Knicks versus Wizards, floor-level seats, first Knicks game in over a year. To my right is my girlfriend, who got me tickets for my birthday, and I’m watching Jalen Brunson live. What more could I ask for? With the cool, crisp air of the Garden flowing around us, and the sounds of squeaking sneakers that all basketball junkies love, so loud and so clear, everything seemed perfect as the game was set to tip-off.
And yet, all it took was just two-quarters of horrendous basketball for things to feel so different. Washington had easily picked apart Tom Thibodeau and the Knicks’ defense by bombarding them with a barrage of three-pointers. The Knicks’ offense, outside of Brunson and RJ Barrett, was absent. And hearing that Mitchell Robinson would be out for the remainder of the game was the unneeded icing on the cake.
But the bad vibes didn’t end there, as we learned yesterday that the Knicks’ center will miss at least three weeks after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured right thumb. So . . . what now?
First and foremost, the starting lineup will be affected. Robinson had missed a few games earlier this season, eight to be exact, during which time Thibodeau swapped back and forth between Jericho Sims and Isaiah Hartenstein as starters. For the first game that Robinson missed, the Knicks started Hartenstein, who scored 10 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in 38 minutes against the Celtics. Then for the next two games, Thibs went with Sims as the starter, and the sophomore combined for 11 points and 10 rebounds in 42 minutes. Hartenstein was then reinserted into the lineup for the next six games (Robinson was available but didn’t start in the sixth game), and he averaged 6.2 PPG, 6 RPG, and .8 BPG in 22 MPG during that span.
With the Knicks going 3-4 with Hartenstein as the starter versus 1-1 with Sims, and neither player really setting themselves apart, it’s difficult to predict who Thibs will insert into the first five. There’s a chance that he just goes with whoever is playing better and switches it up based on matchups, but with Hartenstein getting the bulk of the backup minutes lately, and getting more starts the last time around, he’ll likely be featured while Robinson is out. That said, regardless of who gets the start, it is going to be extremely tough to replace Robinson and make up for everything he does for this team.
But what is it exactly that Robinson does? If you look only at his stats, they aren’t necessarily astounding. With averages of 7.2 PPG, 8.9 RPG, and 1.8 BPG, Robinson may seem like a player who could be replaced with relative ease. But that could not be further from the truth.
Let’s start with the obvious, which is his crucial defensive presence. Thibodeau and his staff have centered (no pun intended) their defense around Robinson and his ability to protect the paint. They pride themselves on not giving up easy baskets around the rim, and much of that is predicated on Robinson’s ability to not just block shots, but alter them without fouling, something he has gotten better at over time.
Hartenstein and Sims aren’t revolving doors by any means, and both do some things well on the defensive end. Sims may be the best out of the team’s three centers at switching on to smaller guards on the perimeter, and Hartenstein is still a serviceable defender overall. But clearly Robinson is by far the best individual and team defender of the trio, and to combat his absence, everybody, especially on the perimeter, will have to improve defensively.
Then there’s the offensive end, which often goes unnoticed with Robinson. The athletic center doesn’t make any fancy passes or have the ability or the freedom to create his own shot, but he is still a very important part of the Knicks’ offense. Not only does he give New York a much needed vertical lob threat, but he gives them multiple chances with his astounding offensive rebounding ability, and this has become increasingly important for a Knicks team that often struggles to create quality looks in the half court.
Sims and Hartenstein have the potential to replicate some of Robinson’s contribution as an offensive rebounder as they currently average 6.9 and 5.3 offensive rebounds Per36 respectively, but there’s a reason that the Knicks currently have an offensive rating of 120 when Robinson is on the court and 113 when he is off. With Robinson out, the team will have to be more creative, execute better, and start knocking down shots at a higher rate or else it could get rather ugly.
If Mitchell Robinson is out for a stretch of time, the Knicks may miss him more on the offensive end. His ability to generate offensive rebounds is elite and he's the best, by a large stretch, among the bigs at short cuts out of the dunkers. pic.twitter.com/0AeNGnnobJ— DJ (@ACE_ZULLO) January 19, 2023
Again, Robinson may not have the most impressive counting stats, but he does lead the league in total box-outs, box-outs per game, and box-outs per36, while also being second in the league in offensive rebound percentage (15.3%) and seventh in the league in effective field goal percentage (67.4%). And if anyone still questions his impact on this team, look at his on- and off-court splits. New York has ten lineups with over 100 possessions this season (five have positive point differentials and five have negative), and Robinson just so happens to be on four of the five positive lineups while Hartenstein is on four of the five negative ones. The Knicks also are currently a +10.5 in point differential with him on the court, and he leads the team there as well.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom (just mostly). While the team will likely get worse as a result of this injury, there is some hope that it might lead to some good, the first of which is the second unit’s offensive production. For the last couple of years, the reserves have been a bright spot for the Knicks. Energetic, aggressive, cohesive, and exciting, the bench was often the major reason the Knicks had success. But that hasn’t been the case lately. Assuming that Hartenstein becomes the de facto starter, Sims, as the backup center with the second unit, could help Immanuel Quickley, Deuce McBride, and even Barrett, who often plays with the bench guys, and offer more value as a roller (than Hartenstein) given his elite leaping ability.
The injury could also free up more playing time for Obi Toppin, who is averaging just 2.2 PPG and 2.5 RPG in 10.7 MPG since returning from a leg injury.
While it’s hard to predict anything with Thibodeau, especially when it comes to Toppin’s usage, there will be pressure for him to play the third-year wing more lately, especially against smaller teams. With certain matchups, it may even behoove Thibodeau and the Knicks to utilize a smaller lineup in which they play Toppin along with Julius Randle, Brunson, and some combination of Barrett, Quentin Grimes, and Quickley. He’ll offer something completely different from Robinson, and he won’t be a replacement per se, but it could influence the stubborn coach to utilize Toppin more, and that should be a good thing.
That’s kind of it on the positive front. Robinson never has and probably never will get the full recognition he deserves because he doesn’t put up crazy stats, isn’t particularly flashy, and is tasked with playing a very important but thankless job for a team that already has two potential All-Stars in Brunson and Randle. But this upcoming stretch without him will likely shed more light on just how crucial Robinson is to this team. A tougher schedule over the next few weeks will test the depth, talent, and grit of this team, and they’ll need everyone to step up and have all hands on deck to weather the storm. Hopefully, they can stay afloat and hit the ground running whenever Robinson returns, but unfortunately this has the potential to be a season-altering injury.