For years, the Knicks have pitched some imagined future, the belief that if they just waited patiently enough, workplace disputes in Phoenix or Philadelphia would deliver them their star.
Now, after trading RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley to Toronto for OG Anunoby, the Knicks are beginning to convert their potential into kinetic energy. Since the deal, the Knicks have looked unlike any Knicks team of the last 25 years, ripping off a blistering five-game win streak and announcing themselves as bonafide contenders by beating the Timberwolves and 76ers. Even as they’ve had to figure out their lineups and rotations on the fly, they’ve played with unusual clarity, leading for 211 across those first 240 minutes together and outscoring opponents by 111 points with Anunoby on the court. The offense fizzes; the defense constricts. The magic is in the work, wheezes the bard.
More specifically, the magic is in the work of Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle, who have cemented themselves as legitimate All-NBA caliber players. Through 38 games, Brunson and Randle have combined to score the second-most points of any duo in the league, trailing only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard in Milwaukee.
Within this duopoly, Brunson is popularly understood to be the alpha, the 1A to Randle’s 1B, because his game is easier to understand. Namely, he’s a bucket—as evidenced by his career-high 25.8 points per game. Despite projecting the vibe as a heady, book-smart floor general, Brunson’s greatest strength isn’t that he’s “cerebral” or “like a second coach out there on the floor.” Instead, it’s that you can’t guard him. Dating back to his time at Villanova, Brunson has always possessed a fencer’s sense of distance—he uses his choppy, idiosyncratic footwork to cast his defender into a weird no-man’s land, too far away to contest his shot, yet too close to reliably stay in front of him.
Although Brunson has, by his standards, struggled to score at the rim, he’s compensated for this by becoming one of the most dangerous shooters in the league. setting personal bests in both three-point volume (6.6 per game) and accuracy (42.4 percent). As recently as two years ago, Brunson was an unremarkable three-point shooter who preferred to worm his way closer to the basket; now, he’s outgunning Steph Curry and just about everyone else, scoring 10.7 points per game on pull-up jumpers alone (fourth most in the league) and nailing 44.7 percent of these shots, making him the third most accurate among high-volume shooters.
While Brunson has been embraced as New York’s golden boy, Randle has never won over certain sects of Knicks fans, who resent that he’s moody and emotive in ways that Brunson is not. In Beatles terms, he’s the John to Brunson’s Paul; in Biblical terms, he’s the Paul to Brunson’s John. Fan feelings run deep and irrational. As former MIT professor/forever introvert Neri Oxman (or was it the Roman poet Catullus?) wrote: “I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I sense that it happens and I am tormented.”
Aside from a dreadful first six games, Randle is having an undeniably great season, turning his haters into his waiters at the table of success. Over the last 31 games, Randle averaged 26 points, 9 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game on 59.8 percent True Shooting.
On the simplest level, Randle has thrived because he’s been able to focus on his strengths, rather than cover for his team’s weaknesses. Each year, Randle retrofitted his game to fit whatever hole the Knicks needed. In his breakout 2021 campaign, Randle established himself as a franchise cornerstone by convincingly aping LeBron James and lumpenly orchestrating the offense. The next year, though, he was miscast as the too-big point guard of a gormless, rhythmless offense. To accommodate the arrival of Brunson last year, Randle refined his jumper, fashioned himself into the Knicks’ primary floor spacer and became the league’s most prolific spot-up shooter. Before Anunoby arrived, he even spent early chunks of the last few months guardling elite scorers like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant simply because the Knicks didn’t have anybody else big enough to do so.
This year, and especially in these last five games, Randle has showcased the full scope of his talents without having to overextend himself in any one direction. Surrounded by elite shooters and skilled players, Randle has mauled defenders and returned to his natural habitat down low—he has scored the ninth most points in the paint this year, up from 28th last year. In this sense, there’s an accumulative aspect to his game—his shooting touch enhances his interior scoring, which creates opportunities for his playmaking. He has the ability to do everything, but the security of knowing that he no longer has to.
If Randle keeps this up, he’ll be the Knicks’ answer to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum and any other multi-hyphenate talents who lie in wait in the playoffs. The Celtics are better…but the Knicks have the best array of defensive wings in the East and a more varied offense. The Bucks are better…but their backcourt has no hope of containing Brunson and their whole team emits a discomfiting vibe, like cousins whose parents don’t get along. When Randle has the ball—when Brunson is burning, when the bounding is astounding—there’s a renewed sense of promise that this is how things could always feel.