Every year, teams are faced with personnel decisions that will affect how their season plays out. Who starts at each position? Who is relegated to the bench? Which player should be trusted in clutch time? The list goes on.
For the New York Knicks, one of the biggest questions going into the 2021-2022 season involves their big men. Who will be their starting/primary center? Even though you can’t totally leave out veteran Taj Gibson, this will primarily be a battle between Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson. Both players have proved their worth to this team and both are capable of taking that starting role. We’re going to take a look at the case for each of them, to see just what head coach Tom Thibodeau has to consider when making his decision.
But first, however…
Why Not Gibson?
It’s easy to dismiss Gibson because of his age. Of this trio, he is the oldest at 36 years old. However, with that age comes valuable experience. He has spent 12 seasons in the NBA so far, playing eight of those in Chicago and two of those in New York. For a team with a ton of youth, Gibson’s knowledge is certainly valuable.
But it’s not just knowledge that he provides. Last season, while averaging 20.8 minutes per game, he averaged 5.4 points per game, 1.1 blocks per game and 5.6 rebounds per game. His role was on the bench, with Noel getting most of the reps at center. With Robinson back in the mix this season, I don’t see Thibodeau changing his mind about Gibson. Besides, the last time Gibson played a full season was back in 2017-2018 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. That season, he averaged 33.2 MPG.
The Knicks still value Gibson and what he provides; they recently re-signed him to a two-year, $10.1 million deal this offseason. However, the general understanding is that he will nurture the other players and continue to be an option off the bench.
The Case for Noel
In November of last year, the 27-year-old signed with the Knicks as a free agent. It was a depth signing for the Knicks, who had trust in Robinson but understood the need for a solid backup. The signing proved its worth when Robinson picked up back-to-back injuries earlier this year. First, in February, he broke his hand and missed 15 games. Then, in his return game, he fractured his foot and was unavailable for the rest of the season.
In Robinson’s absence, Noel stepped up big-time. Averaging 24.2 MPG over the course of the season, he averaged 5.1 PPG, 6.4 RPG and 2.2 BPG–third in the league behind Rudy Gobert and Myles Turner. Additionally, he was the only player to average two blocks and one steal (1.1 SPG). Time and time again, he came in the clutch and he helped anchor a team defense that ranked fourth overall in the league with a 107.8 defensive rating.
Noel did what he was signed to do and then some, turning his initial one-year, $5 million contract into a three-year, $33 million contract. He will be sticking around for a while, which makes his duel with Robinson even more interesting. That being said, after stepping up to the starting role last season, Noel deserves another shot this season. Plus, Robinson will most likely have his minutes limited after returning from injury.
The Case Against Noel
Starting Noel at center, however, would most likely hinder Robinson’s growth as a player. At just 23 years old, he still has a lot to learn and improve on; most notably is his fouling tendencies and his physicality. By starting Noel at center, Thibodeau could make it that much more difficult for Robinson to get minutes and improve on his game.
Additionally, Robinson has shown better offensive numbers than Noel. This past season, despite missing plenty of time due to injury, Robinson had a higher PPG than Noel: 8.3 to 5.1. This stays true for the season before that–when Noel was still with the Oklahoma City Thunder. That season, Robinson averaged 9.7 PPG while Noel only averaged 7.4 PPG. Having Robinson on the bench would mean limiting his offensive contributions to the starting squad.
The Case for Robinson
After picking up consecutive injuries and being absent from his team’s miraculous (albeit ill-fated) playoff run, Robinson deserves to return to his starting role. He has waited a long time for this moment and has worked hard to be fit again–even bulking up in the process. There have been concerns about his physicality but hopefully, his new build will help.
Additionally, as I had mentioned before, Robinson offers more on offense than Noel. The Knicks could definitely use his offense this season, especially considering how they ranked in the bottom half of the league in most offensive categories. His ability to dominate in the paint, both on offense and defense, could prove crucial to the Knicks’ success this year. Last year, before succumbing to injury, Robinson was averaging 8.3 PPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.1 SPG and 8.1 RPG. Having more muscle mass should only help improve these numbers.
Lastly, Thibodeau would give Robinson a tremendous morale boost by starting him over Noel. It would signify that yes, despite missing plenty of time with injury, he is still this team’s go-to big man. Basketball is just as much mental as it is physical–just ask Kevin Love. Having a vote of confidence from your head coach after all this time would work wonders for Robinson in his comeback season.
The Case Against Robinson
Like with any player returning from injury, limitations are key. It’s important to gradually reintroduce them to the rigors of a full game/season instead of throwing them into the fire. Too much all at once could open the doors for more injuries or reaggravations of previous injuries.
This will almost certainly be the case for Robinson. Starting him could possibly mean disregarding these limitations. Thibodeau could always go the “starter on paper” route. In other words, he could consistently put Robinson in the starting lineup, but end up taking him out and giving most of the minutes to Noel. While Robinson would technically be the starter, I think it would hurt him mentally to be just that–a starter on paper.
Finally, as I also mentioned before, Noel deserves the chance to start based on how well he stepped up last year. Sure, he was rewarded with an extension but I think starting him would be a nice reward too. Plus, I think starting Noel would help Robinson ease back into the NBA and give him time to fully readjust.
Who Will Win?
With the regular season still in the distance, it’s way too soon to tell. However, it will be interesting to see what happens during the preseason. Who will Thibodeau go with? Who will start those games? How much will Thibodeau experiment and tinker with his lineups?
I personally think Noel will win the starting position and it will gradually move to Robinson. I think it’s still too soon to give the starting role back to Robinson after his injury. As he continues to improve, grow, and readjust to the NBA, however, things could change and I could see the roles reversing. Either way, with Noel staying for three more years and with the Knicks looking to lock up Robinson, this is an intriguing duel that will continue in the near future.
Buckle up, folks. The big men are here and they are ready to play.