Brainstorming Potential Mitchell Robinson Replacements

Last week, the Knicks were dealt some terrible injury news with the report that Mitchell Robinson would have a procedure on his ankle that would hold him out for at least 8-10 weeks. Although some were optimistic about a February return, I was originally thinking of April once he gets his conditioning back. Unfortunately, the injury was much more severe than anyone thought, and the Knicks are now assuming he is out for the season, including the postseason. While not technically ruled out (he's still due to be re-evaluated in February), the Knicks officially applied for the Disabled Player Exception for Mitch for $7.8 million. This means the doctors have sufficient belief that Mitch will not play again at any point this year.

To note, this DPE still has to get approved. If it is, the calculus for a replacement becomes a lot easier. If not, it's back to the normal luxury tax dodging and using Evan Fournier's contract as salary filler. Some notes on the DPE:

- it can be used on a signing, trade, or waiver claim. It would expire in March, so it leaves open the buyout market as an option.

- it can only be used on one player, meaning the Knicks can't use it to sign a guy and still have more left over. Because of their standing in the salary cap and their usage of the MLE already, they cannot sign a player over the league minimum without using the proposed DPE

- It is ONLY usable on expiring contracts (if in a trade) or one-year deals like what the Knicks just gave Taj Gibson.

With those three notes, there's a certain class of player that the Knicks can get. Let's run a few off:

Andre Drummond

Despite their recent run, I would be shocked if the Bulls didn't sell. Zach LaVine's value is in the gutter, there's been rumblings of DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso is likely the most coveted, and then there are the bigs. First of all, the Knicks cannot use the DPE on Nikola Vucevic. However, he'd be in play if they used Evan Fournier's contract. Let me be clear, however, I am not interested in Vucevic, especially on a three-year deal.

What about Andre Drummond? His $3.3 million would fit like a glove, he still shows impeccable skill on the boards and is a veteran who at this stage in his career, knows his role. Hartenstein works well with both units, so it's worth seeing where Drummond fits better. Drummond still averages almost seven rebounds a game in 13 minutes and fits into the offensive rebounding identity of the team with 2.8 of those per game (7.6 per 36). Drummond does have spacing concerns, with his most common lineup having a horrific -36.3 net rating (DeRozan, Jevon Carter, Torrey Craig, Ayo Dosumnu). If you don't want too much from your Mitch replacement and don't want to reach too deep in the asset pool, Drummond is a nice flier. Bonus: grew up in Mount Vernon, NY.

Nerlens Noel

Another non-sexy name that will give you 2021 flashbacks. Noel is familiar with the system and would be a Taj-like signing. Noel regressed hard after signing a $27.7m extension following the 2020-21 season after a memorable run as the starting center following two unlucky hand and foot injuries to Robinson. Noel's 20-21 season included averages of 5.1 points and 6.4 rebounds, but also a hefty 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals as the defensive-minded Noel had his best season from an impact standpoint on a playoff team. The concerns? Noel has played 42 basketball games and under 800 total minutes since his extension in 2.5 years with an injury-riddled second year in New York and being bought out by Detroit and briefly played for Brooklyn late last season. Noel is not a DPE signing, he is 100% a vet min guy.

Kelly Olynyk

Something the Knicks could experiment with here is having centers who can space the floor and see how that works with their offense. Olynyk would be the most offensively-involved center the Knicks have had in how long? Who was the last Knicks center who could shoot? With Utah firmly out of contention, this is a decent choice. Olynyk is a career 37% shooter from deep and has shot close to 40% from 3 since coming to Utah. Despite under 22 minutes a game, Olynyk is averaging a career-high 4.3 assists per game in less playing time, showing another aspect to his game not usually seen from a Knicks big man. The issue can be that Tom Thibodeau does not like running lineups without a rim-protecting big. Hartenstein is good in that role, but Kelly? He averages just a half block per game for his career. As an FYI, the DPE could work with him if the Knicks sent $4.5m or so in salary, but it's more likely this trade would include Evan Fournier's money, as the Jazz have ample room for the swap.

James Wiseman

He was not who I originally thought of, but this is one of those flier moves on upside that some teams take. James Wiseman got drafted second overall for a reason. The prospect of him fit the Warriors' plans. Imagine the longevity of that team if they drafted a stud big to pair with prime Stephen Curry and the supporting cast that won the 2022 Finals. Alas, Wiseman faced injuries and never fit. Kevon Looney took his role in the Warriors' plans and he was cast off to Detroit in the complicated Saddiq Bey/Gary Payton II trade. While Wiseman makes sense in Detroit as a guy who can revive his career with playing time, he only gets it out of necessity. Isaiah Stewart and Jalen Duren are firmly in front of him on the depth chart. Wiseman hasn't played badly in 17 games (71.2 FG%, 7.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG), but he plays on a team that hasn't won since October. His defensive rating on the court is god-awful, but again, is that him or the Pistons?

Unfortunately, even on Golden State, his net rating was terrible and he often had the worst defensive rating on the team. It would be an interesting buy-low play but I don't see it. For what it's worth, it's a similar financial situation to Olynyk and would be a Fournier play.

Nic Claxton

Ok, I do not expect this to happen. This is an unrealistic one, but I will entertain it for a few reasons. For one, he has an expiring contract, and the financials work if the Knicks send someone like Jericho Sims to Brooklyn to satisfy the DPE. For some strange reason, the Nets haven't extended Claxton. Although there are no signs of discontent, he is still an expiring contract and that might scare Brooklyn with Dinwiddie and Royce O'Neale hitting FA, Cam Thomas due an extension, and Mikal Bridges likely asking for a raise pretty soon as his usage skyrockets. Another complicating factor is that the Nets have shown no sign of throwing in the towel. Houston controls their draft pick (thanks to James Harden) and I don't think the crosstown rivals would even entertain it.

But what if they did? Well, Claxton is a rebounding and defense machine. He is the closest comp of any realistic option to who Mitchell Robinson is but with a higher usage (8 FGA/game). 2.5 blocks, 9 rebounds, under 3 fouls per game? Checks all the boxes. Further, the Nets have bird rights on Claxton, so if he was traded in theory, it would give the Knicks the ability to re-sign if Isaiah Hartenstein (who has no bird rights) prices himself out of the MLE as his role increases. It's a dream scenario, but not very likely.

A Few More Names

DeMarcus Cousins - just signed in Taiwan but hey, if we're trying to go with some vets.

Some Charlotte Big - Mark Williams isn't going anywhere, so probably Nick Richards, who doesn't fit in the DPE because he is not a rental.

Kai Jones - was originally drafted by the Knicks, cut after some weird offseason stuff. Has potential and is a Wiseman-type play, not sure if he would fit under Thibs' no-nonsense system.

Kevon Looney - not going anywhere, but maybe Golden State will entertain it if they fall out of reasonable contention. Money would struggle to work, as Looney does not fit in the DPE (not an expiring deal) and the Warriors are capped out to hell.

Internal/Status Quo - saw a report that G-League big Dmytro Skapintsev could be considered after some Summer League run. Could also bring up Jacob Toppin or Isaiah Roby as depth and keep with iHart/Sims/Taj unless another long-term injury occurs.