Julius Randle-Obi Toppin problem hangs over Knicks’ offseason

Rate it as the most truthful remark Knicks president Leon Rose made about his vision during Sunday’s interview with MSG Network.

Rose supported Julius Randle and his rough season, but later added, “With regard to opportunities that may come along, we’re very flexible.”

The Knicks will be “very flexible” regarding Randle. His status ranks as the Knicks’ biggest offseason question — along with Rose’s ability to land a legitimate starting point guard in either a trade, draft or free agency.

Obi Toppin’s late emergence as a scorer, 3-point shooter and energizer has opened the eyes of coach Tom Thibodeau, who went as far as comparing him to his all-time favorite player Taj Gibson in regards to the intangibles and the bounce he brings to his teammates.

Trading Randle, if they can get equal value, would open up the starting spot for Toppin next season and perhaps create stronger team morale.

Those things matter to Thibodeau.

Obi Toppin, Julius Randle
AP, Charles Wenzelberg

In response to Rose’s remark about Randle “not being comfortable” this season, Thibodeau responded, “Well, I don’t know if comfortable, but I think the big thing is, let’s not mistake how talented he is. He didn’t shoot the 3 as well as he did a year ago, but he’s still 20, 10 and five. That’s talent. That’s a lot of talent.”

However, Thibodeau liked how the Knicks passed the ball when Randle wasn’t on the court in the final five games. Randle shut it down late with a sore quad.

If Randle was on the court late Sunday for “Fan Appreciation Night” after the game when Knicks players lobbed gifts into the stands, he wasn’t spotted by press-box observers.

If Randle skipped the season-ending ritual, he would’ve followed a pattern since his “thumbs-down” gesture to the Garden crowd in early January, continued with a media boycott, escalated with an altercation in Los Angeles with a laptop held by an assistant coach and culminated with Randle deciding not to the join his teammates for the national anthem or pregame lineup introduction at road games.

Garden fans chanting Toppin’s name when Randle was on the court had to be a blow to a player who, in fairness, lifted the Knicks to their first playoff berth in eight years a season ago.

“I think we had our ups and downs this year and when you’re that type of player, he’s gonna get criticism,” Thibodeau said. “I’m gonna get criticism. That goes with the turf here. So, you deal with it, come back, use it as motivation. I know one thing: Julius will be in the gym all summer.”

Obi Toppin
Obi Toppin displayed his improved scoring ability while Julius Randle was sidelined.
Jason Szenes

If the Knicks can’t trade Randle for a fair package, Thibodeau may have to explore a small-ball package with Randle at center and Toppin at power forward. Thibodeau, though, hates it from a defensive standpoint.

There will be teams interested in the rugged Randle, whose four-year, $117 million contract extension begins next season at $23.7 million. That’s not an exorbitant number at all. Randle is at the top of all opponent scouting reports and is sensational steamrolling to the hoop when in the right frame of mind.

If the Knicks aren’t getting draft picks and a legitimate starter back, it may not be worth it — unless Randle formally demands a trade. The Mavericks would be an interesting scenario if the Knicks engage Dallas in sign-and-trade talks for free-agent point guard Jalen Brunson. Randle is from Dallas and usually wreaks havoc when he plays in Big D.

“We had new players, it was hard to develop chemistry right off the bat,” Thibodeau said. “But Julius is at his best when he’s running the floor, playing fast or attacking the rim. When he did that, he had a number of big games. He’d be the first to tell you that. When he does that and we spray the ball and it moves fast, we’re good. I’m hopeful that we’ve learned from the All Star break on.””

Thibodeau had been skeptical about Toppin’s defense and 3-point shooting. During the middle of the season, Toppin stopped looking at the basket when he got the ball out deep. He closed the season at 30.6 percent from 3, but 46 percent in the last five games when he started after Randle sat.

The Randle-Toppin conundrum is going to vex Rose, Randle’s former agent, all offseason.

Julius Randle stands on the court during the Knicks' season-closing win over the Raptors.
Julius Randle stands on the court during the Knicks’ season-closing win over the Raptors.
Jason Szenes

As will the point guard position after the Kemba Walker/Derrick Rose tandem turned into an unmitigated disaster. Rose was done in by an ankle surgery in December and Walker quit in February.

Meanwhile, Brunson, who’s father, Rick, was Leon Rose’s first client as an agent, is expected to be their top point guard target. The draft isn’t well-stocked with play-making point guards. The Knicks (37-45) are the lottery’s 12th seed with a 7.2 percent chance of vaulting to a top-three pick.

All things can be settled in the backcourt if Utah superstar combo guard Donovan Mitchell, the Westchester product, petitions for a trade. The Knicks would likely have to lose RJ Barrett in the exchange, but it could be a franchise changer.

Thibodeau, late Sunday night, didn’t want to get specific on needs.

“Unlike you [the media], I actually have to watch and dig into it,” Thibodeau said. “I could say that I have ideas, which I do. Some. But I want to make sure. I want to dig into it deep and formulate the plan for next year.”


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