Knicks at risk of losing versatile big man to Western Conference powerhouse in free agency

Mar 31, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) shoots the ball while being defended by Oklahoma City Thunder forward Chet Holmgren (7) and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Aaron Wiggins (21) during the second quarter at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

A new competitor has emerged in the Isaiah Hartenstein sweepstakes, and it would really hurt the New York Knicks if they lose their impactful starting center in free agency. The New York Post’s Stefan Bondy reported Monday that the Oklahoma City Thunder have expressed strong interest in the big man.

“The Thunder is viewed by NBA sources as the top threat to pry Hartenstein away from the Knicks in free agency,” wrote Bondy. “After finishing atop the Western Conference with 57 wins in the regular season, Oklahoma City can make a stronger bid for Hartenstein than the Knicks, who are capped out but can offer a starting salary of roughly $17 million using their Early Bird Rights.”

The Thunder are seeking an upgrade at center

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Josh Giddey (3) shoots the ball against New York Knicks guard Miles McBride (2) during the fourth quarter at Madison Square Garden
Credit: John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder just had their best since the season the Russell Westbrook era, finishing as the top seed in the Western Conference led by MVP runner-up Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and seven-foot prodigy Chet Holmgren, who finished as a member of the league’s all-rookie first team.

Holmgren was Oklahoma City’s main source of size during the playoffs, and the lack of depth at the center position led to their early exit in the second round of the playoffs to the Dallas Mavericks. If they were to add Hartenstein, they would have the flexibility of playing Holmgren at the power forward position as well as staggering him and Hartenstein’s minutes at center.

Hartenstein would also provide more defensive versatility as he is able to guard multiple positions. His ability to stretch the floor with his playmaking and mid-range floaters was instrumental for the Knicks during the regular season and playoffs, and there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t have that same impact on an Oklahoma City team ready to take their talented roster to the next level.

The Thunder could outbid the Knicks with their favorable cap space

May 14, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) rebounds against Indiana Pacers forward Obi Toppin (1) during the second half during game five of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
May 14, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) rebounds against Indiana Pacers forward Obi Toppin (1) during the second half during game five of the second round for the 2024 NBA playoffs at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder have the ability to swoop in and sign Hartenstein to a large deal, as they are expected to have over $35 million in cap space, the fifth most in the NBA, according to Spotrac. As of now, Hartenstein’s contract is anticipated to be around the $15-18 million mark in terms of annual salary.

The Knicks are expected to try to do everything they can to bring back Hartenstein, but the early Bird rights on his deal as well as the financial assets needed to re-sign OG Anunoby make it a difficult task. Hartenstein’s impact was not hidden last season, as he took over the starting role after Mitchell Robinson went down with an injury in early December and wouldn’t relinquish that role even after Robinson returned in late March.

Hartenstein, who will be entering his eighth NBA season in October, averaged a career-high 8.3 rebounds per game and 7.5 points and added 1.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game on the defensive end. He is one of only two players this past season to average those defensive numbers while shooting at least 60% from the field, with Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo being the only other player to do so.

The Thunder are not the only team expected to be in pursuit of Hartenstein, as he is one of the more prestigious free agents this summer and is arguably the top center available. For the Knicks to bring him back, they will likely have to do a lot of convincing for Hartenstein to be willing to possibly take a lesser pay cut to return to the Big Apple.

Free agency will really begin to heat up after the NBA Finals concludes. By then, expect the Knicks and several other young teams like the Thunder to be aggressive in their pursuit for Hartenstein.

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