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Extending the young Knicks, pt. 1: Mitchell Robinson

Should they do it?

NBA: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

There will likely be a lot of maneuvering in the Knicks coming offseason. Issues we can’t possibly conceive of at this moment, draft picks to either make or deal before lottery balls settle, what coach will be running the team, and a salary cap bump recently reportedly raising the total to $121M, with a luxury threshold of $147M. But really, because of the window the front office has set, locking in most of the spots next year, without being able to predict the unpredictable of this offseason, in my mind the two largest roster decisions (minus a joyless, isosceles triangle shaped head coach) the Knicks have in front of them are what to do about two of their more seasoned young stars: namely re-signing Mitchell Robinson and extending RJ Barrett.

So the team is 28-40, back to 5.5 games out of a play-in. The Knicks will have a draft position somewhere in the middle of the pack, the trusty old 8-9 slot, and some hard decisions to make about whether to keep this young, frisky nucleus intact, or re-tool. Not saying that’s what’s going to happen, and it’s certainly not what I want, but it’s a good place to attempt to make clear headed decisions in the middle of a season if you want to produce the best version of an objective thought exercise when you’re admittedly way to close to this extremely dumb, torture inducing team.

My idea, in terms of methodology, is to assess the seasons, up to this point, Mitch and RJ have had, to cast around the league looking for equivalent players and their compensations, and evaluate whether the Knicks should or should not bring either back, based both on what the player might be worth on the open market, and what the player is worth to the Knicks, and what number the team should or shouldn’t bring them back at. I will say that I started this exercise with no ideas what the answers to any of these questions are besides my vague homer sense that it’s “LOL YES”, and am interested to see what the numbers dictate, so assuming you’ve read this far, let’s go on the journey together.

Mitchell Robinson

My affection for Mitch has been well documented. It’s an affection he has both betrayed, then rewarded, in spades. Early in the season, Mitch’s much discussed muscle gain/physique change caused a period of adjustment we all should’ve expected/been more patient with. This will be something I’d like to apply to our assessment of RJ as well, but I think due to this adjustment, we have to start evaluating Mitch this calendar year, even given a mediocre first week in January.

This year there are still consistency issues, but the glimpses of Mitch rounding into the double double, game changing monster on defense, on the boards, and around the rim that we’ve all dreamed of, have been more and more frequent. For the full season Mitch is averaging 8.4 points and 8.7 total rebounds, and 1.7 blocks, but since January 1st those numbers have ticked up to 9.5, 9.4, and 1.6.

But the numbers don’t tell the entire story, for me. A “Mitch Game” is truly something to behold. In my platonic version, he’s close to double digits in offensive rebounds alone, he’s shooting, *ahem*, 100% from the field, and he has a major part in persuading any “Relentlessly Attack the Bucket” guys he comes into contact with to disabuse their notions (particularly excited to see how he handles the clear and present danger represented by Ja Morant’s rapacious approaches on Friday night in Memphis). Mitch has the build and approach of a physically dominant 90s center, in a league where there are very few of them left. And the budding roll chemistry he has with RJ Barrett at times achieves Adele Haenel, Noemie Merlant levels of sweet synchronicity.

The arguments against, could potentially be based on need, depending on how you evaluate animated 19th century American folk hero Jericho Sims. And this is why a coach like Thibs can be so toxic when attempting to organize a franchise and make decisions on a timetable slightly further ahead than minute to minute on a Wednesday night in Dallas. In his rookie year, in 2019, Mitchell Robinson started 19 games, and averaged 20 minutes per game over the course of 66 games, and got comfortable and displayed his immediate, obvious promise to the franchise. At the moment, Sims has played in 24 games, and averages 8.6 minutes per game.

True, he’s playing backup to a superior player with a near identical skillset, but over the course of the last eight games, both from need and from some arbitrary assessment Thibs seems to have made, he’s gotten double digit minutes, real opportunities to spell Mitch, and appears to be every bit the defender and rebounder Mitch was as a rookie (both averaged/are averaging 11 RPG per 36), and a less gifted offensive player. But it’s so hard to make that assessment right now, and would make it very difficult to make an educated decision on whether or not the team should bring Mitch back in the event a competitor throws the fucking bag at him. I’m in no way saying “Jericho Sims can even lace Mitch’s shoes”, I’m saying, there’s a world in which we could be making a better informed decision with a bigger Jericho sample size. Thibs does not live in said world.

But we don’t have that, so let’s attempt to gauge Mitch’s relative value on the market as presently constituted. When we use the aforementioned stat line from this calendar year as our reference, the obvious point of comparison for Mitch is our Northeastern corridor “rivals”, the Boston Celtics, and their defensive and board minded stalwart, Robert Williams III, or The Time Lord. Time Lord is a year older than Mitch (with the same number of years logged), and likely a better passer than he’ll ever be, but for much of his career he had similar issues staying on the floor, and only now is achieving the level of (slightly better) counting stats Mitch has leveled up to since the New Year. Many Celtics guys are of the opinion, in addition to making a timely trade for Derrick White- a glue guy who has fit instantly and seamlessly -building their defense around Time Lord is what has led to their recent success.

Last year, the Celtics were faced with a similar dilemma the Knicks will be faced with this year when it came time to extend Williams III, and they inked him to a four year, $54 million deal, similar to what was suggested Mitch would be looking at only a few weeks ago. The problem is, with his elevated play matching Time Lord a year ahead of schedule, many now view Williams’ contract as a steal. Williams also doesn’t have Mitch’s gravitational force. There’s a few, but not nearly as many games with North of five offensive rebounds and auto putbacks for the Celtics center, but on the other hand, basically every tangible defensive advanced stat (and VORP) likes Time Lord.

So the point isn’t to compare these two, it’s to try to glean what a fair contract for Mitch looks like, and what we should be willing to pay. I would argue Williams’ four for 54 should be the floor, as he has taken leaps and bounds that at least on its face, makes him comparable to Mitch if not better. I would guess Mitch’s camp will be lobbying for something in the vicinity of the deal Clint Capela signed with the Rockets in 2018, an escalating five year $90 mil albatross that looked a lot better when he was the automatic hammer on every James Harden lob and the clean up man on every miss, and good luck to him if he can get that. But I read shit like this, proposing three years at 33M would be a good deal (from two weeks ago) that the Knicks are on the fence over, and I don’t know. Seems wildly outdated and not nearly enough for his services. Today, Capella’s points are slightly elevated, but he’s not so far from this calendar year of Mitch’s stats. But I’m sure the Hawks would greatly prefer not paying him what they are at this moment.

I’ve seen buzz regarding potential replacements such as Montrezl Harrell, Mo Bamba, Nic Claxton, and Kevon Looney. When you consider those astonishingly mid options, and the unpredictability of this upcoming big man market (Mitch is probably the number two center available aside from, potentially, Deandre Ayton), assuming Mitch stays healthy and these numbers (and play!) remain consistent, I’m going to draw a number directly out of thin air, which may be wishful thinking because I’m a moron with no idea what I’m talking about, and say a number between the Williams III underpay and the Capella wild overpay, at four years and $60 mil with some incentives (assuming Mitch wants long term stability over short term flexibility), would be fair for both sides.

In the next edition, we’ll tackle the young Canadian.