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An Improved Julius Randle Raising More Questions than Answers in New York

Basketball Insiders’ Drew Maresca examines Julius Randle’s recent surge in playmaking and looks ahead at how it change the trajectory of the New York Knicks.

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This might come as a surprise, but the New York Knicks are, in fact, watchable this season. While insinuating that a .500 team is playing surprisingly well might be insulting to most, the Knicks hadn’t won 50% of their first 6 games more than once in the past 8 season – until now.

Granted, all of the problems that led to that unfortunate streak haven’t magically disappeared. New York has scored at a league-worst rate of 101.7 points per game and there are still major question marks around a number of younger players such as Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr. and Kevin Knox.

That said, they’ve given up the fifth-fewest points per game (104.7) and, while there is serious room for improvement on the offensive end, the Knicks’ wins have come against quality opponents; each has come against a team currently slotted in the playoff picture. What’s more, they are getting acquainted with shooting the corner 3 – a staple of the modern game. Mitchell Robinson may have figured out how to stay on the court and out of foul trouble, while Immanuel Quickley’s energy and uncanny ability to draw fouls has done a lot for New York’s bench.

So, while struggles were inevitable given the Knicks possess the second-youngest roster in the NBA, per RealGM, progress was expected and has been a joy to watch. And that progress has been spearheaded by a surprising benefactor: 26-year-old Julius Randle.

Randle, drafted 7th overall in 2014, is an established scorer with a career average of 16.2 points per game. This season, he’s improved that to the tune of 21.2 points per game and has shot 50% from three on 3.7 shots per game – all of which are career-highs. But, despite his offensive production, his usage is actually down from last season (from 27.6 to 25.4 in 2020-21), indicating that he’s continued to produce, and even improved, despite fewer opportunities.

Still, it’s not his scoring that’s making the biggest impact. Instead, it’s Randle’s transformation into a point-forward that’s proven most important to the Knicks’ success this season. Randle has dished out a career-high 7.2 assists per game. He’s already tallied a triple-double this season, and was two and three assists away from one, respectively, on two other occasions, after going the entire 2019-20 season without one. Meanwhile, Randle’s also averaged double-figure rebounds (10.5 per game), a feat only accomplished once in his first 6 seasons.

And, while those numbers are encouraging, they still don’t tell the entire story. There’s a calmness to Randle’s game this season that simply wasn’t there before.

Historically, Randle was a freight train, charging into the teeth of the defense and intimidating opponents with a unique combination of size and speed. While the comparisons between Zion Williamson and Randle were meant to set Williamson’s floor prior to the 2019 NBA Draft, they also speak to Randle’s play style. Teams took those positives with his negatives: an unpredictability and general slopiness with the ball that always seemed to come back to bite him and the team.

But, this season, that aspect has seemingly gone from Randle’s game as he’s thrived as a playmaker for the Knicks. At this point in the season, Randle has managed a career-high 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio. Surprisingly, that mark has placed him higher than other, more established, star forwards such as Kevin Durant (1.47) and Pascal Siakam (1.08). Further, Randle has assisted on 32.7% of teammate field goes when on the floor, good for 17th in the entire league, another career mark and up more than 10 points from his previous best (19.3%).

Obviously, Randle underwent a philosophical shift between this season and the last, augmenting his entire offensive approach. He’s even become a more willing passer in non-assist situations as he’s racked up numerous, crucial hockey assists — passes that lead into the passes that become assists.

But what does his improved play mean for New York? It’s difficult to project, especially considering how they handled Marcus Morris just last season.

Morris was in the midst of a career year, as he posted a career-high in points, three-point percentage, three-point attempts and three-point field goals made. He also enjoyed the highest usage rate of his career (24.4). Case and points, Morris looked like a complete player, one that could seriously help his team win games, before the Knicks shipped him to the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for a first round pick. That said, the 2020-21 version of Randle may be better suited than Morris to lead New York’s offense — he’s demonstrated newfound leadership qualities while his dedication and approach to the game have never been more evident. Randle’s even flashed on defense, where his abilities have proven lacking throughout his career.

The change in Randle’s game may have transformed him into the star the Knicks have longed for since Carmelo Anthony saw a dropoff in production and left town. He could easily find himself on an All-Star team this season and could, potentially, make some noise in the race for Most Improved.

Still, nothing is certain with the Knicks. They’re operating under a new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, and a rookie team president, Leon Rose. Neither Thibodeau nor Rose were part of New York’s leadership when Randle was signed, so it’s unclear how they may view him in their long-term plans for the franchise. With Randle only guaranteed $4 million next season, the two could move on from him, whether via trade or otherwise, rather easily if they so desired.

If they don’t see him as a long term fit, exchanging Randle for draft compensation between now and the trade deadline may be their best bet. That said, any team looking to add Randle’s skillset would likely be in the playoff hunt, returning, at best, a late lottery selection — would that pick return someone as skilled or conducive to success as Randle has proven this season (or could prove in future seasons as the Knicks continue to stockpile young talent)? Nothing is certain.

