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Isaiah Hartenstein injured, Taj Gibson out of contract. What’s next?

Gibson completed his 10-contract on Thursday and is now in limbo with iHart down injured.

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

It’s starting to feel like the New York Knicks get some sort of compensation for listing players in their injury report and for losing them mid-game these days...

Just a few hours after the Knicks announced OG Anunoby underwent surgery earlier this week (re-evaluation in three weeks), New York lost another body in their Thursday’s matchup against the Dallas Mavericks as Isaiah Hartenstein was forced off the court halfway through it.

Hartenstein had been dealing with a sore Achilles for a while before yesterday’s game, and the Knicks ultimately ruled him out for the second half of the matchup with that injury designation.

It looked like Hartenstein re-aggravated his left Achilles injury after missing a shot in the second quarter followed by Mavs’ big man Dwight Powell landing on the Knicks’ center leg contesting the layup.

Asked about his Achilles inflammation (he missed back-to-back games in late January) after Tuesday’s win against Memphis, Hartenstein said “It’s been good, just slowly coming back.”

Now, iHart is back on the shelf... and another warm body is leaving town unless he and the Knicks work out another deal: veteran Taj Gibson, who logged a season-high 22 minutes on Thursday on the final day of his 10-day contract with New York.

With Hartenstein out yesterday, Thibs was simply forced to use the likes of G Leaguers Charlie Brown Jr. and soon-to-be Slam Dunk Contest participant Jacob Toppin for 22 and 11 minutes respectively to make up for iHart’s absence.

Gibson signed a 10-day contract with the Knicks last week after inking a non-guaranteed one-year deal with the organization last December following Mitchell Robinson’s months-long injury although the presence of Precious Achiuwa in the lineup and his steady improvement allowed Thibs to sit Taj for most of this late period as the vet only played 29 seconds against Utah on Jan. 30 and 13 minutes last Tuesday against Memphis.

Through Thursday, after the 122-108 loss to the Mavericks, the Knicks had yet to reach an agreement with Gibson for a second 10-day contract. In case they go for it, it’d mark the final such type of deal the Knicks can sign Gibson to this year, as players are limited to two 10-day contracts per season, per organization.

“I haven’t even had any time—I haven’t talked to Leon,” Thibs said after the game. “So it would be premature to say anything.

“It’s obvious (I’d want him back). He’s been terrific. On any team, at any time, he’s a great addition,” said Thibodeau. “So I’m hopeful. Leon will get everything and we’ll always do what’s best for the team. But everyone in the organization loves him and has an appreciation for him.”

There are a lot of details and questions worth asking here. For one, it’s widely known that both Thibs and Taj share a mutual love for each other and that New York as a whole respects what Gibson brings to the table and appreciates his presence in the locker room—thus the prior two deals the Knicks signed him to.

The easiest one comes on the heels of Hartenstein’s injury, and media members asked Thibs about that in Thursday’s post-game presser. “Very good observation,” Thibodeau said.

While it’s unknown how much time (if any) Hartenstein will miss, it’s also true that the Knicks’ depth in the paint was already slim entering Thursday with Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson out and Jericho Sims also missing his second game in a row with an illness.

That alone should be enough of a reason to bring Taj back... or should it?

If the Knicks sign Gibson to another 10-day deal so they have another player available and capable of playing the center position on Saturday against Indiana, they would also be bringing the veteran back to the team for a period that would overlap with the All-Star break, thus losing some valuable time on that 10-day span.

Not only that, but they will also be forced to make a decision after the expiration of that supposed second 10-day contract, as following it the Knicks will need to either re-sign Gibson for the remainder of the season or waive him and not be able to sign him anymore.

That’s an important detail because, with the trade deadline already in the rearview mirror, the NBA is now entering the buyout period that, for their 2024 aspirations, means a three-week span in which they can sign players that get cut by other teams until March 1, the final day in which player signing a deal with a team is eligible for postseason play.

Just for starters, here are a few buyout candidates involved in Thursday’s trades or impacted by them that have already been waived and become free agents (h/t Evan Sidery).

Another interesting wrinkle this season with the new rules put in place by the NBA is that franchises above a certain tax cannot sign players during the next few weeks who were making more than the MLE. That list of teams includes contenders such as the Celtics, Nuggets, Clippers, Heat, Bucks, and Suns.

The Knicks can sign whoever they want, but signing Gibson would mean filling one roster spot that could be filled by whoever they think is worth chasing in the buyout market and that could prove to be a more important piece later in the season, namely in the playoffs.

With many players on the roster (Randle, Mitch, OG,...) expected to eventually make their returns in time for the playoffs, it’s fair to assume the Knicks will probably decide to patch their current short-term holes (mainly Hartenstein and Sims) from now to the ASW by bringing Gibson back to the fold, then waiving him to make room for a buyout-candidate signing that helps them in April and May.

It’s harsh to deal Taj that hand, and it’s also a risk considering the Knicks will be betting on multiple players getting healthy enough and rehabbing before the postseason as well as finding the perfect bought-out player (they’re cut for a reason, mind you) in the free market. That said, and looking at the bigger picture of the season from a broader angle, that seems the most logical and reasonable path forward for the franchise to follow.

You can follow Antonio on X / Twitter at @chapulana.