I must admit that my initial gut reaction to the Randolph trade was not exactly great. And I still don’t really like it. The obvious parallel here is the disastrous Francis trade, in which the Knicks acquired a talented but flawed player with a huge contract who duplicated almost exactly the skill set of a player already on the roster. Unlike the Francis trade, there is no question the Knicks won big on the talent end of this trade. But is there any hope that Curry and Randolph might coexist any better than Marbury and Francis did? On closer inspection, it’s not as poor a match as your gut reaction might have you think. Not that I’m doing jumping jacks over here, but let me explain.
The immediate concern is that Randolph’s prodigious scoring duplicates what Curry brings to the table. However, the story is not quite that simple. Curry is exclusively a low post player; last season he attempted 79% of his FGAs close to the basket and shot those at a stellar .667 eFG%. On the 21% of his FGAs that were further out, he shot an embarrassing .243. However, Randolph is more of a perimeter player. Last season he attempted a full 59% of his FGAs on jumpers and dropped them in at a .417 clip, which is actually pretty good efficiency on a jump shot for a big guy. (By way of comparison, in Frye’s rookie season he attempted 64% of his FGAs on jumpers and shot an identical .417 clip. The similarity here is actually pretty eerie.) A relatively paltry 41% of Randolph’s FGAs came in the paint, and his eFG% on those inside attempts was .551– good, but not Eddy Curry good.
So there is a relatively natural division of labor here: Curry is exclusively the workhorse in the paint, whereas Randolph has an effective face-up game to complement his effective post game. It is plausible that Randolph could become the more perimeter oriented complement to Curry that Frye was supposed to be while still doing considerable damage in the paint as well. In fact, admittedly having not seen much of Portland over the past few seasons, checking out his youtube clips reveals a player who is surprisingly quick and nimble with an effective face up game and a sneaky knack for scoring. He is not quite the methodical bruiser I had in mind, in spite of his hefty physique. For instance, did you know Zach Randolph could do this? It seems that the offensive talents of Randolph and Curry do indeed have a fighter’s chance of coexisting. If it works out it would be an awfully tough duo to contain.
While we’re comparing the two, Randolph is also a much better passer than Curry. He had twice as many assists per 100 possessions (7.9) and more than 6 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions (11.6) than Curry last season. In fact, contrary to appearances, Randolph’s turnover rate is entirely benign. His turnovers per 40 minutes were only so high last season because of his monstrous usage rate. Compare Randolph’s turnovers per 100 possessions with other high usage big men last season and you find that it’s actually par for the course. Only one guy sticks out like a sore thumb on this list. Can you guess who it is?
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All this means that Randolph is the more versatile, and ultimately superior, offensive option even though he does not dominate the low post like Curry does. This may explain why Randolph’s usage rate has been consistently higher than Curry’s over their respective careers. Defenses have a harder time denying Randolph possession because of his more diversified game, which could be important for the Knicks given that guards not named Jamal Crawford have sometimes had difficulty feeding Curry the ball. Randolph does not need a guard to feed him in the low post in order to be dangerous, which is key in late game situations.
What about defense? By reputation, Randolph is a slouch. It doesn’t help his case that last season he blocked as many shots per 40 minutes as Nate Robinson. (Yes, you read that right.) But here are his defensive +/- numbers since 02/03:
As always, +/- is an imperfect tool that is difficult to interpret. But nonetheless, over the past 4 seasons a relatively consistent pattern emerges for Randolph. His defensive +/- suggests that on average his teams have been better defensively when he’s off the court, but only slightly so– by less than one basket per
48 minutes 100 possessions. However, all of those teams since 03/04 have been in the bottom third in defensive efficiency, which qualifies the interpretation of the +/- numbers. What they suggest is that Randolph isn’t so bad on defense that he makes an already poor defensive team much worse. That isn’t quite the same as concluding that Randolph is even a passable defender. On the other hand, it maybe suggests that Randolph won’t make the Knicks worse on D than they already are. But is he bad enough that he could drag down a defense that is otherwise average or above average? I don’t think the existing data allows a firm conclusion on that question one way or the other. It’s clear that he is not a stalwart on D but it’s not clear if his weaknesses are relatively benign, entirely prohibitive, or somewhere inbetween.
At least the guy is a terror on the boards. He was among the league leaders with a 17.6 rebound rate, which figures to bolster New York’s existing strength in rebounding. The Knicks are already an elite offensive rebounding squad (2nd in the NBA last season), and Randolph should help improve the defensive rebounding (11th). A front court of Randolph (17.6), Lee (20.7), and Balkman (16.4) could be genuinely dominant on the glass on both ends of the court. And of course this is the one area in which Randolph clearly and uncontroversially complements Curry.
So setting aside for now the inconvenient truths that Randolph comes with a huge contract and a history of jail time and punching opponents and teammates alike… he may not be as poor a fit on the court for the Knicks as you thought on first glance. Now, if we could just trade Eddy Curry for Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah, then we’d really be cooking.