The Case for Hartenstein
The Knicks got a new backup center...but should he be something more than that?
Good morning! It feels like we’re in our final lull before the start of training camp. There isn’t much by way of news or rumors at the moment, but I’d expect that to change in the next 10-14 days, as some teams will report to camp early on in the final week of September. We’re getting close.
One name that won’t be on the move by that time is Mitchell Robinson, thanks to the fact that he just signed a new extension and isn’t trade eligible until January. Even so, today’s newsletter focuses on a strain of thought I’ve had recently involving Mitch, and the possibility that his best utility to this team might be as a movable asset instead of a long term piece.
The Case for Hartenstein
We start the week with an Ask Macri I’ve been looking forward to for a while, courtesy of David White:
There's been a Reddit campaign to proclaim Isaiah Hartenstein one of the best players in the NBA. It's an utterly absurd but surprisingly compelling case. Can you quell some of the increasing excitement I'm experiencing when I think about Hartenstein wreaking havoc as a Knick?
First and foremost, everyone should go check out the thread he mentions. “Utterly absurd” doesn’t begin to describe this baby, not with gems like “If we look at the stats objectively, Isaiah Hartenstein has the ceiling of the best player to ever play basketball” and “Hartenstein is a plug-and-play MVP” buried within. I don’t go on Reddit so I can’t say whether threads like this are the norm, but if they are, they should start charging for that app.
As for David’s question about whether I’m the one to quell his Hartenstein excitement, I think the better question is whether the Knicks themselves share in his enthusiasm. To that end, I’d like to take a second and go through a working theory I stumbled upon over the weekend. Amidst the reactions, analysis, over-analysis and reaction to the over-analysis of the Donovan Mitchell saga, I think there’s an interesting nugget that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle: For a hot minute, the Knicks were open to the idea of Isaiah Hartenstein as their starting center.
Follow me for a moment, if you will…
In the literal first minute of free agency, news of the Hartenstein signing broke. Not that tempering ever occurs in the NBA, but it sure seems like the immediacy of this signing was evidence that New York’s front office had been targeting Hartenstein for a while. In other words, they really wanted this guy, and were happily willing to go above what the Clippers could pay on a multi-year deal in order to get him.
In the days leading up to that announced signing, we’d also started to hear that Mitchell Robinson would likely be back as well. As Ian Begley put it shortly after Hartenstein signed, “barring something unforeseen,” New York was signing Hart to be a backup, not a replacement. Sure enough, about 16 hours later, word of Robinson’s new pact became official.
Nobody thought much of those 16 hours until a week and a half ago, when Woj sent out a tweet that has only engendered guessing and confusion1 as to what the Knicks actually offered and when in the Donovan Mitchell trade sweepstakes:
If this tweet is to be believed on it’s face, it means in the span of roughly 10 hours, the Knicks and Jazz had initial conversations about Mitchell, New York offered Robinson in a sign and trade package, they were denied, and Robinson was promptly re-signed to a new deal. Unlikely? Perhaps, although it’s worth noting that news of the Gobert trade broke about five hours after we got word that Robinson had re-signed, and the reporting around that trade suggests that news of the Gobert trade’s completion started to trickle out around the league at least a day or so before. We also know from Ian Begley’s prior reporting that the Jazz asked the Knicks about a package that included Robinson sometime in the beginning of July.
In other words, it’s not inconceivable that New York and Utah had discussions which included Robinson, and that the Knicks at least considered entering next season with MVP-in-waiting Isaiah Hartenstein as their starting center.
Why am I thinking about this possibility now that it’s water under the bridge, aside from David’s question? Three reasons:
Despite my best efforts to find a new home for Julius Randle (an entire newsletter, multiple podcasts with content creators who cover other teams that maybe might could be interested in him, etc), I’m slowly becoming resigned to the fact that he probably isn’t going anywhere.
If Randle stays, the most likely path to Obi Toppin getting a significant increase in minutes once again lies with he and Randle sharing the floor, which means a nominal center losing time.
If the Knicks were already open to moving Robinson once this offseason, perhaps it’s him, and not Julius Randle, who is the most likely Knick departure that leads to more minutes for Obi.
If you’re frustrated by the thought of already trying to move a homegrown Knick whose contract still contains wet ink, I get it. Since he got here, Mitchell Robinson has been as common a thread in successful Knick basketball as any player over the last four years. At the same time, he hasn’t been the magic elixir that he was in his first two seasons, when he was just about the only bright spot for some dreadful teams:
First 2 years: Knicks outscored by 1181 points overall but by only 309 points in Robinson’s minutes.
