The Knicks withstood the loss of Mitchell Robinson in the second half of the regular season, but they certainly could have used the high-flying rim protector during their five-game loss to the Hawks in the first round of the playoffs.
The 7-foot-1 center underwent surgery in late March to repair a broken bone in his right foot, suffered in his fourth game back in the lineup after also having a procedure done on a broken bone in his right hand in mid-February.
Robinson’s long-term future with the Knicks remains in flux, although picking up his reasonable $1.8 million team option appears to be an easy decision, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022 if an extension cannot be reached in the interim with new agent Thad Foucher.
If the option is not exercised, Robinson would become a restricted free agent in August, with the Knicks having the right to match any offer.
Knicks president Leon Rose’s decision on Robinson likely will affect the team’s plans for either or both of their pending free-agent centers, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson.
Noel was hampered by an ankle injury suffered in Game 1 against the Hawks, relinquishing the starting job to Gibson, a longtime Tom Thibodeau favorite from their previous seasons together in Chicago and Minnesota.
With Robinson sidelined, Noel finished second in the NBA behind Utah’s Rudy Gobert with 2.2 blocked shots per game, despite averaging just 24.2 minutes per appearance. The former lottery pick out of Kentucky (sixth overall in 2013) ended up being a bargain on a one-year, $5 million deal. But the Knicks don’t control his early-Bird rights and likely would have to cut into their projected $60 million in cap space to re-sign him.
Gibson will turn 36 later this month, but the Brooklyn product likely would come cheaper than Noel as Robinson’s backup and mentor.
The 23-year-old Robinson was not on the bench during Wednesday’s elimination game, although he was at the Garden receiving treatment. He also did not travel with the Knicks to Atlanta for Games 3 and 4, avoiding flying and remaining in New York to work out.
Robinson has not been made available to the media since before his latest injury, but he posted to his Instagram account on Tuesday that he was “missing the fight” with his teammates, along with a prayer emoji. Three weeks ago, he also posted a photo of him putting up shots at the Knicks practice facility with the quote “Soldier mentality.”
Interestingly, former Knicks coach David Fizdale compared Robinson favorably during his rookie season in 2018-19 to center Clint Capela, then with the Rockets. Capela was a key to the Hawks’ five-game victory, vowing to send the Knicks “on vacation” and backing it up with a 14-point, 15-rebound performance in Wednesday’s clincher.
Robinson made 29 starts in 31 appearances this season, registering 8.3 points and a career-best 8.1 rebounds, with 1.5 blocks per game.
Most of his shot attempts still come on dunks and put-backs, but his .653 shooting percentage would have ranked Robinson second in the league behind Gobert if he’d played enough games this season to qualify. The former second-round pick set an NBA record with a .742 field-goal percentage in 2019-20, his second season in the league.