Julius Randle-Obi Toppin issue looms over Knicks offseason

Consider it 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 difficult season, but later added: “In terms of opportunities that may arise, we are very flexible.”

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

Obi Toppin’s late emergence as a scorer, 3-point shooter and energizer opened the eyes of coach Tom Thibodeau, who went so far as to compare him to his all-time favorite player Taj Gibson in this when it comes to intangibles and the rebound he brings to his teammates.

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

These things matter to Thibodeau.

Obi Toppin, Julius Randle
Obi Toppin, Julius Randle
AP, Charles Wenzelberg

In response to Rose’s remark that Randle “wasn’t comfortable” this season, Thibodeau replied, “Well, I don’t know if he’s comfortable, but I think the most important thing is not to misunderstand his talent. He didn’t shoot as well on 3 as he did a year ago, but he still has 20s, 10s and 5s. It’s talent. That’s a lot of talent.”

However, Thibodeau liked the way the Knicks passed the ball when Randle wasn’t on the court the last five games. Randle closed it late with a sore quad.

But his enigmatic behavior has been a problem much of the season. It started with a ‘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 rejoin his teammates. for the national anthem or the introduction of the pre-game line-up during road games.

Backyard fans chanting Toppin’s name when Randle was on the court must have been a blow to a player who, in all fairness, lifted the Knicks to their first playoff spot in eight years a season ago.

“I think we’ve had some ups and downs this year and when you’re that type of player, he’s going to get some criticism,” Thibodeau said. “I will receive criticism. It goes with the grass 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 showed off his improved scoring ability as Julius Randle was sidelined.
Jason Charcoal

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, however, hates him defensively.

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

If the Knicks don’t get a draft pick and a legitimate starter, it might not be worth it — unless Randle formally demands a trade. The Mavericks would be an interesting scenario if the Knicks engage Dallas in signing and trade talks for point guard Jalen Brunson. Randle is from Dallas and usually wreaks havoc when he plays in Big D.

“We had new players, it was difficult to develop chemistry from the start,” Thibodeau said. “But Julius is at his best when he runs on the floor, plays fast or attacks the rim. When he’s done that, he’s had a number of big games. He’d be the first to tell you. When he does that and we spray the ball and move it fast, we’re good. Hopefully we learned from the All Star break.”

Thibodeau had been skeptical of Toppin’s defense and 3-point shot. Midway through the season, Toppin stopped looking at the basket when he took the ball deep. He closed the season 30.6 percent from 3, but 46 percent in the final five games when he started after Randle sat out.

The Randle-Toppin enigma will vex Rose, Randle’s former agent, all offseason.

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

So did the point guard position after the Kemba Walker/Derrick Rose tandem turned into an absolute disaster. Rose underwent ankle surgery in December and Walker quit in February.

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

Everything can be settled in the backcourt if Utah superstar combo guard Donovan Mitchell, the Westchester product, asks for a trade. The Knicks would likely lose RJ Barrett in the trade, but it could change the franchise.

Thibodeau, late Sunday evening, did not want to specify the needs.

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

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