Since 2014, the New York Knicks have been in search of a center. Since Tyson Chandler manned the position for years, the team has struggled to find a quality starter at center and it-along with many other problems-has greatly affected New York in the win column.
After an attempt to sign superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving went awry, the Knicks ended up adding several veteran free agents who have spent time at the center position, including Julius Randle, Taj Gibson and Bobby Portis in free agency. The Knicks invested $57.8 million this year alone in those players and forward Marcus Morris.
These decisions immediately received backlash for creating a lack of positional balance on the roster. As the Knicks look to right the ship after a 3-9 start, the crowded center position comes with many questions and very few solutions.
Mitchell Robinson has impressed at times with his otherworldly athleticism at the position. The sophomore center has shown modest improvement, continuing to develop as a shot blocker and low usage finisher at the rim. Robinson has proven to be a bit of an awkward fit with Julius Randle, though. There was hope that Randle's previous success as a passer would vibe well with Robinson's finishing ability, but the lack of spacing in New York's lineup has constricted their offense.
With Robinson in the middle, Randle has found a crowd of defenders waiting for him in the paint. So far, with the two together on the floor, the Knicks have been outscored by 22.4 points per 100 possessions in 107 minutes according to the NBA Stats page.
Randle has also been careless on many occasions, dribbling into a crowd of defenders on a regular basis. He's turned the ball over 49 times compared to 45 assists in 12 games. Randle's also attempting threes at a career-high rate (5.1 threes attempted per 100 possessions), but shooting a putrid 20.9 percent.
The Knicks should consider playing Randle at the center position more often and surrounding him with the few shooters the Knicks have for spurts of the game. According to Basketball Reference, Randle's only spent 11 percent of game action at the five. Randle has never played less than 26 percent of his minutes at center in his career prior to this season. Randle has the unique skill of rebounding the ball, and taking the ball coast to coast and starting his own personal fast breaks. His defense has never been a strong point of his game, but the Knicks need to consider speeding up the tempo to get into their offense quicker. New York is last in the NBA in offensive efficiency and 26th in pace.
Portis was brought in as the floor spacer of the group of bigs New York acquired but has struggled in the early stages of this season. Outside of a 10-14 explosion-that caused the Knicks crowd to go wild-in a win against the Chicago Bulls, Portis has shot 32-94 (34%) from the field and 6-26 (23%) from three. If Portis is not making shots, he has little value. His defense containing the pick and roll and protecting the rim have been major weaknesses throughout his career.
Gibson has provided some stability as a veteran presence in the Knicks locker room. The 34-year old has been New York's most steady defensive option at center, but he's not a long-term answer at the position. Gibson's best years are behind him, but he still has the ability to do the dirty work of setting screens and battling in the paint for rebounds.
At the heart of this conundrum is the front office, namely president of basketball operations Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry. The front office's decision to allocate their cap space in four frontcourt players that all share similar positions is preposterous to say the least. With numerous NBA teams choosing to downsize their frontcourts in favor of spacing and speed, the Knicks' choice to head in the opposite direction was puzzling.
The moves isolated on their own are one story, but the collection of these free agent signings severely limits the Knicks' ability to develop their frontcourt prospects. While the move to overpay mid-tier free agents on deals with team options were made with the focus on cap flexibility in the future, there is a transaction cost in signing all of these veterans.
Robinson can't fully explore and develop in his role as the Knicks' center of the future because of the need to fit in playing time for Portis and Gibson. The Knicks can't explore Kevin Knox at the power forward position where he can space the floor as a 44 percent three-point shooter. Those two players are major pieces of New York's frontcourt future, and the Knicks need to take the time to discover the positions and roles that allow both players to flourish.
Unless the Knicks accept their eventual fate as a franchise headed for the lottery once again, it's hard to cut the minutes of those veterans and drastically shift playing time to the younger players on the roster. While it is expected that the Knicks will find themselves still at the bottom of the standings in February, the team could possibly alter their priorities and sell off some of these frontcourt position players for assets or draft picks. Then, just maybe, the Knicks can refocus their priorities to player development.