Last two years: Knicks outscored opponents by 176 points overall but were outscored by 96 points in Robinson’s minutes.
This ginormous oversimplification should be taken with several mounds of salt, but it did lead me to wonder about the internal conversations New York had about both Robinson and Hartenstein leading up to the onset of free agency. We heard before the trade deadline that there was interest in Mitch, and Marc Berman reported that conversations took place between the Knicks and Pistons around that time. I heard the same.
There’s also the matter of Robinson’s descending contract amidst a rapidly rising salary cap. It’s the sort of pact that is typically very appealing as trade fodder:
While the contract accounts for nearly 14 percent of the cap next season, it will take up just under nine percent of the cap as an expiring pact in 2025. Assuming he stays healthy, what looks like a moderate overpay now should look like an absolute bargain in two to three years - enough, perhaps, for some team to look at the acquisition as a value play even if they don’t intend for Robinson to be on the floor for more than half the game.
There’s more. If you look around the league, every one of the league’s best teams either employs a max player in the middle (Denver, Philly, Miami, Minnesota, Phoenix) or routinely pivots to a lineup that doesn’t contain a nominal center at all (Golden State, Milwaukee, Boston, Memphis, Dallas, Toronto, Brooklyn and both LA teams). Of those, the Celtics come the closest to playing 48 minutes with a “traditional” big, but that feels more than a little disrespectful to the plethora of things Al Horford can do when he’s on the court. The fact is that all great teams and most good ones that don’t employ an All-NBA caliber big man have a non-center lineup that they go to regularly.
That brings us back to Hartenstein, and David’s question about the Reddit thread. With the caveat that the Knicks will only have about a three and a half week window to move Robinson this season2, might they be so high on Hartenstein that they’d look to trade Mitch in the very first year of his new deal?
Here’s the scenario where it doesn’t happen: the Knicks are good. If New York gets out to a decent start and stays at or above .500 while looking more or less like a functional team, the front office office won’t want to fix what isn’t broken. That means no big trade, and perhaps more importantly, no coaching change. We’ve said time and time again that Thibodeau’s insistence on having a high-level rim protector in the game for all 48 minutes is a big reason why the Randle/Toppin combo will never get much run. If he remains the coach and they’re winning games with a solid defense, you can bet that won’t change much3.
But if they don’t get off to a good start, or start off well enough but then fall out of the play-in race after an absolutely brutal nine-game stretch from late-January to early-February4, might Thibodeau finally find himself on the chopping block? That nine-game stretch ends on February 5, which is four days before the trade deadline and 10 days before the All-Star break.
If there were ever an opportunity for a reset at the coaching position and a reconsideration of the organizational philosophy to have a traditional center on the floor at all times, it would be during this 10-day stretch. It’s easy to see a scenario where Thibs gets axed, Mitch gets dealt, Hartenstein starts for the remainder of the season, and the backup center minutes get distributed evenly between Obi and Jericho Sims.
This would make sense in a few areas:
It would give the front office at least 22 games (assuming a coaching change came during the All-Star break) to make two key evaluations: Johnnie Bryant at head coach and Obi Toppin as a heavy-minute rotation player. The latter of those would be especially important with Toppin eligible for an extension come next July.
Sims would get some more run after likely being out of the healthy rotation. If he showed improvement after an already impressive showing as a rookie, this would go a long way toward emboldening the Knicks to experiment with their big man minutes even more moving forward.
Assuming Julius Randle is still on the team, a Mitch trade would probably allow Julius to end the year on a high note. The Randle/Robinson pairing has never made much sense given where Randle prefers to operate on the court and Robinson’s inability to have an impact anytime he’s more than a few feet from the hoop. Julius’ lack of passing to Mitch reached comedic levels last season, and it’s fair to wonder whether they enjoy sharing the court (or the locker room) with one another. Removing Robinson from the equation would open up the floor significantly, not only for Randle, but for Brunson and RJ as well, both of whom could use as much free space around the basket as they can get.
This last part brings me back to the premise of today’s newsletter: Isaiah Hartenstein makes sense as the starting center for this team on a number of levels. I already detailed a few months ago how Hart’s passing will open up New York’s offense in countless ways. As a scorer, his overall efficiency of 130.3 points per shot attempt may not be as high as Robinson’s 144.5, but it still ranks in the 84th percentile for centers according to Cleaning the Glass.
