Mitchell Robinson was in the Knicks' starting lineup Friday night, a pleasant development after spending the previous three days listed as questionable. But it presented the Knicks with a continuing conundrum — how to mix three centers into two.
Coach Tom Thibodeau ideally wants to play two centers in a game, but when Robinson missed eight straight games — and was limited to less than 20 minutes when he was able to play — Isaiah Hartenstein’s chances grew and Jericho Sims got an opportunity. He might have played better than either of the other two centers.
So how to manage three into two?
“It’s game to game,” Thibodeau said. “It’ll sort itself out. I don’t think it’ll be like that every game. But I love the depth at that position. So all three guys are more than capable, all three can start, all three can come off the bench. It’s a good luxury to have."
There also is the matter of their place in the salary structure of the team. Robinson signed a four-year, $60 million contract in the summer and Hartenstein took the Knicks' two-year, $16 million deal to join the team. Sims, who was selected with the No. 58 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, signed a three-year, $5.6 million contract to remain with the team.
The three have different skills. Robinson is an elite rim protector and the best rebounder of the three but is limited offensively to the area around the basket. Hartenstein is the best playmaker, able to pass out of the high post, a skill that Thibodeau talked about in the preseason of being in the mold of Joakim Noah, but he has yet to find his place in the offense or defense the way he did with the Clippers last season. Sims is a wild card, unheralded but the most athletic — able to switch defensively even against point guards and a great leaper.
“I think all three are unique,” Thibodeau said. “We have the rim protection from all three. Their skill sets offensively are a little bit different. That can change things. So if you want to open up the floor, you can play Isaiah more. He sets up your cutting game. Pressure on the rim — Jericho and Mitch put enormous pressure on the rim. Whatever your strengths are, play to the your strengths, cover up your weaknesses, get out there and do your job. Anchor the defense, communicate, plays are in front of you, make sure you’re communicating and be multiple effort.”
“I think everything has been contributing,” Hartenstein said earlier this week. “Jericho is definitely an NBA player, and what he brought to the team especially, maybe when I wasn’t at full capacity, I think he did a good job of holding it down. Especially in Utah and all the other games. So I think he’s been doing [well]. And Mitch has been doing a good job, too.
“And for me it’s adjusting to a different role where it’s playing more like them, I guess. Not more of what I’m used to. That’s been a little more difficult. And so I’m just adjusting to more of a Mitch role, where I’m just rolling in the pick-and-roll. I want to do whatever the team needs to win. If that’s playing three bigs, if that’s playing small, I’m going to do whatever the team needs me to do to win.”
As Thibodeau noted, it will work itself out in some form, even if it means he can’t stick to only two centers in the rotation for now.
“I’m not ruling it out,” Thibodeau said. “The game unfolds and you don’t know — whether there’s foul trouble, there’s an injury, whatever it might be. Ideally you’re playing two.”