Knicks’ Isaiah Hartenstein best backup in the NBA

Knicks

New York doesn’t miss a beat whenever Hartenstein replaces Mitchell Robinson


The Knicks are trying to build some momentum heading into the holiday season to separate themselves from the Eastern Conference pack. If they are able to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season it will be the first time in a decade, making the Leon Rose era possibly the most successful era of the franchise over the past few decades.

There are plenty of commendable moves to cite here for the roster and culture he’s built in his three years, from committing to Julius Randle to acquiring Jalen Brunson in free agency. But perhaps not enough love for some of the smaller deals that have pieced this team together, like the signing of Isaiah Hartenstein in 2022.

After an unsuccessful season running it out with Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson in the backup five, New York gave Hartenstein a two-year, $16 million contract. He made more money in that time playing the best bench big man basketball in the league.

Hartenstein’s Knicks career got off to a shaky start, as he looked awkward in the offensive scheme and tentative around the rim on both ends. However, it became immediately clear how he would excel in the Tom Thibodeau system: by doing the dirty work.

He completely bought into the rim-protecting, rebound-chasing five roles that Thibs needed from their centers, and it made him a force to be reckoned with. Hartenstein finished sixth in offensive rebounding rate last season, averaging nine points and 11.9 rebounds per 36 minutes on 53.5 percent shooting.

Whenever Hartenstein replaced Mitchell Robinson, New York left no stone unturned defensively. The Knicks held opponents to 112.6 points per 100 possessions with Robinson and 110.2 points with Hartenstein.

This trend continues this season as well. Hartenstein is attacking the offensive glass with aggression, capturing 15.4 percent of offensive boards, which is good for third in the league.

The Knicks have actually been much better defensively with Hartenstein on the court, allowing 104.5 points per 100 possessions compared to Robinson’s 110.4. This is likely a result of who the two share time with, but still emphasizes the lack of drop-off between centres.

Hartenstein has stepped in in games where Robinson has struggled or got into foul trouble. In the home opener against Boston, Hartenstein played 25 minutes and went 3-for-4 with eight rebounds in a pointless effort.

The highlight of the season was his key role in a 21-point comeback win over the Miami Heat last week. His flying chasedown block in transition changed the momentum, and he did great work on Bam Adebayo for the remainder of the evening, giving the Knicks their signature win of the year.

He has become more comfortable in the flow of the offense, using his passing more in transition and for outlets in the halfcourt. He is developing chemistry with Josh Hart and Donte DiVincenzo, two of the team’s most prolific off-ball movers.

While Hartenstein may not have the individual talent displayed by some of the game’s other backup greats like Bobby Portis or Onyeka Okongwu, his acceptance of his role and the role within it makes him certainly just as impressive, if not more. Not much. That the Knicks can rely on their two centers to hold down their defense and outscore the competition is a huge advantage — one tied to building a surprising 2021 playoff team.

New York will want to maintain that gain and to do so they will have to re-sign Hartenstein this summer. His contract expires this season, giving him unrestricted free agency, and perhaps a bidding war would be enough for the Knicks to opt out.

There are teams that could offer Hartenstein a starting position with a starter salary, two things the Knicks can’t match. If that’s not the case, New York may be in a better position to keep their guy.

Whatever the outcome, fans should enjoy a Hartenstein show while they’re in town. Regardless of who grabs the headlines, this team wouldn’t be the same without him.

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