Knicks have no choice but to bring back reliable center in free agency

NBA: New York Knicks at Miami Heat
Sam Navarro-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah Hartenstein broke out last season, helping the Knicks not just stomach the loss of Mitchell Robinson during the regular season but thrive. He evolved into one of the best defensive players in the NBA, doing a great job of dishing the basketball in the paint and hitting the shots created for him. While they still have Robinson under contract for the next couple of seasons, Hartenstein will enter free agency with a chance to get a serious pay raise, but this brings up questions about whether New York will re-sign him or not.

While it may not be the popular decision, one thing was made abundantly clear this year; the Knicks cannot afford to lose Isaiah Hartenstein.

Re-signing Isaiah Hartenstein is a Must for the Knicks

NBA: Playoffs-Indiana Pacers at New York Knicks
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsCredit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For the casual basketball fan, a center averaging 7.8 points and 8.3 rebounds a game cannot be considered one of the best in the game. The way value is perceived in the NBA is all wrong, as counting stats have become more valued than synergy and on-court impact. Looking at basic on-off metrics, Isaiah Hartenstein had a massive impact on the offensive side of the ball, as the Knicks had a 122.9 Offensive Rating with him on the court and a 114.7 with him off of it.

Granted, he plays with the likes of Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle in the lineup whereas the backups played with a depleted bench that didn’t have much depth. A metric like Estimated Plus-Minus attempts to adjust for these variables, and even then Hartenstein has a +0.7 Offensive EPM, which ranks in the 82nd Percentile. This is because of how well he can dish the rock as a big man, making some stellar passes and creating scoring opportunities for other players on the court.

He’s also got a great putback shot that allows him to score without having to dunk the basketball, and we saw the Knicks utilize this a ton in the postseason. Where you’re going to see Isaiah Hartenstein shine the most is defensively though, as we saw one of the best defensive performances in all of basketball from the 25-year-old veteran. His +3.9 Defensive EPM ranked in the 99th Percentile in the NBA behind only Jonathan Isaac and the best mark for any starting center in the entire NBA.

READ MORE: Knicks could lose elite defensive free agent to rival 76ers

While OG Anunoby is a crucial part of this roster, and I anticipate that the Knicks will pay him accordingly, the value Isaiah Hartenstein brings is irreplaceable. In theory, Mitchell Robinson is a good enough center that Leon Rose could re-invest the money he’d pay Hartenstein elsewhere, but the issue stems from the massive discrepancy in reliability. While there’s always concern about whether Robinson can make it through a full season or not, we rarely see Hartenstein miss time.

There are some long-term injury concerns with both players given their size, but for the Knicks’ chances of winning a title this upcoming season, it’s impossible to deny that the better player is Isaiah Hartenstein. He’s eligible for up-to a four-year $72 million deal, and if signing him meant trading Mitchell Robinson, that’s still something the team should do without much second thought.

It’s impossible to run it back and compete for a title without one of the best defenders in the NBA, and the Knicks absolutely can bring him back. The lineup of Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, OG Anunoby, Julius Randle, and Isaiah Hartenstein is simply too good to ignore. Having two All-NBA players in Brunson and Randle coupled with two of the best defensive players in the NBA and rounding it out with an elite shooter creates an unbeatable five-man lineup.

There’s small-sample size success and then there’s the dominance the New York Knicks had with that group, one that rivaled the best in all of basketball. Having Josh Hart and Miles McBride off the bench ready to plug and play into the lineup brings an incredible amount of value as well, and that could give them the depth they need to get through a season barring another year of hilariously bad injury luck in the postseason.

Finding a replacement for one of the 10 best centers in all of basketball is an impossible task, and the Knicks have absolutely no choice but to bring him back for a deep playoff run this upcoming season.

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