Now that the the majority of the relevant 2019 free agents have settled into new deals across the league, it's time to take a closer look at some of the most intriguing transactions to see if they are smart investments for the teams involved. Over the next few weeks, we will pick out some key transactions involving players that have switched teams this Summer and grade them based on player fit and odds of receiving a positive return on investment during the contract term. Welcome to the BCB Free Agency series.
This week, we will be examining the three year, $62 million contract the New York Knicks extended to Julius Randle on July 8th. The Knicks have received a fair amount of criticism for loading up on big men that play the same position, but is there an element of a method to this supposed madness? Depending on how you look at it, potentially...
The saga of Julius Randle up to this point has been fascinating indeed. The first chapter of his story involved a tumultuous tenure in Los Angles alongside the Black Mamba and a hodgepodge of youngsters striving for stardom, but coming up short in the midst of losing seasons and increasing expectations. After the Lakers renounced his right to make room for bigger fish (See James, LeBron) Randle moved on to the Big Easy and secured a modest two year deal, with a player option for year two. Well, his decision for that last year brings us to the Summer of 2019. Simply put, Randle was just too good for New Orleans. He outgrew that situation in short order after bulling his way to a career year. The potential that made him a top ten draft pick in 2014 finally manifested itself and not many teams were successful in slowing down the human wrecking ball once he got a head of stream going.
Three things are abundantly after viewing this montage:
1. Randle is STRONG. Like, he plays as though he was raised among lions and rhinos in the most hostile environment on earth, He might be one of the most powerful specimens to hit the floor every night among all 30 professional teams. Multiple opponents match up with him - powerful in their own right, but even they merely bounce off Randle during an attack at the rim. You already know they feel it in every part of their bodies the next morning.
2. He actually has underrated ball control. His handles are more than adequate for a 6'9" big man and it adds a beautiful aspect of diversity to his game. When matched up against a slower footed forward or center, he quickly recognizes the mismatch and takes the poor soul off the dribble with his herky-jerky moves. A slick crossover or hesitation 15 feet or so from the hoop puts him in great position to get a step on his defender and gain the upper hand with his sturdy frame.
3. Speaking of control, Randle is pretty adept at body control while airborne. He's more than an out of control athletic specimen. It's no problem for him to contort his body after leaping at the bucket to avoid contact, or achieve a better angle while finishing. He has been above average at converting at the rim the last two seasons, as Cleaning the Glass ranked him in the 53rd percentile there for 2018-19 among players at his position. The better players in the league can pair force with finesse on demand and that's where Randle shines the most.
Raw stats can never really tell us the whole story of a player's performance, but it can serve as a good starting point. This is how his basic stats ended up last season:
PPG: 21.4 (+5.3 over the season prior)
REB: 8.7 (+0.7 over the season prior)
AST: 3.1 (+0.5 over the season prior)
2P%: 56% (-1% compared to the season prior)
3P%: 34% (+12% compared to the season prior)
That increase in long range shooting was truly startling to see unfold. Outside shooting has never been Randle's calling card and teams were more than happy to see him cast away from out there. Apparently something clicked last season and he went from an atrocious long range shooter to an almost average one, which is an incredible leap to make in one season. There was no indiction that this was on the horizon in any shape, or form.
The enormous strides Randle made in his game last season and the continued improvement he has demonstrated every season was sure to cause multiple teams to show interest and come calling the moment June 30th rolled around. (They might have come calling before the assigned date, but we'll save that conversation for another day.) It only took a week for Randle to sign his deal with New York and make good on the bet he made on himself last Summer. He probably pushed for that player option because he was supremely confident in his ability to outplay that deal. His total salary for last season came out to $8.6 million, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that ended up being an incredible deal.
Now that Randle has come to reaching his ultimate ceiling as a player, his next team, New York, will probably not see the kind of value for dollar that the Pelicans benefited from last season. Still, this doesn't seem to be an overpay if Randle can maintain his production, or even surpass it next season. Among all of the 2019 Free Agents that primarily play Power Forward or Center, Randle was undoubtably in the top five, and maybe even the top target among realistic targets for teams like the Knicks. The class this offseason featured prominent difference makers on the inside, including Tobias Harris, Al Horford, Kristaps Porzingis, and Paul Millsap. However, Harris was off the board almost instantly because he's on a championship contender and that team (Sixers) could offer him the most money due to owning his Bird Rights. Millsap had a team option that the Nuggets exercised, so he was never really obtainable either. Porzingis was aquired by Dallas in a mid-season trade that costed them valuable assets...they were never going to offer any less than the max to him after going through all that trouble to bring him in as a building block next to Doncic. Horford never really fit into the timeline of this young Knicks team with an advanced age well past 30.
