Not Drinking the Loyalty Kool Aid
Six months ago, if you were projecting the second day of March 2018, and putting down some money, the safe bet was Lakers power forward Julius Randle in a different uniform. Traded. On to another city. It served everyone’s needs. Randle could be with a team that looked upon him as a cornerstone. Once he was traded, a vault of money would open up for Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson to play with this summer as they try to balance the very young with the very skilled.
But Randle, who was put on the bench to start the season, (perhaps to devalue his max salary ceiling), is in the Most Improved Player conversation and is having himself some 2018 as the Lakers have done something no other Lakers team has done since 1993: score 100 points in 18 straight games. This iteration of the Lakers has done something no Lakers team has done since 2014: win 27 games. They went into Miami and won a game and the last time that happened Barack Obama was running for president.
Before the 2017-18 season began, Julius Randle had no illusions about the pressure. This was a make or break year for him. Declined an extension offer, the best business move for the Lakers was to trade Randle before the deadline to get his cap hold off the books and give them a lot of money to entice veteran talent. The best business move for Randle was to play up to his potential and make the decision to cut ties with him a difficult one.
So far, Julius 1. The Lakers 0.
The Lakers could have given Randle away for free. At the trade deadline second round picks were tossed at them but they said no. Considering how Randle was playing, they were not going to barter his worth for possible mediocrity. What the Lakers know is LeBron may just stay put. What then? They would have lost an asset in Randle.
And so here he is, winnng the short game. He still is in purple and gold. Water ruins rock with incessant drips but the Lakers plans for cutting ties with Randle, considering the evidence, is ridiculously insane despite how many times it has been repeated as economically sensical. Randle is the most consistent player on the team. He is the one player who has improved from opening night to now. What if the All-Star the Lakers are seeking is someone under their nose and a couple of years away from All-NBA?
The Lakers made a mockery of themselves with Stay Dwight Howard billboards. Howard wasn’t a 23 year old allergic to laziness. Those billboards deserve Julius Randle’s face.
Fuzzy Math Sends Randle To Mark Cuban
Julius Randle has had an up and down career and playing for the Lakers means everything has been exaggerated. He broke his leg in his first NBA game. His second year illustarted his multiple weaknesses. He had zero jump shot. He often got blocked because he was undersized and wasn’t as explosive as the Anthony Davises of the world. He also had an annoying habit of bully ball, particularly running over people in the paint. He was easy to defend. Just stand there. Lacking change of direction, Juilius was going to knock you over. But he had a skill few young players had. He played hard, like he was going to not get paid if he didn’t exert effort. He had passion for the game and his game. He cared about his career.
But he was often out of control. After the Lakers win in Miami, Isaiah Thomas said of Randle, “when he plays under control no one can stop him.”
This is Randle’s fourth year and like a light switch that finally has been turned on, he is fully immersed in who he is as a NBA player. Every player has an identity they have to nurture and a dream they have to discard. Randle threw out the window all the garbage about getting a midrange shot ala Zach Randolph or make three point bombs like Draymond Green. Randle knew what he could do that couldn’t be stopped. Put the ball on the floor. Create. Get to the rim and take contact. Put a body on someone and grab a rebound. In years past, he flailed when he was confronted with size and physicality. But this year he developed the footwork and head fakes to allow him to get to the rim and finish his jumper.
The Lakers lead the league in layups. They lead the league in points in the point. They lead the league in rebounding. All Julius Randle stats.
His 2018 numbers:
26 games. 741 minutes. 449 points. 122 free throws. 70 offensive rebounds. 231 total rebounds. 45 assists. 17.2 points. 56% field goals. 76% free throws. Offensive Rating 113.
More importantly, Randle plays better on the road than at home. With his confidence at a career high, he isn’t scared going into enemy arenas. With two different point guards feeding him the ball, Lonzo who is gifted at pace and Isaiah who is gifted at pick and roll, Randle’s game has exponentially soared through the roof.
So why not keep Randle? He started on the bench, worked his way into the starting lineup and once there showed why he is necessary. He plays harder than anyone on the team. He is 23 years old, meaning he is not as good as he is going to be. After three years of NBA activity, he has developed. Imagine what he may become with the continuous Luke Walton tough love.
Why give away players you develop? They did so with Jordan Clarkson because Clarkson, a scorer who isn’t a natural three point shotmaker, is easy to replace. Randle, his size, his game, his aggression, his intensity, is not.
This will be an interesting end of the Lakers season but it is only the prologue. The summer is coming. Do they add Paul George to the chemistry the Lakers already have? Or give up on a confident Randle to get more?
Randle has taken the challenge to push his game to another level. His impact on the Lakers is ginormous. He’s coveted by Dallas, his hometown. They’ll force the issue by signing him to a max offer sheet and force the Lakers to match it and go with one superstar.
One way or the other, Julius Randle will get his. He earned it. But the Lakers on the other hand have to ask and answer a question about their identity. Are they in the developing a player business, willing to let other teams have the best of someone they developed just so they can acquire an old LeBron James for three years? It is, to quote George W. Bush, fuzzy math.