New York Knicks: A formidable two-headed monster at center

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images /

The New York Knicks will be hoping their new looking one-two punch at the center spot will help propel them up the standings this upcoming season.

The New York Knicks last made the postseason in 2013. Since then, they have had six head coaches, poor draft selections and a cavalcade of poor signings and overall front office decisions.

In Tom Thibodeau, their seventh hiring as coach since the Knicks lost in the second round to the Indiana Pacers, an emphasis on the defensive end of the floor has clearly become a priority. As a point of reference, here’s where the Knicks have finished in defensive rating since 2013:

  • 2013-14: 108.1 (24th)
  • 2014-15: 109.0 (28th)
  • 2015-16: 106.7 (18th)
  • 2016-17: 110.7 (25th)
  • 2017-18: 109.7 (22nd)
  • 2018-19: 112.9 (26th)
  • 2019-20: 112.4 (23rd)

Clearly, these numbers are abysmal and would make Thibodeau squirm if he were to break these down in any sort of detail. One bright, however, over the past couple of seasons at the defensive end has been the play of center Mitchell Robinson. A former second-round draft selection, Robinson has quickly become one of the elite shot blockers in the game. Averaging 2.2 blocks over his two seasons to date, Robinson’s combination of elite athleticism and a 7’4″ wingspan has meant he has already 20 games of at least four blocks in his 127 career games.

However, due to his extremely raw level of development, the 7-foot Robinson has often been plagued by early foul trouble. Through his initial two seasons in the league, Robinson has already had 26 occasions in which he has committed two or fouls in the first quarter of a game. Frustratingly for both the Knicks and Robinson, this has severely hampered the impact the Western Kentucky product has been able to have on games in the early going.

As a result, here’s a breakdown of Robinson’s minutes per quarter in 2019-20:

  • 1st quarter: 5.7
  • 2nd quarter: 5.2
  • 3rd quarter: 5.9
  • 4th quarter: 6.8

These returns mean that in each of his two seasons with the Knicks, Robinson has played his most minutes in the final quarter. In an attempt to counter this, the Knicks this offseason signed center Nerlens Noel to a one-year, $5 million deal.

A former No. 6 overall pick, Noel is now on his fourth team in five seasons, having spent the past two years with the OKC Thunder. At 6’10” and with a 7’4″ wingspan, Noel possesses many of the physical traits Robinson possesses and certainly plays in a similar manner. Among the 259 players in the league who played at least 50 games last season, Noel ranked the following on a per-36 minutes basis:

  • Deflections: 2nd (5.1)
  • Blocks: 7th (2.9)
  • Steals: 15th (1.9)

In his first head coaching role with the Chicago Bulls, Thibodeau assumed the No. 1 ranked defensive rating in his first two seasons at the helm, and second in his fourth season in the role. And while his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves proved to be far less successful, the personnel on hand with the Knicks certainly appears to be more to his liking.

Looking towards 2020-21, it’s reasonable to anticipate that Robinson will assume the starting center duties, with Noel providing the backup minutes. And although their offensive games are primarily restricted to lobs and dunks, the impact that Mitchell Robinson and Nerlens Noel have at the defensive will likely prove to be a decisive factor into just how far the New York Knicks can rise up the standings.

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