July 22, 2024

As NBA free-agent market dwindles, which center could the Knicks target?

The New York Knicks need another center, and options are thinning.

Mitchell Robinson will start, but who backs him up? With Isaiah Hartenstein departing for Oklahoma City, let’s run through the list of candidates.

Free agents Moe Wagner, Goga Bitadze and Jonas Valančiūnas, and others are now off the board. Those three scaled out of New York’s price range, anyway. The Knicks, who still employ Jericho Sims behind Robinson, don’t have many resources to acquire someone new.

If they execute the Mikal Bridges trade as currently constructed, sending Bojan Bogdanović and draft picks to the Brooklyn Nets for the 27-year-old wing, they will be hard-capped at the first apron, of which they are only $5 million short. Chances are the Knicks will find a way to revise the trade, which is not yet finalized, sending out more money than they take in and thus hard-capping themselves at the second apron, giving the team an extra $11 million of wiggle room.

The Knicks could then use the $5.17 million taxpayer midlevel exception to sign someone. They could bring back their own free agents too.

At the moment, one player who already knows this group could be the favorite to enter next season as New York’s backup center.

Precious Achiuwa remains an unrestricted free agent, and the organization has left open the possibility of bringing him back, according to a league source. Achiuwa grew into a favorite of head coach Tom Thibodeau’s after arriving from the Toronto Raptors in December. He might not be the conventional shot blocker Thibodeau prefers in the middle of his defense, but the Knicks could send Achiuwa to the perimeter, using him in more switch-happy strategies than they would with their other big men. Thibodeau’s ethos is rim protection, but if the team can’t find a 7-footer to anchor its defense, he’ll deploy other blueprints. Both Achiuwa and Sims will venture out of the paint to guard.

If the Knicks brought back Achiuwa on a modest contract, they could slot the stretchy, 6-foot-8 New Yorker behind Robinson. If Robinson were to miss time, a possibility considering he’s played more than 66 games only once in his six-year career, Thibodeau would have to go small.

Beyond Achiuwa, not many viable free agents remain. Daniel Theis is teamless, as is Thomas Bryant, but neither is a shot blocker. JaVale McGee is unsigned but is on the back end of his career. The Philadelphia 76ers could move on from Paul Reed, cutting him to create the cap space to sign a non-big after they’ve already acquired Andre Drummond, who will back up Joel Embiid. But they could hold onto Reed too. His contract doesn’t guarantee until January, and a $7.7 million salary could give Philadelphia a trade asset to use in-season.

The trade market presents more enticing options for the Knicks, though with punitive rules from the new collective bargaining agreement phasing in, trades are not as simple as they once were — especially for a team like this one.

The Knicks won’t revise the Bridges trade just to avoid a hard cap at the first apron only to swing another trade that hard caps them at the same spot. And remember, any team that brings in more salary than it’s sending out in a trade hard caps itself at the first apron, which New York is pressing up against at the moment.

The finances make trading for a larger salary more complicated.

The Atlanta Hawks seem to have one too many big men after trading for Larry Nance Jr. and holding onto Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela in the process, but Capela makes $22.3 million this season. That means for the Knicks to get in on him, they’d need to include at least one important rotation player. The only trade-eligible Knicks who make more than Capela this season would be off the table in a trade for him: Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson and Bridges. Nikola Vučević, an offensive-slanted big man, makes a similar amount and does not fit the model of player the Knicks would want.

Players with salaries a step down from that range would be complicated to acquire.

The Portland Trail Blazers are overflowing with centers and employ Robert Williams III on a $12.4 million salary. If he played 82 games, he’d be an ideal fit with the Knicks, flying in from weak sides to block shots and facilitating from the elbows in a way that could fill in for some of what they will miss with Hartenstein gone. But there are worries that Williams, who hasn’t played since November, won’t be ready for the start of next season.

Robert Williams III missed most of last season due to injury. (Tim Nwachukwu / Getty Images)

For the Knicks to top his salary, they would need to include Donte DiVincenzo or Josh Hart in a deal, which does not seem realistic. They could flip Robinson, but that would still leave the roster without a backup center and with a starter who has injury concerns.

A similar story could be told about any hypothetical effort to acquire Wendell Carter Jr. from the Orlando Magic, who are overloaded with bigs. Carter makes $12 million next season.

