Centers of Attention: Knicks suddenly have a big man logjam

Alder Almo
Jericho Sims, New York Knicks
Nov 15, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz guard Talen Horton-Tucker (0) fouls New York Knicks center Jericho Sims (45) during the second quarter at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

New York Knicks big man Mitchell Robinson’s latest injury is a gift and a curse.

It’s a gift that allowed the Knicks to gauge second-year center Jericho Sims’ development. Sims seized the opportunity, and now it’s too hard to ignore his growing game.

“So Jericho keeps getting better and better. His athleticism allows you to do a little more switching. He can guard everyone on the floor. He covers a lot of ground. And so his screening is very good. His pressure on the rim is very good. So those are things that we need from him.”

Tom Thibodeau Knicks-Thunder postgame via NBA.com

Sims thrived in Robinson’s eight-game absence averaging 6.0 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks while shooting 78.6 percent from the field in 18.7 minutes. He logged in two double-double games during their West Coast trip.

But as Sims soared, Robinson’s chief backup Isaiah Hartenstein took a nose dive.

Robinson’s injury was like a curse to Hartenstein, who had three two-point games and one scoreless outing during their starting center’s absence. After logging in two consecutive double-digit rebounds after Robinson’s sprained right knee in Philadelphia on November 4, Hartenstein went on to notch one double-digit rebounding since. His playing time has drastically dropped to 17 minutes or less in the past three games.

“It’s adjusting to a different role where it’s playing more like them, I guess. Not more of what I’m used to. That’s been a little more difficult. And so I’m just adjusting to more of a Mitch (Robinson) role, where I’m just rolling into the pick-and-roll.”

Isaiah Hartenstein via NY Daily News

Hartenstein thrived as one of the best backup centers in the league last season, with the Los Angeles Clippers averaging 8.3 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 17.9 minutes. He shot a career-high 46.7 percent from behind the arc as a floor-spacing big man playing in the high post.

The Knicks scooped him up in the free agency, selling him the same role. But after a promising start, Hartenstein is quickly becoming an afterthought. His three-point accuracy has dropped to a career-low 23.5 percent. In half of the games Robinson missed, Hartenstein did not attempt a three-pointer. His assist average also dropped to a staggering 0.8 from 2.4 last season as a result of his new role even if he’s playing more (23.8 minutes).

Thibodeau has deployed all three centers since Robinson returned two games ago.

In Robinson’s first game back from the injury, Hartenstein started but ended up playing the least minutes with 15. Robinson saw 17 minutes, while Sims got 16 during the Knicks’ 116-95 loss in Phoenix. The next day in Oklahoma City, the trio split 44 out of 48 minutes, with Robinson ending up with the least minutes (13) despite starting as he exited the first half after experiencing soreness in his sprained right knee. Hartenstein played 16 minutes while Sims saw 15.

“All three of those guys are a little different.”

Tom Thibodeau Knicks-Thunder postgame via NBA.com

Playing all three centers when they are healthy isn’t on Thibodeau’s long-term plan. So who will be the odd man out?

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo