GREENBURGH, N.Y. - Ready or not, Andrea Bargnani is going to be the Knicks' man in the middle for the next four to six weeks.
Coach Mike Woodson confirmed the obvious Thursday when he said the 7-foot former No. 1 overall pick will start at center in place of Tyson Chandler, who suffered a small non-displaced fracture of his right fibula knocking knees with Charlotte's Kemba Walker.
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Bargnani, more of a perimeter player, is not anyone's idea of a rugged big man. But the Knicks (1-3) were thin up front even before Chandler went down in pain in the loss to the Bobcats.
Bargnani will start in the frontcourt Friday night with Carmelo Anthony and Iman Shumpert in the Knicks' rematch against the Bobcats. Raymond Felton and Pablo Prigioni will be the opening backcourt, at least until J.R. Smith returns Sunday from his five-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Chandler, who was on crutches Thursday, said he was relieved he didn't suffer ligament or other more serious damage.
"I'm obviously disappointed I can't be out there for my team," he said. "But all things being said, I think if there was going to be an injury at least it's this one. Not anything worse. Hopefully I can get back in a month or so."
Replacing Chandler with Bargnani will hurt the Knicks on defense and rebounding. But Woodson has to hope Bargnani can learn to play with Anthony during Chandler's absence in a way that will help the team in the long haul.
"The beauty with Bargnani -- he might not be as quick and athletic as Tyson -- but he can also pick-and-roll and he can pick-and-pop," Woodson said. "We're going to have to utilize that. I'm going to have to grow his minutes. I've got to get him to 30 minutes-plus and see where we are with it."
Bargnani, who was slowed in training camp by back stiffness, is off to a slow start and has been booed at the Garden. He is averaging 8.8 points and 2.0 rebounds in 21.0 minutes.
"With Tyson being out, he's going to have to play some serious minutes now," Woodson said. "Hopefully, I'm sure his minutes will be productive. It's my job to make him productive."
When asked if he was ready for the challenge, Bargnani said. "Yeah. With Tyson being out, other guys are going to have to play some minutes at the five position. That's just the way it is when somebody goes down. I've got to be comfortable . . . That's what the team needs me to do."
Woodson said the Knicks will continue to shy away from overusing fragile veterans Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin, both of whom are on minutes and back-to-back-games restrictions.
"We're only four games in and I'm not going to sit here and say that their minutes are going to increase to 20-plus minutes," Woodson said. "That's not right for me to even begin to say that. If I can get them to 15 . . . hopefully that can help there a little bit, buy some time."
So who else is there if the Knicks need a big man to bang with San Antonio's Tim Duncan (Sunday) or Houston's Dwight Howard (next Thursday) or Indiana's Roy Hibbert (Nov. 20)?
Well, get ready for the Knicks debut of 6-11, 245-pound Cole Aldrich to give some fouls. And a lot of small-ball lineups and three-point attempts.
"Guys have to step up," Felton said. "We're going through a little slump right now. Whatever. Everybody's doing all this panicking: 'The Knicks is this. The Knicks is that.' It's early in the season, man. We haven't played five games yet. We're going to be fine."