Julius Randle believes he belongs in MVP conversation, but his next opponent stands in the way

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Stefan Bondy, New York Daily News
·3 min read
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As the Knicks keep busting through ceilings and expectations, the possibilities grow for Julius Randle’s trophy case.

All-Star? Done.

All-NBA? Gonna happen.

Most Improved? Decent chance.

MVP? No, buuuuuutttt. ….

Randle has elbowed his way into a conversation muddied by this COVID-condensed season. For the media voters who prioritize durability and availability — who believe strongly in thresholds of games played for MVP seasons — he’s likely in the Top-5.

After all, Randle’s played more minutes than anybody in the NBA, at least 600 more than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell, Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, James Harden and LeBron James. He’s missed just one game and is peaking down the stretch, averaging 31 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists in his last 11 games.

But even under that criteria, it’s impossible today to give Randle the top vote. The reason is Nikola Jokic.

Denver’s crafty Polar Bear is producing one of those historically significant statistical campaigns, especially for a center, averaging more points than Randle (26.3 to 24.2), more rebounds (10.9 to 10.3) and more assists (8.5 to 5.9) while winning more games (43 to 37). Jokic is also No. 2 in the NBA in minutes played, just about 100 behind Randle.

So it’s not a particularly close race, but Randle has an opportunity to show up the MVP frontrunner Wednesday night in Denver. The 26-year-old also believes he belongs in the conversation.

“For sure, I’m not going to shy away from it,” Randle said.

The Knicks (37-28) haven’t won in Denver since 2006, when Jamal Crawford was a spry young guard and dropped 35 points in the high altitude. But New York hasn’t since entered the Rocky Mountains on such a hot streak, winners of 12 of 13 and turning back all concerns of a late-season regression.

The Nuggets (43-22), regardless of the altitude conditions, are a step up in quality. If you remove New York’s victory over the severely shorthanded Bucks in late March (they were down four starters), the Knicks haven’t defeated a top-3 team in either conference since January.

They were also pummeled by the Nuggets in early January, when Jokic needed just 30 minutes for a double-double with 22 points.

“He’s just real crafty,” Taj Gibson said. “He has a really high IQ for the game. Let’s the game come to him. He’s just multi-faceted. He can dribble, put it on the floor. Shoot long range. And use both hands in the post.

“He’s been doing this for a while now. It’s good that he’s getting recognition.”

But is Jokic the MVP?

“I wouldn’t sleep on Chris Paul just yet,” Gibson said.

It’s a crowded table. Randle has a seat on the end and can try to move up Wednesday by outdueling the player at the head.

“People don’t understand how tough it is to play in New York and he’s bringing a winning mentality back to the Knicks,” Gibson said. “You got to give him his credit. Julius has earned his credit for being in the MVP race. He deserves it.”