I own property on Julius Randle Island. I was actually an original investor, snatching up beach front property with all the best views before many others thought to even visit the remote location. Check the archives if you don’t believe me.
In any event, Randle’s play during his time with the Lakers has been one of the more debate inspiring topics of Laker fandom since, maybe, Lamar Odom (BP — before Pau) graced the forum blue and gold. Like my guy LO, Randle’s a talented lefty who fans have always wanted more from; a player who’s talent is as clearly obvious as the holes in his game. Unlike Odom, though, Randle fashions himself an alpha player, someone who should play a lot and be a featured contributor. Odom certainly wanted to play, but was more of a chameleon whose game could speak loudly but was much more comfortable just fitting in by sliding into whatever creases needed filling.
Getting back to Randle, the battle between what he is vs. what he can be vs. what is the best role for him to thrive in vs. his mindset of how he wants to play, has been an ongoing discussion since he came into the league. The original lottery prize gained from the Lakers swift downturn four years ago, Randle was supposed to be a building block player. Then Byron Scott told him nothing was earned unless he was appropriately manning up, told him to come off the bench behind amnesty pick-up Carlos Boozer, then had him in an opening night blowout in his rookie year where he promptly broke his leg.
It’s been an uphill battle for Randle ever since, slowly sliding down the totem pole as number two pick after number two pick got stacked on top of him as the next franchise savior. From the traded away D’Angelo Russell to the now-showing-more-flashes Brandon Ingram to the extremely-hyped-but-still-struggling Lonzo Ball, these newer young Lakers have surpassed Randle as the apple of fans’ eyes. Throw in late first round picks Larry Nance and Kyle Kuzma as viable alternatives at Randle’s native PF spot and, well, a multitude of fans have packed Randle’s bags instead of their own in order to search for property to scoop up next to the lush piece of land I currently possess on Randle Island.
This is even more true now that Randle’s only 8 months away from entering restricted free agency, with a 12+ million dollar cap hold, in the same summer the Lakers will be trying to clear as much cap space as possible to sign multiple max level free agents. The formula really is that simple: obvious holes in his game + positional redundancy + the want to pay more desirable players = Randle’s ticket out of town.
Add to this the recent reporting from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski — on TV, before the Lakers played the Celtics — that Randle may not even make it through this season if the team could get back a future draft pick of value, much less be on the roster next year, and…it’s hard not to see at least some writing on the wall emerging.
So, I’m not surprised when people tell me Randle has no future in Los Angeles with the Lakers. I’ve seen the same reports you have. I, too, know the math. I’m just telling you what I’m seeing on the court. That as this season progresses, I’m less convinced that equation I cited above is actually correct. That the Lakers should be thinking long and hard on ways to keep Randle within the construct of their future plans, not casting him aside as part of their path back to contention.
First, I think it’s important to acknowledge that my affinity for Randle doesn’t make me blind to his faults. He can be a moody player who has, more than once, checked out mentally after having his role reduced to levels he was not happy with. His right hand is basically there to make him look like an anatomically correct human being, not as a functionally productive tool to help him be better at basketball. His motor has traditionally run hot and cold, with the cold periods mostly happening on the defensive end — which is unfortunate since he plays one of the most important defensive positions on the floor. And his jumper is still an afterthought in his arsenal, with “range” being more of an idea than something tangible.
These things, to this point in his career, have made Randle someone who’s easy(ish) to dismiss as a good NBA player for many fans. Camp out in my twitter mentions on a game day if you want to see these beliefs lobbed in real time. You’re telling me in the age of pace and space where big men need to be able to shoot and defend the rim I’m supposed to buy into the future of an old-world PF who doesn’t shoot and doesn’t defend as well as needed? Yeah, that’s not happening.
I get it. I do. Here’s the thing, though, Randle’s flaws aren’t as pronounced anymore nor is he really a PF now either.
Randle is basically a center now. Yes, Luke Walton has, in recent games, started to pair Randle with Andrew Bogut on second units when facing lineups with two bigs. But, if there’s a lone big on the floor for the opponent — regardless of how good that player is — Walton has played Randle as the C and told him to go match up. Marc Gasol? DeMarcus Cousins? Anthony Davis? Joel Embiid? Yes, to all of them. Randle’s had varying levels of success against these guys (Embiid ate his lunch in Wednesday’s loss to Philly, but Randle held his own against Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins in those matchups).
Further, while Randle’s flaws as a shooter and pure left handed finisher are still prevalent, nearly every other aspect of his game has improved — and some dramatically — this year. Randle currently ranks 39th in the NBA in ESPN’s Real Plus Minus tool — a metric which measure’s a “player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents and additional factors.” (emphasis mine)
Randle grades out positively both offensively and defensively using this metric, showing the makings of someone who can make hay on both sides of the floor. If this sounds crazy to you, I understand. You’re used to the previous version of Randle. But it’s all there on tape, all you have to do is watch.
