You never wish for a player to get injured. It even feels cruel to say that there can be a silver lining. Shorthanded
So, to put it delicately, the New York Knicks have “learned a lot” about their squad as players have been sidelined.
Center Mitchell Robinson went down on February 12th after knocking into Julius Randle’s elbow and fracturing his hand. Robinson’s absence seemed like it’d be a crushing blow to the defensively minded Knicks.
Robinson averages 8.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per game. Usually no more, usually no less. He provides consistency and is an anchor on defensive and under the basket.
In Robinson’s absence, Nerlens Noel has been a pitch perfect replacement.
Since being added to the starting lineup, Noel is averaging 8 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. The Knicks are 6-2 in that span.
Noel is 4th in the league in blocks and is an absolute menace in the paint. The 26 year-old Noel looks rejuvenated. The Knicks are the former #6 overall pick’s 4th team in an injury plagued career.
While Robinson is more steady, Noel shows flashes of brilliance that puts the two on par defensively.
There’s no doubt that Robinson is a better offensive player. Mitch has a career FG% of 70.8 while Noel’s is 54.5. But the Knicks have been relying less and less on the Center position for scoring.
Also, both Robinson and Noel are irrelevant outside of the paint, so Noel does no more damage in terms of properly spacing the floor.
Nerlens Noel can be the starting center on a winning Knicks team.
This is not to say that the Knicks don’t need Mitchell Robinson. Backup Center Taj Gibson was recently sidelined with an ankle injury and may be out a couple of weeks.
Without making any additions to the roster, the Knicks will have two looks in their front court. Primarily, Julius Randle at Power Forward and Noel at Center. Noel’s racked up 40 and 41 minutes in his last two games.
While we’ve known Randle can handle himself at the five, it’s a good opportunity for Toppin and Knox.
Knox has only played a total of five minutes (all in garbage time) since Gibson went down. Coach Tom Thibideou even went with a nine man rotation against the Pistons, so Knox may still register DNP’s even as the Knicks play shorthanded.
Knox started off this year okay. He’s shooting 39.5% from the field and 38.8% from three. We really haven’t seen enough of him on the court with this Knicks squad.
Unfortunately with Toppin, we’ve seen plenty.
The former National College Player of the Year had a rough start to his career, missing three weeks with a calf strain. He has his moments, but looks lost on the court and is negligible on defense.
It’s harder to hide Toppin’s incompetence without a traditional big man beside him. Expect Thibideou to have a short leash with the rookie, perhaps staggering his minutes so that he’s usually on the floor with Noel.
The All Star Break is a good reset for Toppin. A win at the Slam Dunk Contest would give him the confidence boost he needs.
In the backcourt, starting Point Guard Elfrid Payton continues to sit with a hamstring injury.
Unsurprisingly, Knicks fans were clamoring for more Immanuel Quickly minutes.
But Thibiedou wisely gave Derrick Rose the starting job, and he looks brilliant for it. In the three games he’s started, Rose is averaging 16.3 points and 7.3 assists. The Knicks are +32 in that span when he is on the court.
Rose can create his own shot better than anyone on the team other than Julius Randle. On the season, Rose is averaging a career high 37.7% from three. On the Knicks, he is averaging 45.5% from three.
With Rose in the starting lineup, Quickly has been leading the second unit, playing alongside the red hot Alec Burks.
Quickly and Burks are shooting 38.4% and 41.4% from three, respectively. Quickly will continue to develop his ball handling skills and should look to improve upon his errand shot selection and fixation on getting to the foul line (although he is damn good at it).
Payton’s absence has also given Frank Ntilikina a chance to re-enter the rotation. And in his first three games back – he hasn’t looked half bad.
His jumper looks decent and he is still a lockdown defender. Against the Pacers on Saturday night he had a crucial steal with eight seconds left and made both of his free throws to clinch the victory for the Knicks.
Where does that leave Elfrid Payton?
Payton is averaging 12.4 points on 44.1% / 24.1% / 73.5% shooting. Clearly, his strength is as a perimeter defender. A strength that had kept him in the starting lineup for every game until his injury this season. In his absence? The Knicks are 3-0.
Obviously just because a team keeps winning in a player’s absence does not mean that player was never valuable to begin with. But with a team whose coach sticks to a strict 10 (or even 9) man rotation and who continues to look for an upgrade at the trading deadline, the Knicks need to decide who is essential.
While Mitchell Robinson should not be thrown on the trading block this week or even this season, perhaps he is not as indispensable as Knicks fans once thought.
And while Elfrid Payton is a coach’s favorite lockdown defender, the Knicks have a crowded backcourt even with Payton sidelined, as Austin Rivers continues to ride the bench and waits for a trade of his own.
Everyone’s a buyer this trade season, and it’s worth the Knicks gauging what they could get back for Payton and potentially flip for another piece. If there’s a deal to be made, we will find out. And if not, Rose and Quickly have it covered.
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