New York Knicks: Solutions for their center problem(s)

Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Nerlens Noel, New York Knicks (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /
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Nerlens Noel, Knicks. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images) /

The Knicks need changes at center, now and moving forward.

For all the talk about the Knicks‘ starting point guard, one could make the argument that it’s really a non-issue: they have both the short-term answer (Rose) and potentially the long-term answer (Quickley) in uniform already. Throw in the cap space and intriguing draft prospects, and this seems like an easy fix.

The bigger problem lies at center. Yes, the Knicks have a young stud in Mitchell Robinson, but he’s still unavailable in the present (though getting closer?) and his future – only one year left on his deal – is up in the air.

His replacement, Nerlens Noel, has filled in admirably. I chose that word specifically because he was thrust into a role he’s not suited for and played well enough for the team to win games. Anyone who takes up a challenge like that and plays their heart out deserves admiration.

But admirably isn’t great. It’s more like serviceably. And serviceable is not what this team needs. Not now. Not next year. Not long-term.

It feels blasphemous to say, as he’s currently both a fan favorite and an analytics darling. In the interest of full transparency, here’s how he ranked league-wide in regular season defensive stats:

15th in Steal Percentage (2.3%)
3rd in Blocks Per Game (2.2)
3rd in Defensive Win Shares (3.6)
2nd in Defensive Rating (101.2)
2nd in Block Percentage (8.7%)
1st in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (3.5)

You see that and can’t help but be impressed. Like, why not bring him back?!? Mitch starts, Noel backs him up – we’re set!

But then you remember actually watching the games, and what you’ve seen is that in certain matchups, including the current series vs. the Hawks, Noel’s as ineffective at center as that former starter’s been at the point.

He’s a bad defensive rebounder – his aggressiveness blocking shots often takes him out of position; his bad hands result in failure to secure easy caroms; and frankly, he’s too weak physically to bang with centers that don’t stick figures.

That frailty also poses problems when trying to guard them one-on-one. Forgetting stars like Embiid and Jokic, this year he’s been dominated – whether for entire games or short stretches – by guys like Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, and Clint Capela, among others. If a strong center catches the ball anywhere near the basket, Noel stands zero chance.

And then there’s the other end. He sets good screens, finishes a lob once in a while, and makes his free throws, but that’s about it. Can’t catch. Can’t shoot. In some offenses, this would be enough; on this roster, it’s not even close.

I recognize this is a bit harsh, especially on the heels of a decent Game 3 performance, one of only a handful of Knicks to not play terribly. But it doesn’t change the facts that:

  • Despite all those impressive regular season analytics, the Knicks were 3.2 points worse (per 100) with Noel on the court vs. off.
  • In the playoffs, including his anomalous Game 3 performance (12 free throws?!?), the Knicks are MORE THAN TWENTY-SIX POINTS WORSE (per 100) with Noel on vs. off.

He’s borderline unplayable. The Hawks sport a 115.4 Offensive Rating when he’s on the court – just a tick under their Top-10 regular season number.  Even the thing he does best – blocking shots – has been neutralized by Atlanta’s gameplan.

He has two blocks in three games. Meanwhile, on the other end, the Knicks’ ORtg is 98.4 with Noel, significantly worse than the Thunder’s league-worst regular season output.

Couple all of this with the fact that he’s clearly not 100% healthy, and Thibs needs a new answer at center – and fast.

But I’ll take it a step further and say that Leon Rose also needs a new answer come summer because re-signing a guy (at more money, by the way) that can only thrive situationally is no way to build upon this year’s success.