NBA roster management is a difficult enterprise. While Randle’s improvement from last season to now have surely been a welcome surprise, it’s also provided the Knicks with options and raised certain questions about the future of the roster that they didn’t have to think about much as recently as a month ago. While they’re expected, once again, to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference, the tide in New York would finally seem to be turning — will Randle be around to see it fully come around? Only time will tell.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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Jazz agree to trade Derrick Favors, first-round pick to Thunder

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First reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Utah Jazz are trading power forward/center Derrick Favors and a first-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a future second-round pick. The goal here was to help reduce their tax bill. While the six-foot-eight Georgia native does not possess any notable NBA awards or honors on his basketball résumé, in the 2020-21 NBA season, Favors averaged 5.4 points, 5.5 rebounds, and a field goal percentage of 63.8 percent. The 11-year NBA veteran also recorded a free throw shooting percentage of 73.8 percent last season.

The 2020-21 Thunder finished 27-50 (.306), ranking 14th overall in the Western Conference. They could use another first-round pick. Plus, per ESPN’s Bobby Marks, this trade will put Utah $13 million below the luxury tax. On November 24, 2020, Favors signed a three-year, $29.2 million contract with the Jazz. Favors is set to earn $9,720,900 next season. This is the second time in his career he has left the Jazz.

He played with them from the 2010-11 season to the 2018-19 season, before he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans on July 7, 2019 for a 2021 second-round pick and a 2023 second-round pick. For the 2022-23 season, he has a player option of $10,183,800. The Jazz plan to also re-sign Mike Conley, so this was somewhat of a drastic move to help clear up cap space. On July 6, 2019, Conley was traded by the Memphis Grizzlies to the Jazz, in exchange for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick.

Moreover, scoring-wise, the 33-year-old point guard has not lived up to his performances from his last few seasons on the Grizzlies, but the Jazz need all the help they can get. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik will make it a top priority to re-sign Conley here soon. Conley earned $34,504,132 in the 2020-21 season.

According to Spotrac, Conley has a cap figure of $39,344,900. Center Rudy Gobert and shooting guard Donovan Mitchell have a combined percentage of 47.61 percent of Utah’s total salary cap. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the team. He will earn $35,344,828 next season.

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Wizards, Lakers agree to Russell Westbrook and Three-Player Trade Deal

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The Los Angeles Lakers have agreed with the Washington Wizards to acquire Russell Westbrook in a three-player trade, sending Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick in Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft to the Wizards. According to ESPN, the Wizards are also giving up their 2024 and 2028 second-round picks as well. During last night’s draft, at pick No. 22, the Lakers sent Wildcats’ center Isaiah Jackson to the Pacers via the Wizards. At pick No. 15, the Wizards drafted Gonzaga forward Corey Kispert. In the second round, at pick No. 31, the Milwaukee Bucks traded NBA G League player Isaiah Todd to the Wizards via the Pacers.

On Thursday, Harrell decided to pursue his $9.7 million player option for next season. Yesterday, rumors surfaced across social media regarding a possible Lakers-Kings trade involving Harrell. Despite the outlandish predictions and mindless speculation from fans over these last couple of days, this trade move could work out great for both teams. Having said that, one person’s prediction is as good as anyone’s. The Lakers needed an accurate shooter. Westbrook might not be the missing piece.

Additionally, Westbrook is a 9-time NBA All-Star and three-time assists leader. In his MVP season back in the 2016-17 season, over the course of 81 games, he averaged a career-high 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, and 1.6 steals per game. On Twitter, Westbrook tweeted, “I’m blessed to have been a part of such a stand up organization. It didn’t take long to make a home in DC, and I will forever be grateful and appreciative of my experience with the organization. Thank you!”

In the 2020-21 NBA season, Caldwell-Pope averaged 9.7 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game in 67 games started for the Lakers. The 28-year-old shooting guard will make $13 million next season. As for Kuzma, in 68 games played last season, he averaged 12.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 1.9 assists per game. Kuzma is set to earn $13 million next season. For Harrell, in 69 games played last season, he averaged 13.5 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. The six-foot-seven power forward/center is also a six-year player. Instead of having one or two notable super stars, the Wizards having several contributing players might work out better in their favor.

Last season, in 65 games played in his only season spent on the Wizards, Westbrook averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists. The 32-year-old point guard finished the 2020-21 season with 38 triple-doubles, ranking first in the league and second highest in his own playing career. Westbrook also surpassed Oscar Robertson last season for the most all-time assists; Robertson accumulated 181 triple-doubles in 14 seasons. Now, the two-time NBA scoring champion has 184 career triple-doubles, the most all-time for any player. Furthermore, this is Westbrook’s fourth team in his NBA career.

He is the fifth former MVP in league history to play on four different teams over the course of four seasons or less, adding to the existent list of Bob McAdoo, Allen Iverson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Derrick Rose. Moreover, on December 2, 2020, Westbrook was traded by the Houston Rockets to the Wizards for John Wall and a 2023 first-round draft pick. He is set to earn $44.2 million in the upcoming season. His player option for the 2022-23 season is $47 million. This trade deal will not be official until August 6th.

Per Bovada’s NBA Futures odds, the Lakers now have +300 odds of winning their eighteenth championship in the 2021-22 season. This is a move from 4/1 odds before the trade, leaping the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, and they now have the second best odds behind the Brooklyn Nets (+250). Westbrook also has the best odds of leading the league in assists next season, with first place odds showing EVEN. He is ahead of James Harden (+150), Trae Young (+450), and Luka Doncic (+600). With +6600 odds, he also ranks 19th in the NBA for next season’s MVP odds, trailing Lakers’ teammates such as James (+1200) and Davis (+2800).

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