Knicks Mailbag: Will Mitchell Robinson come off the bench when he returns?

SNY's Ian Begley will be responding to and breaking down answers to Knicks questions from readers. Here's the latest...

Ian, I would love your thought on whether Mitch should start or come off the bench if IHart continues to play at this elite level. Thank you in advance - @RioEste_

Ian... does Robinson come off the bench? Knicks are flowing with this starting 5 - @Mattyfresh1004

This is the big question after Wednesday’s news that Mitchell Robinson may be back in time for the playoffs. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, Robinson will be a big addition for the Knicks. His paint defense, offensive rebounding and pick-and-roll defense are vital for the club. If he returns from ankle surgery late in the regular season, the Knicks would enter the postseason with the best center duo in the NBA. They would also have another elite defender alongside OG Anunoby.

But would they have a new starting center?

A lot can change between now and mid-April. But in this hypothetical, let’s say the Knicks’ starting five is playing well with Isaiah Hartenstein at center. It’s late-March. Robinson has been cleared to play.

I can’t see Tom Thibodeau inserting Robinson back into the starting lineup. The 26-year-old would need time to ramp up after a four-month layoff.

What happens when Robinson works his way back into game shape? Then Thibodeau would have an interesting decision to make.

In this hypothetical, I would assume that Thibodeau leaves Hartenstein as a starter.

He has been fantastic since Robinson suffered the ankle injury on Dec. 8, averaging eight points, 10.6 rebounds (3.9 offensive), 2.6 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.6 steals per game in that span. The Knicks are 10-6 since Robinson’s injury (entering Wednesday’s game vs. Dallas). They’ve won five straight since acquiring Anunoby in a late-December trade with Toronto.

If they continue to play near this level, I can’t see Thibodeau making a change.

Entering play Wednesday, the Knicks’ starting lineup of Anunoby, Hartenstein, Julius Randle, Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson is +36 in 84 minutes.

That unit has an offensive rating of 125 and a net rating of +20.3.

The starting lineup with Robinson was strong as well.

In 14 games, the lineup of Robinson, Quentin Grimes, RJ Barrett, Randle and Brunson was +26.

The lineup’s offensive rating was 111. Its net rating was +4.9. Strong numbers.

Strong enough for Thibodeau to change his starting lineup near the end of the regular season? I don’t think so. In the hypothetical above, I think Thibodeau would stick with Hartenstein as his starter.


Do you see a healthy Mitch as someone we potentially package in a trade? - @Cerse

Robinson is arguably the Knicks’ most valuable trade asset. He’s in the second year of a team-friendly contract. He’s young (26) and he’s shown steady improvement in important areas over his five NBA seasons.

As we noted on Wednesday, some opposing teams doing their homework ahead of the trade deadline wanted to know more about Robinson’s health. Those teams now have some information to work with. They also should be able to evaluate him in the postseason.

The Knicks, presumably, will want to re-sign Hartenstein. Based on how he’s played lately, he should earn a significant contract this summer.

How much money are the Knicks willing to commit to the center position?

That’s a question that factors in to the answer to @Cerse’s query.

It’s safe to assume that the Knicks would want to keep the Robinson-Hartenstein duo intact. But if they are talking to teams about a significant trade in the offseason, those teams are almost certainly going to ask about Robinson.

Marcus Smart for Fournier even semi realistic? - @BryanFields24

Bryan asked this before Smart went down with an injury. Even if healthy, I’d assume the Knicks would need to include a young player like Grimes and some draft capital to start a conversation on Smart.

Memphis traded Tyus Jones and two first-round picks to acquire Smart. So the Grizzlies would probably want significant assets back in any Smart deal. If he were healthy, would the Knicks covet Smart? I’d assume that Thibodeau would love to have him. Smart’s injury probably makes this a moot point.

As of late last week, some in the Knicks organization wanted to add front-court depth via trade. Others preferred a ball-handler/creator. New York obviously has some more time to evaluate the current roster before any decisions are made.

Ian, how does (the Taj Gibson waiver) affect the trade deadline for the Knicks? Does this indicate something is happening soon? - @cemtv_

This gives the Knicks an open roster spot. They can now take back an extra player via trade (ex: Knicks send out one player and receive two). The flexibility is always helpful. Also, after the waiver, we reported that the Knicks plan to be active ahead of the deadline. So, if anything, this move increases the odds that they make a trade.

Hey Ian, Brendan and Cp! if you were to make a bet, who would you say the Knicks will more than likely make a move for at the deadline? Brogdon, Murray etc? - @Kameel888

Hey Kameel, if I was going to bet, I’d bet on Brogdon over Murray. Murray will have plenty of suitors and will command a big return. A deal for Brogdon wouldn’t cost as much. Whatever happens at the deadline, I strongly believe that the Knicks want to have enough trade capital left over to make a run at a top player in the offseason. Who that player is depends, in part, on what happens in the postseason.

Will a star player be unhappy after an early-series flameout? Will that player demand a trade? Will a team like Minnesota decide it needs to go in a different direction for financial reasons? These are the things to keep an eye out for with respect to offseason moves.