Randle is the literal centerpiece of the Lakers small-ball lineup that switches all screens and forces players to beat you in isolation. Heading into the 76ers game, per Synergy Sports, Randle had been tagged as the primary defender on a shot by a PG, SG, or SF on 27 possessions. On those possessions, Randle surrendered 15 points, or .556 points per possession. This is an elite number.
We’ve seen countless examples of this going back to last season, but here’s a reminder of how a lot of these possessions end.
Here’s Randle switched onto the opposing team’s PG and he just smothers him. He’s quick enough to not get blown by, strong enough to not get bumped off, and has more size than players who play these positions so he contests shots well. He’s not going to win every one of these battles, but he’s winning a lot of them and doing so over the course of entire games and, particularly, down the stretch of close games.
Further, when it comes to his defensive motor, he’s revving higher for longer than at any point in his career. He’s rotating better around the basket, challenging more shots in the paint, and blocking shots at a rate more than double of any other he’s had as a Laker.
This combination of switch-ability and (emerging) rim protection is the exact model you want in a modern day big. Add in Randle’s strength to battle post players in his individual matchups and there’s a recipe for an impact defender. Again, Randle won’t come out on top every night and the very best offensive centers who offer elite size/skill combos (hi, Joel Embiid) can eat against Randle. But the number of those players are few while the defensive skills package Randle is developing has become more valuable against a growing number of teams.
Offensively Randle remains a unique player who, despite his status as a non-shooter (currently) and difficulties finishing with his right hand (or over multiple defenders with length, even with his left hand), has enough tools to help an offense overall.
He’s still an open court dynamo whose grab and go skill and ability to sprint the floor as a lane filler helps in transition. He’s getting better as a roll man in the P&R, offering pop as a lob catcher and is able to make reads as a passer and finisher out of the short roll when catching pocket passes. He’s good at relocating and cutting into open space and has developed nice chemistry with several guys on the 2nd unit — most notably Jordan Clarkson and Kyle Kuzma. Randle’s also a plus level passer, able to operate as an initiator in the team’s HORNS sets as well as be a trigger man in their delay series.
There are times he’ll hold the ball too long or miss a read and no one is going to mistake him for the next Draymond or Ben Simmons as a passing big. But he’s nowhere near the black hole some make him out to be and has shown a willingness to pass (his assist % is currently higher than Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma, for example). He’s also cut down on his isolation play as a scorer, shifting to actions where he’s being assisted more rather than always relying on his own shot creation.
In essence, Randle is morphing his game into someone who has featured player ability but operating within actions typically reserved for role players. And, within that construct, Randle is thriving. He’s productive, efficient, and playing both ends of the floor. This is the type of player teams usually want. The question is, do the Lakers?
I understand a lot of this may simply come down to money.
Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak saddled the Lakers with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov’s contracts and that has, and continues to, interfere with next summer’s plans to splurge on top-end talent. If the Lakers want two max players, at least one of Randle or Clarkson AND Luol Deng will not be on next year’s roster. There are only so many ways to accomplish this and with Randle entering free agency, one of the easiest is to either trade him before the February deadline or renounce his rights at some point after July 1st.
Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, in a recent article, floated an idea of how to waive Deng and reduce his cap number even further, but in that piece even he made the assumption the Lakers would simply renounce Randle’s rights. Pincus did acknowledge to me that the Lakers could, in theory, trade Clarkson and keep Randle’s cap hold on the books in order to get close to two max slots, but the prevailing wisdom is that Randle could be on his way out. If not by the trade deadline, than surely this summer.
I’m here to tell you that is a mistake, though.
In our podcast, one point Pete consistently makes is that when you draft players at 19 and 20 years old like the Lakers have the last four drafts, the onus is on the organization to be patient in their investment. What’s the point of drafting players that young only to cast them aside once they start to figure out how to play and be successful in this league? The Lakers already traded away Russell as the cost of shedding Mozgov’s salary. To think they could do the same with Randle for potential free agent X isn’t an idea that I can support.
In the end, though, it’s pretty simple to me. Randle can play. His move to the pivot combined with his off-season conditioning improvements have unlocked aspects of his game which allow him to better thrive in today’s NBA. Even if he never develops a reliable 3-point shot (something I’ve not given up on, by the way), he can still be a Tristan Thompson like player — but who also has ball handling, passing, and shot creation skill.
Players like that aren’t common. And the Lakers happen to have one in house. Julius Randle’s future should be with the Lakers. I hope they realize this sooner than later.