The Knicks have encountered a rare problem in today's NBA, and there's no easy fix

  • The New York Knicks have a logjam at center with four players vying for playing time.
  • Currently, only Enes Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn play, leaving Joakim Noah and Willy Hernangomez on the bench.
  • Going forward, the Knicks will either have to keep centres out of the rotation or find a trade to clear up playing time.

The New York Knicks have been one of the NBA’s surprise teams this season, jumping out to an 8-6 start behind some inspired play from Kristaps Porzingis and productive offseason pickups.

And while head coach Jeff Hornacek has thus far been pressing the right buttons for his team, he also has some difficult decisions to make for the big men on the team.

In an era when much of the league is going smaller, when it’s not unusual to see teams trot out a 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7 forward as the tallest player on the court, the Knicks have too many big men vying for playing time. Currently, the Knicks start the 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis at power forward and 7-foot Enes Kanter at center. Kyle O’Quinn has often been the lone big man off the bench.

The current rotation leaves out second-year center Willy Hernangomez, who has played just 65 minutes this season. Hernangomez had a productive rookie season that saw him average 8 points and 7 rebounds per game en route to making the All-Rookie First Team.

The rotation became even more crowded with the return of Joakim Noah, who spent the first 12 games of the season serving a suspension. Noah has yet to play in his two games back with the team, but Hornacek acknowledged on Wednesday that Noah will eventually want to play, despite accepting his current role.

“Jo’s a team guy. He wants us to win. He sees how they’re playing right now,” Hornacek said. “He doesn’t want to have to rock the boat but he is competitive and he wants to be out there to help us.” Hornacek said he would consider moving Noah off the inactive list and carrying four healthy centres on the roster.

The problem for Hornacek and the Knicks is mixing and matching the various skills of each center. Kanter and Hernangomez are somewhat similar players — strong offensive players in the post, good rebounders, with at times lackadaisical defence and rim protection. O’Quinn provides energy, playmaking, and occasional rim-protection off the bench. Noah struggled last season, his first season with the Knicks, but is a strong team defender and a good passer who could hit cutters and three-point shooters. None of these players are capable three-point shooters, making it nearly impossible to play any of them together.

All of this also ignores that the Knicks would benefit from playing Porzingis at center more, too. Porzingis has stated that he prefers playing the four, and his play so far this season gives the Knicks little reason to move him around too much. However, of Knicks lineups that have played over 10 minutes this season, the lone lineup with Porzingis at center has been their most effective, outscoring opponents by 23 points in 11 minutes. The next five-man unit featuring Porzingis at center has played just eight minutes together — and they outscored opponents by 10 points.

There’s no easy solution to this. At least one center is not going to play and they will simply have to accept their role. The Knicks could look to trade one of their centres — O’Quinn has been discussed in trade talks, according to ESPN’s Ian Begley, but the Knicks may not be high on trading one of their most effective players off the bench.

Noah and Kanter, with their $US55 and $US35 million remaining salaries, respectively, are unlikely to be attractive assets to other teams. The Knicks would be foolish to give up on a young, productive player like Hernangomez.

Furthermore, because of the small-ball era, few teams are looking for help at center, particularly if the players don’t offer three-point shooting or elite rim protection.

Hornacek’s rotation choices will remain fairly easy if the team keeps winning, but if the Knicks hit a rough patch, managing a rotation with four or five viable options at one position may become difficult.

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