, the Knicks’ offensive rating on the season has been 103.4, dead-last in the league. A lot of that improvement has to do with the space created when you surround Randle with shooters and a competent point guard. In the play below, there isn’t a help defender in Randle’s hemisphere as he makes his move:

As Knicks fans have been telling anyone who will listen, we know this roster is bad, but it’s not bereft of talent. It’s unconventional and it takes some tinkering, but there are enough NBA-caliber players to be able to piece together units that make sense.

Consider a lineup of Payton/Barrett/Dotson/Morris/Randle. On paper, it contains a solid balance of playmaking, shooting, defense and rebounding, but it has not played a single minute all season. Granted, Payton missed a lot of time to start the year. But, replace Payton with Ntilikina and that lineup is +1 in just five total minutes played.

Or, take the lineup of Ntilikina/Barrett/Ellington/Morris/Randle; it’s +9 in just eight minutes. There are several of these types of lineup constructions that appear to complement each other, but they just haven’t seen enough time to make any clear judgments. For example:

  • Payton/Ellington/Dotson/Morris/Randle (0 minutes)
  • Payton/Ntilikina/Dotson/Morris/Randle (0 minutes)
  • Payton/Ntilikina/Ellington/Morris/Randle (0 minutes)
  • Payton/Ntilikina/Morris/Knox/Randle (0 minutes)
  • Ntilikina/Ellington/Dotson/Morris/Randle (+4 in 2 minutes)
  • Ntilikina/Barrett/Dotson/Knox/Randle (0 minutes)
  • Ntilikina/Dotson/Morris/Knox/Randle (+0 in 3 minutes)

These are obviously small or non-existent sample sizes and the plus/minus alone is not proof that they would be effective. Also, I should note that several of the Knicks’ shooters are “shooters” by reputation only as they have struggled from three this season. For these lineups to work, you’d have to bank on defenses treating guys like Dotson, Ellington, and Knox as actual threats from behind the arc. The point is: these are lineups in which the strengths of the players may potentially compound instead of overlap and cannibalize each other.

All that said, in Mike Miller’s first five games as interim head coach, he has played Randle at center for less than five minutes, all of that time coming in the second quarter on Sunday in Denver. The Knicks were +4 during that stretch, but they were playing from way behind and there wasn’t a ton to glean from those minutes.

Instead, Miller, like his predecessor, has appeared more comfortable pairing Randle with other bigs. But there are some circumstances where that may work. I know the fanbase has taken major issue with lineups featuring both Randle and Portis, but part of me thinks, if Randle HAS to play with another big, that that pairing has a chance to work if the rest of the lineup is filled out thoughtfully.

Under Fizdale, Portis and Randle were -33 in 205 minutes played (just over 10 minutes per game). But even Fiz found lineups where that duo worked. For example, the lineup of Ntilikina/Dotson/Knox/Randle/Portis is +21 in 14 minutes. A lineup like this gives Randle multiple options for kick outs once he’s forced the defense to collapse:

So far, Miller is playing that duo substantially less (less than 5 minutes per game), but they have a plus/minus of +8. It’s a small sample but it does feel indicative of Miller pairing them in a smarter way, being more cognizant about surrounding the two bigs with shooters:

Regardless whether Randle is playing at center or alongside Portis, he needs to be used more intelligently and frequently as the roll-man in pick-and-rolls. In the play below, Morris and Portis space the weak side, opening up the lane for Randle:

Sometimes, the way we talk about on-court chemistry in basketball is more complicated than it needs to be. There are relatively simple ways to promote on-court chemistry, and the easiest one is for a coach to play lineups with clear synergies. A team needs to at least try to take its imperfect players and put them into situations that are amenable to their talents.

David Fizdale’s defenders still point to the Knicks’ roster and its obvious flaws and say that it was impossible for Fiz to construct competitive lineups. The one thing I want to see from Mike Miller is for him to test whether that’s actually true. I suspect it’s not.

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