Knicks’ Julius Randle has shot for something bigger than MVP

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Someone forget to tell the Knicks that James Dolan blindsided his hockey franchise, not his basketball franchise. Suddenly, after Dolan fired his chief Rangers decision-makers, the Knicks acted as if he had dumped Tom Thibodeau and appointed Steve Mills to find his replacement.

Wednesday night was throwback night in Denver, where the Knicks haven’t won since 2006. Given the events of the day, it was fitting that the 2020-21 Knicks — such a good story all year long — suddenly morphed into the worst of Dolan’s teams over the last two decades.

The Knicks were down 22 at the end of the first quarter, and down 28 in the middle of the second. It was a coincidence. It was a coincidence. It was a coincidence. Go ahead and write that on a chalkboard 100 times. But all kidding aside, after winning 12 of their last 13 games, the Knicks were way overdue to get hammered on the road by a very good team. It’s what happens in the NBA.

Nikola Jokic outscored the Knicks, 24-12, in the first quarter, on the way to a huge night in the boxscore (32 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two blocks), and in the MVP race, where Julius Randle was trying, and failing, to make a stand. As much as Randle hoped to put a dent in the candidacy of Jokic, the presumed favorite, he should understand something about New York sports fans. They don’t care about the MVP race nearly as much as they care about postseason victories, championships and ticker-tape parades.

Julius Randle lose the ball during the Knicks' 113-97 loss to the Nuggets.
Julius Randle loses the ball during the Knicks’ 113-97 loss to the Nuggets.
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Derek Jeter never won an MVP. He seemed to have managed OK without it.

A far more important pursuit for Randle involves his place in the Knicks’ eventual attempt to win their first championship since 1973, assuming, you know, that they don’t actually win it this year. Randle was bound to have a bad game at some point, and Wednesday night was the one. He scored only 14 points and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. He’ll be fine.

The All-Star forward has been a godsend in so many ways for a franchise that traded Kristaps Porzingis for the right to sign two superstars, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who decided instead to try to win Brooklyn’s first championship since 1955. Asked recently if he belonged in the MVP conversation, Randle said, “For sure. I’m not going to shy away from it.” And that’s OK. He is proud of the work ethic that he inherited from his mother, Carolyn Kyles, who wore his No. 30 at Texas-Arlington, and that he honed by watching his idol and former teammate, Kobe Bryant, who was always in a full morning sweat by the time much younger Lakers arrived at the gym. Randle wants to be mentioned among the elite players in the league, and he’s earned the right.

But recovering from this Jokic rout and finding a way to beat Phoenix or the Clippers or the Lakers before this trip ends — preferably two of the three — would mean something more to Randle. He signed a three-year, $63 million deal before the start of last season, which means Randle is set to become an unrestricted free agent after next season. Given that he’s been the kind of bargain at $63 million that Jacob deGrom has been at $137.5 million, the Knicks won’t let him get to free agency. They will either extend him, or trade him for a big return. And that decision will be determined by how Leon Rose and William “World Wide Wes” Wesley answer this question:

Can Randle be one of the two best players on a championship team?

If their answer to that question is yes, then re-signing the 26-year-old and keeping him for the balance of his prime is the ultimate slam dunk. If their answer to that question is no, then the Knicks could seriously consider moving him in a package that returns someone who can be one of the two best players on a championship team.

While leading the league in minutes played this year, Randle has moved the needle much closer to “yes” on that question than anyone could have fathomed. Remember, the Knicks drafted a kid who plays Randle’s position, Obi Toppin, for a reason. They didn’t believe in him long term either.

Now Julius Randle is the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month, and a star his coach describes as the Knicks’ engine, the one who makes them go. The drive that matters now isn’t about the MVP award. It’s about Randle proving he can be the one who books that parade.

Despite what went down in Denver, he still has time on this trip to help his case.

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