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It is only when you take a deep dive into the Knicks’ past – and not only the recent past of 20 years or so – when you realize just how remarkable Julius Randle’s 2020-21 season really was. Sift through most of the NBA’s charter teams, have a look at some of the names and some of the years.
How do you pick the best Celtics year? You throw at least a half-dozen each of Bob Cousy’s and Bill Russell’s and John Havlicek’s and Larry Bird’s greatest hits on the table. You add in a few from Dave Cowens and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. You can take all day and half the night just cutting it to a Top 10.
The Sixers? Wilt Chamberlain. Moses Malone. Julius Erving. Billy Cunningham. Charles Barkley. Keep going. The Lakers? Goodness. Wilt and Kareem, Magic Johnson and Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Heck, if you include the Nets’ ABA years it’s even harder to determine theirs: go back to Rick Barry and the Doctor, add Jason Kidd and Vince Carter and Micheal Ray Richardson, and that’s before you get to their present iteration, dominated by the Big Three.
The Knicks have one MVP trophy in their case: Willis Reed, 1969-70.
They have had 11 seasons where a player finished in the top five of the MVP vote since that award was established in 1956 – and six of those belonged to Patrick Ewing in the seven years from 1989-95. Think about that. It really is shocking to see the dearth of candidates. If you want to compare Randle’s year this year with the finest in team history.
“What he’s done,” Tom Thibodeau said not long ago, “is reinforce the value of hard work and commitment. From day one all I’ve seen from him is a hunger to maximize his talent and his production and his efficiency, and he’s done it. He’s been everything for us this year: scorer, rebounder, facilitator, leader. It’s hard to do more than he’s done.”
He is a shoo-in to win the league’s Most Improved Player Award. He should be deeper in the conversation when it comes to the MVP Award, too, but it seems unlikely he’s going to put much of a scare into the two favorites, Denver’s Nikola Jokic or Philly’s Joel Embiid, when the votes are tallied. He may even be bypassed by Phoenix’s Chris Paul and the Warriors’ Steph Curry. He should squeak into the top five. Maybe.
But Knicks fans know better.
Knicks fans have seen Randle play 71 out of 72 games this year. In a league that has made “load-management” part of the unfortunate national lexicon – and for a team that so desperately needed his presence every night – that alone would be an impressive place to start. And then you move on to the Other Stuff:
- 24.1 points per game, a career high by nearly 3 PPG.
- 10.2 rebounds per game, matching his career high.
- 6.0 assists per game, nearly doubling his previous high.
- a shooting line of .456/.411/.811; the latter two are career highs and it’s not close.
- 6 triple-doubles this year, half his career total, two behind Walt Frazier’s club record.
And perhaps most remarkable: A Knicks team that by consensus was picked near the bottom of the East, with projected win totals anywhere from 20 and 24, won 41 games. If possible, he might have put together one of the most underrated great seasons in NBA history.
And, without question, one of the great Knicks seasons ever.
Which other ones belong in the conversation? Just a handful. In Ewing’s prime you could pick out any number of candidates. Same with Clyde and Reed. Bob McAdoo, much as his tenure here is mocked, finished tied for 10thin the 1978 MVP vote by putting together one of the forgotten great seasons in team history (26.5/12.8, .520/.727), and Richie Guerin had a monster year in 1962 for a dreadful 29-51 team (29.5 PPG/6.4 RPG/6.9 APG, .442/.820).
But the top five, in chronological order, look something like this:
(where they finished in MVP voting)
Willis Reed, 1969-70 (first)
21.7 points, 13.0 rebounds, .507 FG%, .756 FT%
Reed actually had several seasons that challenged this one but it’s hard to put any of them above the magical run he helped engineer in ’69-’70 when he also added the All-Star Game MVP and the NBA Finals MVP to his shelf. He was the captain of the most beloved team the Knicks have ever assembled and this was his signature year.
Clyde Frazier, 1969-70 (fourth)
20.9 points, 6.0 rebounds, 8.2 assists, .518 FG%, .748 FT%
As was usual in that glorious year Clyde was brilliant – and also, always, second fiddle to Reed. Much as Reed’s two baskets on a ruined hip in Game 7 of the Finals always overshadows Frazier’s epic, for-the-books 36-point, 19-assist, seven-rebounds tour de force, so was the rest of the season. But neither Clyde nor the Captain would have that ’70 ring without the other.
Bernard King, 1983-84 (second)
26.3 points, .572 FG%, .779 FT%
King won a scoring title the next year (32.9) before blowing out his knee, but it was 1984 when he solidified his legend and turned in a season for the ages, capped by a playoff run in which he averaged 42.6 points (shooting .604!) in five classic games against Detroit and 29.1 points (.545) in seven epic games against the eventual-champ Celtics and Bird, who handily defeated King 652-373 in the MVP vote. That year alone will one day warrant a place for his No. 30 jersey in the Garden rafters – though he’ll probably have to share it with Randle now, much as Earl Monroe and Dick McGuire share 15.
Patrick Ewing, 1992-93 (fourth)
24.2 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.0 blocks,.503 FG%, .719 FT%
Remarkably, Ewing received a TOTAL of 16 first-place MVP votes in his career (with a high of 8 in 1988-89, the other of his nominations for this list), but this was the year when Pat Riley’s vision and Ewing’s talent truly connected. The Knicks won 60 games and will forever wonder what might have been if they’d survived the Bulls. And Ewing was brilliant night after night.
Carmelo Anthony, 2012-’13 (third)
28.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, .449 FG/.379 3PFG, .830 FT
Knicks fans routinely skip over this season in recounting two decades of misery. It is unfortunate both for that team, which won 54 games and a playoff series, and for Melo, who actually had a better statistical year the next season but was never better as a Knick. It was also the last time, before this year, when the “M!V!P!” chant was a regular feature of Garden home games.
Where does Randle compare?
Anywhere on that list will do fine. Though third, behind 1970 Reed and 1984 King, sounds about right.
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