Knicks could get defensive stud back at center before 2023-2024 season ends

NBA: New York Knicks at Boston Celtics
Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN is reporting that the NBA has denied the Knicks a $7.8 million Disabled Player Exception for Mitchell Robinson as there’s optimism that he could return from his ankle surgery before the end of the regular season. Initially perceived to be a season-ended procedure, New York could get their starting big man back ahead of the postseason, which is huge news given their perceived lack of depth at the center position.

Isaiah Hartenstein has played extremely well in the absence of Robinson, but if the Knicks can get their former second-round pick back, it gives them the potential of one of the NBA’s top defenses. This is huge for the Knicks, as they currently sit as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference standings and have a high probability of making the postseason.

Mitchell Robinson Could Take Knicks’ Defense To New Heights

New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) looks on during the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden
Dec 8, 2023; Boston, Massachusetts, USA; New York Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (23) looks on during the first half against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Eric Canha-USA TODAY Sports

Mitchell Robinson was having an excellent season before his injury, as the 25-year-old was averaging over 10.3 rebounds a game and helping the Knicks perform as one of the best-rebounding teams in the association. He’s an excellent presence on the boards with his shot-blocking prowess and ability to bring down offensive rebounds and give New York second chances on offense. This past season, he was averaging a career-best in not just rebounds, but offensive rebounds (5.3) as well, and the Knicks are much better equipped to have him in their lineup.

The addition of OG Anunoby has made them much better on both the offensive and defensive end by giving them someone who can knock down threes with excellent efficiency (38.4%) while guarding the opposing team’s best scorer with ease. Anunoby has the highest +/- ever for any player in their first five games with a new team (111) and has been the perfect fit in this new-look Knicks lineup as they’ve pummeled multiple teams including the 76ers and Timberwolves over their five-game winning streak.

Slotting into the starting role in Mitchell Robinson’s absence has been Isaiah Hartenstein who ranks in the 94th Percentile in Estimated Box Plus Minus (3.7) and is seventh in the league among centers in Estimated Wins (4.0), and while it would be difficult to bench him, the Knicks could split their time in the rotation. Both bigs provide excellent defense and rebounding while not requiring the ball to operate on offense, serving more as lob threats in the paint, and they can anchor the starting and second units on that side of the ball.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at New York Knicks
Jan 1, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (55) celebrates in the second quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Controlling the defensive and rebounding tempo of a game can be critical to a team’s success, and with how much better the Knicks have been in terms of shot selection and efficiency, having both of these centers in their rotation could prove advantageous. The amount of second-chance points the Knicks could generate with the number of rebounds they’ll pull down would be staggering, and the presence of Harteinstein means the Knicks wouldn’t need to lean on Robinson for 30+ minutes a game and potentially cause him to re-injure his ankle.

This news could also allow the Knicks to focus on grabbing a guard for their bench, as speculation about potentially adding depth to their center position was justified given their lack of options. Perhaps the Knicks still look for a third option, but it’s unlikely that it’ll need to be a starting-caliber option given Robinson’s potential to return, and the excellent play from Isaiah Harteinstein on the season.