Knicks get look at potential life without Julius Randle

MIAMI — Earlier this week, the team-run MSG Network Twitter handle posted a video of RJ Barrett and Obi Toppin sitting on the bench together. It was entitled “The Future.”

The caption was eyebrow-raising, considering Toppin plays Julius Randle’s position of power forward.

Last August, Randle signed a four-year, $118 million contract extension. Neither Toppin nor Randle is versatile enough to be viewed as capable of playing another frontcourt position, such as center or small forward. They are power forwards, simply.

The video begged the question: What does that mean for Randle’s future?

The Knicks got an early peek into a post-Randle era Wednesday in Charlotte. Their starting center, Mitchell Robinson, was out, too. Randle and Robinson sat out with sore quadriceps and back, respectively.

Both are potential offseason goers — Randle via trade, Robinson via unrestricted free agency.

In Tom Thibodeau’s view, the Knicks played “one of our best games of the year” because they were “very unselfish.”

The innuendo hit hard. Though Randle has put up juicy numbers again this season (20.3 points, 10.0 rebounds), scouts believe his over-dribbling ways, lack of playmaking and leadership have contributed to a 31-42 record and expected lottery berth.

“The problem with the Knicks? Too much Randle,” one NBA scout said last month.

Julius Randle

The Post reported after Randle’s ejection in Phoenix three weeks ago, team brass was concerned about his psyche. Not a lot has changed to soothe worries. Randle got fined $40,000 for an incident in the final seconds of the Utah loss Sunday for shoving Rudy Gobert and using “hostile language” to the officials.

Randle hasn’t played since, giving Toppin — the athletic, dunking, fast-break specialist — the chance to start at power forward.

“We all moved the ball and got easy shots and knocked them down,” Barrett said. “It was a great total team effort and a lot of fun to play.”

The analytics show this season Barrett and Randle haven’t played well as a tandem, that each owns better metrics when the other is off the court. Barrett played one of his most efficient games in a few weeks with Randle missing, notching 30 points on 9-for-17 shooting, hitting seven of his eight free throws.

But Toppin’s electricity at the start set the night’s tone with an opening-minute fast-break dunk, 10 first-quarter points and an 18-point, 11-rebound, six-assist double-double evening.

“He had a phenomenal game today, had huge plays down the stretch as well,” Barrett said. “I’m happy to see him out there getting his opportunity and capitalizing on it. He’s a live wire and so athletic and can shoot the ball, and get the rebound, push and make plays, make decisions. I’m happy to see him get more comfortable in his own skin recently.”

Obi Toppin
Obi Toppin finishedd with 18 points in the Knicks’ win over the Hornets.

To date, Toppin hasn’t gained enough traction — his 3-point shooting still at 24.3 percent, which is at the league’s bottom. His minutes are kept at a modest 15.3.

“Our season isn’t over,” Toppin said. “We still have a chance to get in the play-in. That’s what we’re riding with. We know we still have a chance, so we’re going to fight every single day like dogs.”

With the Knicks 5 ¹/₂ games out of 10th place, it’s wishful thinking, but Toppin still believes there’s motivation even when eliminated.

“Playing with the guys, knowing that we’re coming back next year and we’re still going to be with these guys,” Topping said. “And finding a rhythm playing winning basketball.”

If Toppin continues to resemble a starting power forward — he played 40 minutes in Charlotte — Knicks president Leon Rose will be more emboldened to trade Randle this summer. It’s already a consideration.

One NBA personnel man believes the Knicks should move Randle to open the slot for Toppin and get in return a stretch center in the mold of Indiana’s Myles Turner, who is on the trading block.

Based on his behavior and mood swings, Randle does not act like someone who wants to be here. The Garden fans turned on him even before his thumbs-down gesture. They’ve chanted Barrett’s name even on nights Randle is having the better game.

RJ Barrett flexes after drawing a foul against the Hornets.
RJ Barrett flexes after drawing a foul against the Hornets.

Knicks brass is motivated to promote Barrett as the face of the franchise, making sure he talks in the interview room after each game, even if not requested.

Meanwhile, while Robinson has posted extraordinary offensive-rebounding nights, there are still games he looks less than enthused. He has yet to say publicly he wants to remain a Knick.

The post-All-Star weekend push to evaluate rookie center Jericho Sims has gone well enough. But Sims looked pumped in his first start in Charlotte, notching six points in the first quarter around the hoop. Teammates were looking for the 58th pick in the draft.

Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson
Jason Szenes

However, scouts feel Sims is a poor man’s Robinson and see a solid backup center — not a starter. That is OK, but only if injury-wracked Nerlens Noel can make a comeback next season — a big if. A Noel-Sims-Taj Gibson trio isn’t ideal but may have to do. One silver lining is the ancient Gibson has improved his 3-point shooting this season, bagging two in Charlotte and upping his percentage to 44 percent (12-for-27).

Young combo guards Miles McBride and Immanuel Quickly have looked promising, and the Knicks have won six of their past 10 games.

“Ever since the All-Star break, every game has been feeling good about ourselves,” Barrett said. “We’ve been playing great basketball. Even in some of those losses, we’ve been playing great basketball.”

With the offseason addition of a bona fide starting point guard, the future doesn’t necessary have to be bleak.


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