NBA Frontcourts of the Future: Julius Randle & Mitchell Robinson

“The NBA is a guard-oriented league.”

Modernized spacing concepts lead to wider driving lanes, making it easier to be a guard than ever. Crunch time sets still revolve around isolations and ball screens where handlers that can make the reliable play are paramount. Teams are even beginning to downsize their rosters, playing more guards than ever before and making the term “power forward” extinct.

In 2019, only one player 6’10” or taller was taken in the lottery (Jaxson Hayes by the New Orleans Pelicans), and only three others were drafted in the first round. Five years ago that number was at seven. While wings are en vogue, the center position is seen as a very replaceable one where serviceable veterans are a dime a dozen. The trends are certainly changing towards skill and versatility over size and strength.

So, why are teams still investing in high-caliber frontcourt tandems?

In a five-part series here at TBW, we dive into rosters that are banking a lot of money and/or valuable draft picks on a collection of young frontcourt talent (under the age of 25) as hopeful foundational pieces while bucking (and sometimes, re-writing) the trends. Thus far, we’ve featured Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles in Sacramento and the Dario Saric, DeAndre Ayton pair in Phoenix.

This series can be viewed under a speculative lense as much as an analytical one. Do these forms of team-building lead to championship-caliber teams? Is there too much redundancy in today’s game by having two big men who may be best-suited to play the center position in crunch time? What makes a certain team’s frontcourt pairing unique enough to spite those trends?

In other words, fit is just as much a driver of this conversation as talent.

If the New York Knicks’ goal was to avoid breaking the bank and not sign the top free agent names, mission accomplished.

Despite their Mark Reynolds-esque strikeouts, the Knicks have fallen into what makes for an incredibly intriguing long-term duo in their frontcourt. Mitchell Robinson, the 36th pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, had a successful rookie campaign where he flashed high-level athleticism and rim protection. His newest partner-in-crime is Julius Randle, yet to turn 25 and coming off a career year with the New Orleans Pelicans where he averaged 21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

Nov 23, 2018; New York, NY, USA; New Orleans Pelicans forward Julius Randle (3) dribbles the ball past New York Knicks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (3) and forward Mario Hezonja (8) in the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

Randle figures to be the top option in New York, flanked by rookie scorer RJ Barrett and sophomore Kevin Knox. They’re joined by a litany of misfits, second-contract redemption-seekers and veteran bigs. Those four on their own are a super interesting conglomerate of young talent, with size 2 thru 5.

Throw in point guard Dennis Smith Jr., a former top-ten pick who just turned 21, and the Knicks could field a starting lineup of players all under the age of 25 on opening night.

So how do the Knicks plan to make the Randle and Robinson marriage work? If they are committed to trying to fit them together, why did they sign Bobby Portis to a two-year, $31 million contract and Marcus Morris to a one-year, $14.8 million deal?

Robinson started only nineteen contests and played 20.6 minutes per game a season ago, yet provides the defensive blanketing that allows offense-first guys like Barrett and Knox to see the floor. A non-vertical big, Randle is undersized at 6’9″ though the Knicks’ crunch time lineups could still go small, moving Robinson to the bench due to his lack of offensive prowess and placing Randle there.

Robinson fans will point to his incredibly efficient rookie campaign as signs that he has a positive offensive impact. And that is, well, true. He was in the top one percent of offensive effectiveness last year, but those numbers need to be taken with several grains of salt.

Head coach David Fizdale worked hard to water down the offense when Robinson was on the floor. No post-ups (he took five shots from the post all season, according to Synergy), few off-ball screens that require reads, and no dribble handoffs with the ball in his possession. Robinson was a screen-and-roll big, leaping to the rim or standing near it for putback attempts.

That’s it.

Those situations limit turnovers (which are factored into individual efficiency) and provide easy opportunities to score. Essentially, Robinson wasn’t touching it unless he was in a position to quickly get two points. His guards wouldn’t throw him the rock otherwise.

So much of his success came from Spread pick-and-rolls as well, where Robinson was the only big on the floor. The Knicks flanked him with shooting and elite spacing around the three-point line so there were few help defenders near the basket. He got alley-oops because of it:

If Robinson did share the floor with another true big, it was usually Luke Kornet, and those lineups did not go so well.

Per Cleaning the Glass, they were outscored by 6.8 points per 100 possessions. But the evidence from those minutes showed a cognizant effort on Fizdale’s part to space the floor, knowing that Kornet was a stretch big and could shoot coming off screens. If Kornet wasn’t the 4, it was Henry Ellenson or Noah Vonleh, other like-minded players.

Instead of spotting any of the aforementioned up, Fizdale would run him through Exit actions, where a shooter runs along the baseline off a screen to the corner. That, in effect, took away the help defense at the rim so Robinson could get a dunk:

The Knicks have lost some shooting with Randle, Morris and Portis, at least when it comes to being on the move. All three are capable in spot-up situations. Instead of sending them off the Exit to the corner, they will need to be utilized as screeners.

