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Questions surround Knicks with Julius Randle out and Mitchell Robinson working toward a return

Knicks’ starting lineup puzzle: Balancing bench success and roster gaps amid frontcourt injuries.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at New York Knicks Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

On December 8, 2023, Mitchell Robinson of the New York Knicks suffered a stress fracture in his left ankle during a game against the Boston Celtics. The Injury required surgery and intial reports suggested that his recovery would sideline the center for the remainder of the campaign. The news came as a major blow, as Mitch had blossomed into a dominating defender, was averaging a career-high 10.3 rebounds per game, and had established himself as a lynchpin of the team. Many considered him to be New York’s second or third-most important player (fitting beside Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle).

Fearing that the season was a washout for Robinson, the Knicks applied for a $7.8 million Disabled Player Exception—but their request was denied, and news leaked that he might not be sidelined for the duration we expected. In fact, we learned that he would be re-evaluated in 8-10 weeks:

Rather than collapsing, the Knicks have thrived in his absence with reserve center Isaiah Hartenstein assuming starter’s duties. In the 23 games he’s played since stepping into the starting five, Hartenstein has averaged an impressive 11.8 points, 11 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 2.9 stocks (steals+blocks) per game. With Hartenstein as the lead center over that span, New York went 15-8.

Recently, however, Achilles tendinopathy caused Iron Man Isaiah to miss the first two games of his Knicks’ career. No sweat! The Knicks won those games, too, with Jericho Sims subbing in as the starter and newly-acquired Precious Achiuwa playing his best basketball yet in the orange and blue. This team is built to win, baby!

Not so fast. Another deflating injury to the frontcourt was incoming. On Saturday, power forward Julius Randle dislocated his shoulder in a victory over the Miami Heat. Losing Randle especially stings because he’d been playing some of the best basketball of his career—thanks, in part, to the New Year’s addition of the venerable OG Anunoby—and his production will be sorely missed.

As Kento Kato reported, today’s tweet from Adrian Wojnarowski suggests that Randle might return “in weeks and not months.” Big sigh of relief. With his absence, however, and Hartenstein possibly nursing a nagging ankle, and the Knicks’ bench needing more offensive punch, several questions still swirl around NYC’s finest.

What’s the Knicks starting line-up?

Uncertainty looms over the starting small forward and power forward positions. Our knee-jerk response is to slot Josh Hart into the small forward spot and slide utility man OG Anunoby into the four position.

However, after a worrying case of anemia that followed the Immanuel Quickley trade, the bench has played better recently. What’s changed? Josh Hart has taken a leadership role with the second unit. What’s that look like? He was a +30 in the recent victory over the WORLD CHAMPION DENVER NUGGETS! [Apologies, caps-lock was stuck.]

Moving Josh Hart to the first five would leave New York with a bench squad of Miles McBride, Quentin Grimes, Precious Achiuwa, Jericho Sims, and possibly Evan Fournier (more on him below). Would four of those guys plus an overlapping starter (Anunoby, Brunson, or Hart) get the job done?

Rather than shifting Hart up, another option is to move Grimes back into a starting role. He previously held the shooting guard spot, but this time he could play small forward alongside Anunoby at the four. Then again, Grimes has played more aggressively over the past couple of games and is emerging as a scorer off the bench. With bench points hard to come by, I’m inclined to think Thibs leaves Grimes where he is.

Thibs could level up Achiuwa for a starting lineup that consists of Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Anunoby, Precious, and Hartenstein. Achiuwa is 6’8”, 225 lb, and the closest in profile to Julius Randle. This proposed lineup would put a heavy offensive onus on Jalen, DDV, and OG, though. It’s a stark reminder that, whatever direction they go, the Knicks will have a hard time recouping Randle’s lost production: this season, he was averaging 24 points, 9.2 rebounds, and five assists. That’s an All-Star, right?

At one point (in preseason, if memory serves), Thibs flirted with using Jericho Sims at power forward. It may be time to try that again, maybe with the second-unit and Hartenstein overlapping in the center spot. It’s worth another look, at least.

Will Evan Fournier play?

Fournier has been in mothballs for most of the season. The few times he was activated, he was completely out of sync. Still, with a reduced roster and a need for bench points, a case could be made to give Fournier 10 minutes of action per contest. The Frenchman has shot 38% from deep for his career but was an ice-cold 13% in extremely limited usage this season. Appearing in just three games, he has averaged four points and converted only two of 15 three-point attempts. Nonetheless, Thibs may turn to him if the need for bench production becomes desperate.

Then again . . . not tonight:

What’s the latest on Mitchell Robinson?

The Knicks continue to be stingy with information about Robinson’s return. As Steve Popper (Newsday) recently wrote, “They originally had a timetable of eight to 10 weeks before he would be reevaluated, and Monday will be six weeks from the left ankle surgery and almost seven weeks since he suffered the original injury.”

Also from Popper, quoting Thibs:

“He’s lifting. He looks like, I don’t know, bodybuilding. Whatever it is that he can do, and it’s a step-by-step progression. So he’ll be in the pool, he’ll be on the bike and then eventually get to be where he can shoot. He’s shooting a little bit, shooting out of the chair at this point. Just following protocols and getting treatments. He’s been great, he’s in great spirits. So we’re encouraged, everything’s positive so far. Just let him go through it, and then when he’s ready, he’s ready.”

Shooting from a chair . . . nothing else has improved Mitch’s shot, so why not? What are the NBA rules about taking free-throws from a stool?

Kidding aside, this is very encouraging news about about our beloved Mitch. We hope to hear more soon.

Will the front office make a trade?

During this mid-season trade season, there had been speculation that the Knicks would trade for a backup big man. Now with Randle out, the pressure on Leon Rose & Co. to swing a deal for a frontcourt fella seems greater than ever. As our Sam Stein wrote today, the front office is not without options for filling in the roster gaps.

If a frontcourt player is deemed the greatest need: Bruce Brown, Jr. (Toronto Raptors) offers versatility and toughness, albeit with some wing-redundancy; Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings) is a solid veteran forward who brings offensive skill and playoff experience; Kelly Olynyk (Utah Jazz) is a playmaking power forward and a potentially cost-efficient choice; and Clint Capela (Atlanta Hawks) profiles similarly to Robinson and could offer insurance in the off-season if Hartenstein becomes too expensive to retain.

If more bench offense is considered more urgent: Alec Burks (Pistons) is a familiar face and a Thibs-type player—a guard with size and skills on both ends; Jordan Clarkson (Jazz) can be a machine gun off the bench, but his cost may be too rich for what the Knicks want to spend; and I’ve heard about this guy . . . Dejounte Something . . . seems like a promising cat.

Alas, we wait. More will be revealed soon enough. For now, we will anxiously look forward to both Randle updates and the first-five tweet before New York’s game in Charlotte tonight. My money is on Precious starting, btw.

Go Knicks!