More importantly, defenses have to pay attention to him even when he’s outside of the restricted area - a novel concept for Knick centers, and an advantage that more than makes up for the drop-off in efficiency. Hartenstein’s 3-pointer is still largely theoretical, with just 30 total attempts last season and half of his 14 makes coming in garbage time, but his proficiency from the short midrange will command the attention of opposing teams. He takes over a third of his attempts from this area and makes more than half of those looks. The result is a shot chart that still clearly belongs to a big man, but is markedly more expansive that Robinson’s:
On defense, as our Reddit friend pointed out, there are some statistics which paint Hartenstein as perhaps the best kept secret among the NBA’s elite rim protecters. I’m not sure any numbers will convince me of that, as the deterrent Robinson provides may not always show up on the stat sheet if players are fearful of even attempting close-range looks with Mitch around.
That said, opponents shot it in the restricted areas just as often last season when Robinson was on the floor as when he wasn’t. Those shooters fared much worse when Mitch was the one defending the shot, but he finds himself in good company with his new teammate:
Last season, 129 players defended at least four shots per game within six feet of the hoop while playing at least 15 games. Only the 12 in the above chart managed to hold those shooters to a field goal percentage that was 10 percentage points lower than normal. As you can see, Robinson and Hartenstein were neck and neck in their stinginess.
The biggest drop off between the two is offensive rebounding, where Mitch is right there with Steven Adams for the title of best in the sport. But even there I wonder if the offensive rebounding drop-off would be neutralized by how many more unimpeded lanes drivers would have to work with.
Despite all of the above, I’m not trying to usher Robinson out of town just yet. Like most of you, I want to see this roster go out and compete this season before deciding it needs to be broken up (with one possible exception). Like I wrote when he re-signed, the Knicks are betting on Robinson’s untapped potential. If he shows that, they not only got themselves a bargain, but an instrumental piece for their team. But as I also wrote in early July, it’s impossible not to see this contract as one that was signed to eventually be traded. If Mitch plays well, that could make him tougher to part with, but will also increase what they can get for him on the trade market5.
One last thing: next season’s cap was recently set at $134 million, a number which the Knicks project to be right around in total salary assuming all rookie contract options are picked up, Derrick Rose’s team option is declined and Cam Reddish’s cap hold is removed. A max slot for a vet with between six and nine years of experience will require $40 million in cap space. Moving Randle’s $25.6 million for expiring salary won’t be enough, and moving both Randle and Fournier for expiring money will probably prove untenable. Moving Randle and Mitch, however, will just get them there6.
I’m sneaking this in at the end because there’s only one player who fits New York’s timeline that is even arguably worth a max deal, and that’s Andrew Wiggins. For as much as the Warriors print money, keeping both Wiggins and Jordan Poole on top of their HOF trio might run the franchise upwards of half a billion dollars for the 2023-24 season. In other words, Wiggins might be gettable.
Should New York try? And would he be worth that sort of money? Those are topics for another newsletter. For right now though, just store it away as one of the many advantages that could open up from a decision to treat Mitch as a trade asset rather than a long term piece.
(One that falls squarely behind opening up a starting role for future first ballot Hall of Famer Isaiah Hartenstein, of course.)
A must listen for anyone who hasn’t yet: Ian Begley went on Zach Lowe’s pod last week, and the topic of this alleged offer came up. Begs, being the ultimate professional that he is, was sure to say that he would never question anyone else’s reporting, least of all Woj’s. He also noted that it’s often impossible to nail down the truth about trade negotiations, as even the parties involved can be unreliable narrators when it comes to whether a discussed offer was internal or external, or when exactly one was made, among other aspects of talks like these.
They can’t trade him until January 15 and the trade deadline is February 9
As I’ve reported here before, my understanding is that Thibs was dead set against any notion of a Mitch trade before last season’s deadline.
Those nine games: at Atlanta, at Toronto, vs Cleveland, at Boston, at Brooklyn, vs Lakers, vs Miami, vs Clippers, vs Philly.
Because Robinson’s contract lies in such a sweet spot, salary-wise, there are over 60 players he could be traded for straight up with the salary working. That number will only go up next summer.
Deuce or Sims would sadly need to go in this scenario.