Knicks center Mitchell Robinson at Madison Square Garden on Saturday,...

Knicks center Mitchell Robinson at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, April 2, 2022. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

As NBA free agency begins Thursday, the focus around the Knicks has been on talent acquisition. But Leon Rose and his front office have had to keep one eye firmly on their own free agent, Mitchell Robinson.

Robinson has been an oddity since he arrived in New York, an athletic big man who the previous front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry selected in the second round of the 2018 draft after he’d bypassed college. With that, the Knicks were able to sign him to a four-year, $6.4 million deal. After an injury-plagued third season, the Knicks picked up a $1.8 million option for last season, passing on a chance to negotiate a contract extension while Robinson headed to unrestricted free agency this summer.

Now, Robinson enters the market and the Knicks need to find a way to come to terms with the defensive anchor of Tom Thibodeau’s team. He has his limitations as a player — his range offensively remains only as far as his arm can reach the rim despite years of teasing a more complete package in practices and Instagram videos. But he has grown from a shy small-town product to a gregarious locker room presence off the court, and on it he has turned from a foul-prone shot-blocker who went after every ball he could reach to a smart rim protector.

There are other teams believed to have interest in Robinson, including Detroit and Dallas — although for Detroit, Robinson is now likely far down the list behind DeAndre Ayton with the Pistons holding approximately $40 million in salary-cap room. The Mavericks are capped out and with just the $6.5 million mid-level tax exception available would need to negotiate a sign-and-trade — problematic after some reported animosity between the teams after Knicks executive VP William Wesley sat in the front row for a playoff game amid rumors of the team’s interest in Jalen Brunson. Houston and Memphis have a $10.5 midlevel exception available and could be fits.

The Knicks had the ability to offer Robinson a four-year extension up to as much as $54 million — and still do until the time he enters free agency Thursday. But the two sides have been believed to not be close to an agreement. Now, the market will set the price and the Knicks have to decide if they are willing to pay it. And the Knicks find themselves with few options, trying to unload the remaining guaranteed year at $9.2 million owed to Nerlens Noel and failing to find a replacement for Robinson in the draft. The Knicks are left with Jericho Sims and likely Taj Gibson as centers (they could waive Gibson, taking the non-guaranteed $5.2 million off their cap and then bring him back).

The extension center Robert Williams III signed with Boston for four years and a guaranteed $48 million, with an additional $6 million in incentives, is viewed by executives from other teams as a fair comparable for Robinson. Clint Capela, another defensive specialist, signed a two-year, $46 million extension with Atlanta last year, tacking that onto the remaining two years of his deal.

While sources indicated the Knicks have been open to keeping Robinson, there has been a limit on what they would want to pay him.  Williams contract is likely the range they would like to land on.

Robinson played only 31 games in the 2020-21 season, suffering a broken hand and then a broken bone in his foot. The foot injury limited his ability to run in the offseason and limited him to upper-body weight training. He came back stronger but also not in the usual condition he had been as a tireless, athletic defender. While he does not have the ability to shoot from the perimeter, what he does he does well. He established the single-season NBA record for field-goal percentage at 74.2% in 2019-20 with his assortment of lob dunks and follow tip-ins.

He played a career-high 72 games last season, but it took him much of the season to get back into the shape he normally played at before sitting out the final three games of the season. Noel, who had excelled in 2020-21 with Robinson out much of the year, played 25 games this past season. The Knicks have investigated ways to clear Noel’s contract to create more cap room, likely needing to attach a draft pick to have a team absorb the $9.2 million.