Such an action is necessary to maximize Robinson’s severe lack of perimeter skill. When he’s out there, he has to screen, he has to roll or he has to be stationed in the short corner. Those handcuffs make offensive planning happen around him, and can be a nightmare when slotting two bigs together.

Randle can be a catch-and-shoot guy, especially when left wide open. He made 67 threes last season after hitting only 37 in his first four years with the Los Angeles Lakers. The 34.4 percent from downtown was respectable enough to force bigs to guard him out there because he torched teams that didn’t:

Sure, Randle is starting to make them, but it is concerning that opponents are still willing to live with it. He took 100 unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers a season ago!

He has to make enough of them at a high-enough efficiency to force defenders to close out tightly. On a team lacking high-caliber playmakers already, the Knicks will need more out of their newest free-agent prize.

Give New York some credit despite the disappointment of free agency’s first few days: They have planned for this style, offering to pay well-known shooting specialists like Wayne Ellington and Reggie Bullock to provide that instant spacing boost.

But the Knicks still do not have a lead guard in the backcourt that facilitates and makes others around them better. Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina are severely limited as playmakers, and Ntilikina is as a shooter as well.

The Elfrid Payton signing baffled as well. While he’s a solid talent, Payton’s fit with Randle a season ago in New Orleans was clunky at best. Lineups that featured both players and any other non-shooting big were putrid. Put those two with Jahlil Okafor, and the Pelicans were outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions, struggling mightily on both ends.

It became especially concerning (when Randle was the top option) with how quickly defenders would zero in and force the ball out of his hands. He would try to isolate, see a double team as the many non-shooters allowed for, and could not get a catch-and-shoot from it.

If you’re Elfrid Payton, you have to be able to shoot this:

The result of the play above is a made three for the Pelicans, but the point stands. No team should have to work this hard with that many non-shooters to get a bucket.

Replace Okafor with Mitchell Robinson and that is what the Knicks could look like this winter unless Fizdale is always cognizant of his shooting combinations. Though the Knicks lost some of the frontcourt spacing around Robinson, perhaps the new guards will make up for it.

Either way, we still haven’t mentioned the most important part: how Robinson spaces around Randle.

The latter is a solid post player and a really good playmaker. His ability to bully individuals on the blocks or off the drive is what sets him apart from other 4s, and teams that play through him are frequently rewarded.

Here’s the Catch-22, however. He’s good as a 4 because that’s where his strength advantage lies. But in order to have that advantage, a team needs another 5 who is even stronger so that opponents won’t just switch the matchup, putting their 5 on Randle and negating his edge.

Again, Randle’s advantage can also be as equally neutralized if he doesn’t have enough shooters around him, and Robinson’s fit again seems questionable if they’re playing heavy minutes together.

Everything about the human nature of passing out of double teams is worthy of its own discussion. Good scorers draw double teams, great players read that double and make the right play for their team. If there’s someone sharing the floor with them that’s a non-threat, great players will think they can get their team a bucket despite that disadvantage. They’ll make home-run plays and seek to thread the needle with tough passes since the simple and right one won’t provide a reward.

It’s a bailout for a team that blitzes the post, knowing there’s one perimeter player they do not have to rotate towards. If a non-shooter has to play, coaches try to instruct their teams to move. Standing still creates a predictable defensive coverage, and cutting can thwart those rotations or at least make defenders more reticent as they change.

There’s a Catch-22 with cutting as well. Spacing and standing gives the passer predictable outlets. If a team is going to double even a great passer like Randle, he is left with fewer outlets and pressure releases that are easy to spot while cutting takes place. Thus, cutting becomes a high-risk, high-reward proposition when done randomly.

You can see how the mindless cutting leads to trouble for Randle down low and actually bring defenders into his path:

The Knicks must avoid these mistakes. Playing Randle at the 4 means surrounding him with shooters 1 thru 3, especially with Robinson there as well.

A year from now, the Knicks cannot look at the lineup metrics of these two and say, “well, Julius had a high turnover rate and the pairing did not work” unless they can also honestly say there was enough shooting around them.

Morris, Portis and Randle are all best-served playing the 4 defensively. Lineups featuring two of the three will be weak at the rim and slow against four-guard lineups. Randle is the clear-cut best of the bunch and deserves 30 minutes a night on this team, so who gets bumped to play the other two? Is it Robinson, the brightest piece the organization has drafted outside of Kristaps Porzingis in the past fifteen years?

That’s where the mismanagement comes into play. We can joke about the Knicks loving power forwards, signing many and letting them cannibalize each other’s development. But how can we seriously envision them actually coexisting together when many of the new signings only cut into the core’s promise?

We could see many lineups with staggered minutes, where Randle is a de facto 5 while the better-shooting Morris or Portis flanks Robinson. Or we could see the Knicks utilize this season as what it should be: a training ground for innovation and a chemistry lab for their brightest prospects.

Keep an eye on the Knicks and their youthful woes in 2020. They have some interesting pieces, and while they’ll take their lumps, there is bountiful young talent to build around. How far they commit to including Robinson and Randle as a tandem in those plans remains to be seen, but figuring out what they’ve got with this pair should be high on their priority list.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com stats or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of July 28, 2019.

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