What little success the New York Knicks have had this season has been driven largely by their defense, with New York ranking a surprising sixth in defensive rating, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That defense has propped up New York’s offense, which has lagged behind all year and currently ranks 25th in points per 100 possessions. It has often been a struggle for the Knicks to manufacture points, which makes sense when you consider the team’s relative lack of shooting and off-the-bounce dynamism.1
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Because his team is so deprived of shooting ability and creativity, head coach Tom Thibodeau has taken the dramatic step of essentially turning starting power forward Julius Randle into a co-point guard, entrusting him with the keys to the offense nearly as often as his actual point guards.
Randle is touching and possessing the ball more than ever before — and more than almost any other player in the NBA this season. Through Tuesday’s games, his 84.1 touches per game ranked 12th in the league, per NBA Advanced Stats, while his 50.1 frontcourt touches ranked fourth. Both of those figures represent career highs for Randle, and not just because he is playing a career-high 36.7 minutes per game and leading the league in total minutes played. (The Knicks also play at the league’s slowest pace, so his numbers aren’t juiced by possession volume, either. In fact, it’s more likely the opposite.)
|Overall touches||Frontcourt touches|
|Season||Team||Min.||Per game||Per 36||Per game||Per 36|
Randle has also taken advantage of the uptick in opportunity, creating more offense than ever before. But not for himself: for his teammates. Randle is averaging a career-best 6.0 assists per game, nearly double his 3.1 average last season and 2.4 per game more than his previous high-water mark. He has recorded at least five assists in 14 games so far this season — three more than he had all of last year, when he played in 64 games. As a share of his total games played, the rate at which he is racking up five-assist games dwarfs anything he had done to this point in his career.
|Season||Total||W/5+ Asst||5+ Asst%|
But Randle’s basket creation is perhaps most noticeable when looking at his assist rate. In each of the three seasons prior to this one, Randle assisted on the exact same share of his teammates’ baskets while he was on the floor: 15.8 percent. That’s a pretty good number for a big man. It ranked ninth among all players with at least a partial center designation in 2017-18, 11th among that group of players in 2018-19 and seventh in 2019-20.2
This season, though, Randle has jacked his assist rate all the way up to 28.6 (TWENTY-EIGHT POINT SIX!) percent, giving him the eighth-highest single-season rate for any player with a center designation since the 1976 NBA-ABA merger.
This type of jump is almost unheard of. Players in the middle of their careers just do not suddenly see their assist rate spike by 12.8 percentage points from one year to the next. In fact, this is only the 24th time since the merger that a player who had played at least 6,000 career minutes3 entering a given season posted an assist rate at least 12.5 percentage points higher than he had the season before.4 That’s 24 out of a group of 6,085 player-seasons.
Each of the 21 players ahead of Randle on the list is a guard. There’s Brevin Knight in 2005, Sleepy Floyd in 1986, Joe Johnson in 2006 (his first year in Atlanta) and James Harden in 2017 (his first year at point guard). And then there’s Randle, alone among big men in the top 24 on the list.
Randle stands out even more when you group him only with other bigs. His 12.8 percentage-point jump in assist rate is joined in double digits only by Vlade Divac’s 2003-04 season with the Sacramento Kings. Only 15 other times has a power forward or center increased his assist rate by at least 8 percentage points over the season before.
Randle’s 2020-21 assist rate is also markedly higher than his 15.5 percent career average entering this season, obviously. But his 13.1 percentage-point differential between previous career average and single-season high is actually not the largest in post-merger NBA history for a big man. It’s actually not even the largest for a big man on a Thibodeau-coached team.
|Player||Season||Pos.||Asst%||Prev Asst% for career||Change|
Joakim Noah’s assist rate jumped by 4.9 percentage points from 2012 to 2013, when the Bulls played the entire season without star point guard Derrick Rose, who was out with a torn ACL. Chicago got Rose back for the start of the 2013-14 campaign, but he lasted just 11 games5 before going down again, which forced Thibs and the Bulls to shift even more playmaking burden onto Noah’s shoulders. He responded by assisting on 26.4 percent of teammate baskets while on the floor, a rate that far exceeded his career average of 11.8 percent entering that season.
There is no comparable injury for the 2020-21 Knicks, but there is a similar lack of point-guard talent on hand. The Elfrid Payton, Dennis Smith and Frank Ntilikina-led Knick offense finished 28th in the league last season. So when Thibs arrived, he just shifted the playmaking responsibility elsewhere, presumably (and rightly) figuring that things couldn’t get much worse than they had been under his predecessors.
The decision has worked wonders for Randle’s individual productivity, but it’s barely nudged the Knick offense forward at all, which makes it somewhat puzzling that the Knicks haven’t at least tweaked their rotation. The simplest adjustment would be to elevate promising rookie guard Immanuel Quickley into the starting lineup. Quickley, an ace shooter,6 has played less than half of his minutes next to Randle, while Payton has shared the floor with Randle for nearly 94 percent of his minutes.
If the Knicks are to take a step forward offensively at any point this season, they might need to make a change — either to the starting lineup or to their rotation, perhaps by mixing and matching starters and reserves more often than they have so far — even if it means changing Randle’s role as well. Unless and until that change happens, though, Randle will be tasked with an outsize share of the team’s basket-creation burden — and if what he’s shown so far this season is any indication, he’ll just keep right on diming.
Neil Paine contributed research.
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