Julius Randle's $18.9 million salary looked like an albatross for the New York Knicks before the season. So unconvinced were they in his long-term fit that they used the No. 8 overall pick on Obi Toppin, a potential replacement. But oh what a difference a year can make. Randle is currently leading the Knicks through their best season in years. They are on track to not only reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013, but to have home-court advantage in the first round as the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. Randle made his first All-Star team earlier this season, and the Knicks hope he has plenty more in his future.
According to ESPN's Brian Windhorst, the Knicks plan to discuss a possible contract extension with Randle this offseason. Randle has a team option next season for $19.8 million, but only $4 million is guaranteed. A typical veteran extension would keep Randle's 2021-22 salary at $19.8 million, but give him up to a 20 percent raise in the 2022-23 season. He would then be eligible for eight percent annual raises in each season thereafter (up to four). In total, this sort of extension could pay Randle $126.2 million over five years, or $106.4 million in new money.
The problem for the Knicks is that they have no way of offering Randle more immediately. Players like Zach LaVine have the option to renegotiate and extend through their team's cap space, but Randle is ineligible for such an arrangement. Only deals that last at least four years can be renegotiated, and Randle's original deal was a three-year pact. In theory, the Knicks could waive Randle, eat the $4 million in dead money and use their cap space to re-sign him, but the problem with attempting such a strategy is that it would subject Randle to waivers. Some team with enough cap space or a hefty enough trade exception would almost certainly claim him and ruin everything. That puts the Knicks in an ironic position: they'll have practically limitless cap space to spend this offseason, but they can't use it on the player they'd probably want to sign most.
That puts the ball in Randle's court. He can accept a typical veteran extension and guarantee himself over $126 million to stay in New York, or he can ride out next season and go for the jackpot. He will be eligible for a max contract starting at 30 percent of the cap in the summer of 2022. With a projected cap of $115.8 million, that would start him off at around $34.7 million for the 2022-23 season. The Knicks could give him five total seasons with eight percent annual raises, while other teams could give him four total seasons with five percent annual raises. In total, that means another team could give him a projected four-year, $149.4 million deal, while the Knicks could give him a five-year, $201.5 million deal.
Of course, there's no guarantee that Randle gets offered this much if he hits the open market. His value is at an all-time high right now. He could get injured next season, or, more likely, his shooting could regress to the mean. Randle was a 29.5 percent 3-point shooter before this season, but under Tom Thibodeau, he's up to 42 percent. His mid-range shooting has already tumbled. Randle made 45.6 percent of his mid-range attempts up until March 1, but since then, he's down to 36 percent. Randle's playmaking and defensive improvements appear mostly sustainable, but if his shooting regresses, he simply will not be a max player. More pressingly, if the Knicks regress as a team in an Eastern Conference that should improve next season, New York might not feel as inclined to make a long-term commitment to Randle as a franchise cornerstone.
The Knicks, after all, are star hunters, and as flexible as they are right now, their team is going to get more expensive in the near future. RJ Barrett will be eligible for a contract extension after next season that will kick in for the 2023-24 campaign. Mitchell Robinson has a team option this offseason for only $1.8 million, but if the Knicks decline it, he would only be a restricted free agent this offseason. That would allow them to keep him at a lower price than he would likely receive as an unrestricted free agent in 2022. Key role players Derrick Rose, Nerlens Noel and Alec Burks will all be free agents this offseason as well. Randle is a bargain at his current salary. He might not be under a new contract, and if the Knicks want to maintain max cap space for the next several offseasons as they search for a star in free agency, they are going to have to make compromises somewhere.
Randle has made it clear that he wants to remain with the Knicks, and as Windhorst laid out, he has a strong relationship with Knicks president Leon Rose, who was once his agent at CAA. It's just going to be a matter of Randle's tolerance for risk. He can lock himself into a sizable contract on a desirable team right away, or he can roll the dice and try to get every last dollar a year from now. It is going to be one of the most fascinating decisions of the offseason.