So that brings us to the bulldozer himself...Julius Randle. Out of the true remaining free agents, he was probably number one on the board at his position. If we twist the circumstances of his signing around in this manner, this can be constructed as a minor win for the Knicks, which have been hard to come by as of late. They were able to secure a significant free agent in his prime, albeit not a star player, at fair market value. His new deal places him number 10 on the power forward salary rankings, just behind young stud Aaron Gordon and just ahead of other freshly signed Knicks forwards Bobby Portis and Marcus Morris. Yes, the Knicks now have three players who play PF that rank in the top 15 in PF salary. It's still pretty amusing to think about that.
So how does Randle fit into this Manhattan sized puzzle the Knickerbockers have created? Honestly, quite well, despite the positional logjam. He will presumably join the starting lineup day one alongside second year center, Mitchell Robinson. Robinson is a uber-athletic big man that is a menace on the P&R due to his ability to catch lobs from ridiculous angles. On defense, he loves to send shots five rows into the stands and achieved a healthy 2.4 block per game average as a rookie. The Bball Index also graded him out as a stout interior defender at the 92nd percentile that earned him an A grade down there.
Sound familiar at all? These characteristics are very reminiscent of a player Randle spent a lot of time on the court with last season: Anthony Davis. Randle spent 2,235 possessions playing with The Brow in New Orleans per the Cleaning the Glass lineup database and they produced an efficiency differential of +4.1 points per 100 possessions. Randle and Davis had a nice chemistry last season and at least some of that synergy should transfer over to the on-court relationship of Randle + Robinson.
Randle's ability to plow through defenses and also create plays for others from the four spot should be a huge boon to this offense that finished dead last in offensive rating last season with 104.5 points produced per 100 possessions. He finished with an 'A' playmaking grade on Bball Index last season and reached the 86th percentile in assist rate for his position on Cleaning the Glass after finishing 90th+ the two previous seasons. He's not a ball hog by any means. Elfrid Payton and Dennis Smith Jr., two shaky PGs that are new to the New York system will love playing with a big man that handle some of the playmaking duties while they pick their spots to put points on the board.
On the financial side of things, the Knicks were smart to build in salary protection for themselves down the line depending on changes that may occur with Randle's quality of play and/or the team's goals. The last year of Randle's deal in 2021 is only $4 million guaranteed, so they can move on from him before June 28th of that year, and save the other $15 million or so for other expenditures. The fact that 2021 is the year where his deal becomes 80% guaranteed is no coincidence either. If you take a second to glance at Jeff Siegel's handy 2021 free agent list on Early Bird Rights, you will be greeted by a long list of notable names. You can bet the entirety of your bank account balance that New York will be ultra aggressive in recruiting players such as Blake Griffin, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard to join their ranks. This team isn't big on building through the draft or exhibiting any sort of real patience, so they will look to take the fast track back to contention as soon as humanly possible.
Overall, Randle is in a completely different situation than the other big men that signed along with him in New York. He is the only one out of the bunch that doesn't have a non-guaranteed deal for next season and will be making more than them all as well. He's obviously the most talented of them all and his skillset is quite a unique blend that could make him the best free agency signing the team has made in quite sometime.
That brings us to potential ROI. By most counts, he signed a contract well in line with his production level from last season. Of course, there is always the risk that last campaign was just a flash in the pan, but his play has been steadily increasing year over year as he has learned how to best use his overwhelming strength and become less dependent on his dominant left hand to finish at the hoop. Add in the fact that he hasn't even hit his prime yet at age 24 and this should be a recipe for success for player and team. Even his main weak point, which is defense should be mitigated greatly from the presence of Mitchell Robinson on the back line AKA the 'Block Ness Monster.' The only time where his lack of paint protection and off ball help would become an issue is during minutes he occupies the center position. Randle only played 30% of his total minutes there with the Pels and expect him to get even less run there next season with more intimidating defenders like Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis available to soak up those stints in a pinch.
Randle should also find an extra layer of motivation to perform with $1.8 million in annual unlikely incentives built into his "three" year deal. The perimeters on what it takes to earn those incentives isn't known at this time, but the fact remains that Randle will have a little extra to play for, outside of the fact that New York fans and media will eat him alive if he disappoints.
Lastly, even injuries should be a minimal concern during the life of this deal. If we exclude his 2014-2015 rookie season where he only played 14 minutes before suffering a broken leg, he has played in 310 out of a possible 328 games in the last four seasons. There just aren't many downsides to this deal. Randle will most likely live up to this deal on every front and even if he somehow doesn't, New York can rid themselves of his 2020-2021 contract and turn their attention to more promising prospect waiting in the wings. In a Summer where this team let downs at every turn, the staff can at least take solace in the fact that they made a positive play for a player who will do nothing but push the franchise back towards the relevance that has been elusive for oh so long.
FINAL GRADE: A