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Knicks (Can’t) Part with I-Hart?

Oh what to do, what to do?

Minnesota Timberwolves v New York Knicks Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

By now everyone knows Isaiah Hartenstein’s name, which may or may not be a good thing for the New York Knicks.

Without needing any extra help from Stephen A. Smith to help catapult his stock, Isaiah Hartenstein’s play alone over the past two weeks has solidified his legitimacy as a starting center in this league. Over the past two weeks Hartenstein has averaged 7.9 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.4 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game. In the Knicks three most recent games, these numbers have further increased to 11.6 points, 15 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 3.0 blocks per game. Comparatively, before his season-ending injury, Mitchell Robinson was averaging 6.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game.

Despite Mitch’s consistent impact on the offensive glass, Hartenstein has turned heads by surpassing him in almost every other statistical category, not to mention doubling Mitch’s free throw percentage, shooting .681 from the charity stripe this season.

Last month, as the trade deadline loomed, the Knicks recognized the urgency to swiftly secure the best possible deal for Immanuel Quickley. Had they not moved him prior to the deadline, it would have meant risking his departure to free agency without any compensation, or being compelled to pay him more than desired if they were to opt for matching another team’s qualifying offer beyond the $25 million they could have offered him in September. As of December 8th, Quickley was still a Knick, and Mitchell Robinson was still the Knicks starting center. However, since that time, a considerable transformation has unfolded in a relatively brief period of time.

The best thing that can happen when a team loses a star player to injury is when one of their role players off the bench is able to step up to the plate and help fill any major voids felt by the loss of that key starter, even if the set expectations are minimal. The worst thing that could happen from such a scenario is that said role player ends up exceeding any and all expectations beyond the team’s wildest imagination during that player’s contract year.

This is exactly what has now happened in regard to Ish.

Hartenstein, currently in the final year of his two-year, $16 million contract, has recently played outstanding basketball, propelling his stock value to unforeseen heights, and he may have unexpectedly become the Knicks biggest trading asset with less than a month before the deadline. With the tough decision over IQ’s future decided through the OG trade, the Knicks once again find themselves confronting a familiar dilemma—one they were not fully anticipating to this degree at the start of the season. Sure, the thought and possibility back in October of losing a role player like Hartenstein to free agency this summer was always a possibility, but the necessity to address the matter with the same level or urgency as well as Hartenstein’s onset market value was not at the same heightened level as it is today.

The scenario has evolved dramatically. I-Hart’s recent performances have attracted considerable attention across the league. Game after game, he continues to affirm his status as a legitimate bona-fide starting center in the NBA. If not the Knicks, then there is a strong likelihood of numerous potential suitors vying for his services, who may be prepared to extend substantial offers this summer—offers that could far surpass what the Knicks ever anticipated having to pay to retain him.

Keep in mind he is an unrestricted free agent. While the Knicks hold his Bird rights, allowing them to re-sign him for up to 175% of his previous salary or 105% of the league’s annual average salary, this decision carries financial implications. If the Knicks opt to exercise his Bird rights, the potential contract for Hartenstein in the upcoming season could amount to $16.1 million, as outlined in the first scenario.

New York Knicks v Washington Wizards Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Robinson, who has the durability of a ceramic mug, is under contract through the 2025-26 season earning an average salary of $15 million per year. The odds of them paying Hartenstein more money to serve as Robinson’s backup doesn’t seem realistic with the notion of the Knicks committing $30 million for both players next season. Upon Robinson’s anticipated return next year, the likelihood of displacing him to the bench in favor of Hartenstein seems even more unlikely.

While trading Robinson remains an option, it presents challenges. Dealing a player already sidelined for the season poses difficulties in obtaining fair market value. Due to Mitch's injury being labeled season-ending, that also eliminates any contenders looking to add him to their roster just to have him back in time for the playoffs.

Just two weeks after completing the IQ trade, the Knicks find themselves unexpectedly confronted with a dilemma akin to the one involving Quickley. The question arises: do they ride the I-Hart wave throughout the remainder of the season, addressing the situation as it unfolds... or do they explore trading Hartenstein at his newfound and elevated value?

If the Knicks were to consider trading him, they would still need to address the starting center position for the remainder of the season and throughout the playoffs as Jericho Sims is not that guy. Most Knicks fans have been expecting another move since the IQ trade but at the guard position. Now, though, the Knicks are faced with the need of making another tough decision in a short period of time regarding Hartenstein; balancing short-term success with future planning.

What’s the right move here in the best interests of the team? What would you do if you ran the Knicks?