The Detroit Pistons will pick up if you call them about Isaiah Stewart, whose four-year, $64 million extension kicks in this season. But like with Williams and Carter, it would take the Knicks parting with a valuable rotation player to acquire him. And while Stewart plays hard, is physical and played out of position for much of last season, New York may not want to give up core pieces for him.

The same goes for Richaun Holmes, who just extended with the Washington Wizards on a contract that makes him a more viable trade candidate in general — but probably not for the Knicks.

Cheaper centers make the most sense.

Maybe the Knicks find a way to negotiate Brooklyn’s Day’Ron Sharpe, sneakily one of the league’s best rebounders, into the Bridges trade, though that would require adding on even more salary.

They could call the Dallas Mavericks, who are now rolling with Dereck Lively II and Daniel Gafford, about Dwight Powell or the Charlotte Hornets about Nick Richards, a promising, wiry big man who makes $5 million this season. But sending out more money than they are taking back (while also doing so in the Bridges deal) could require trading Miles McBride, who is too good (and on too team-friendly a contract) to give up for someone like Richards.

The Knicks could try to maneuver a sign-and-trade, using their own free agents, Achiuwa or Alec Burks, to send out salary without taking any back, but that move is easier said than done. The other team — for example, the Hornets — would have to want either of those players on at least a three-year contract, the minimum contract length for a player acquired in a sign-and-trade. Charlotte could non-guarantee the final two seasons of the deal, but players have to agree to this too. Would, say, Burks approve of such a team-friendly structure?

New York could hit the Blazers up about another one of their centers: Duop Reath, a second-year big man who makes $2 million. Reath can stretch to the 3-point arc, but it’s also not clear if he’s ready for a consistent role on a title contender. Might the Knicks prefer Achiuwa, whom they already know fits their culture and system — and whom they wouldn’t have to give anything up to acquire?

They could ring the Thunder to ask about Jaylin Williams, who could be out of OKC’s rotation now that Hartenstein is in town. Williams isn’t a typical Thibodeau big; he’s so far from a rim protector that he doesn’t even soar to block shots at the rim, instead defaulting to enthusiastic charge-taking. But he plays with energy and has some ball skills. The Knicks could sign one of their 2024 second-round picks to a four-year, second-round exception contract, which starts at $2.1 million, only $70,000 above Williams’ salary for next season, then deal him along with draft capital to Oklahoma City, which is a common trade partner of the current Knicks front office.

They could check in on the Utah Jazz’s Walker Kessler, a 23-year-old behemoth who is already one of the league’s top rim protectors. Utah has already acquired two other bigs this summer, drafting Kyle Filipowski and signing Drew Eubanks. Even as the Jazz tanked down the stretch of this past season, they started John Collins over Kessler. But that doesn’t mean they would just give an up-and-comer away.

Kessler has two years remaining on his rookie-scale contract, which pays him $3 million in 2024-25. The timing would match up well for the Knicks, who could let Robinson, who also has two years until free agency, walk once Kessler commands a raise. The Jazz expressed they were open to moving Kessler leading into the draft, according to rival front-office sources in contact with them. Utah was after a top-10 draft pick in exchange, and it wasn’t clear if even that would be enough to get a deal done.

The Knicks could offer McBride and the Pistons’ 2025 first-rounder for Kessler. They could throw in a first-round swap too. But would that be enough to get the Jazz to bite? After all, it’s not like Utah has to trade Kessler, who has as many as seven more years of team control ahead of him. McBride’s three-year, $13 million contract is a steal, but it’s more attractive to a contender like the Knicks than a group starting over like the Jazz. By the time Utah is competitive again, McBride would be ready to hit unrestricted free agency.

And from the Knicks’ perspective, would they even want to offer so much?

Walker Kessler has two years left on his deal. (David Berding / Getty Images)

This next trade, if it were to happen, would be the Knicks’ last for a while. They are strapped after the Bridges deal, left without any unprotected first-rounders to send out and only a couple of first-round swaps. All the pre-prime players, other than McBride, are gone.

They have the Pistons’ protected 2025 first-round pick, a 2025 Wizards first-rounder that will probably never convey and swaps in 2026 (which may not be so valuable, since chances are the Knicks will be contenders once again a year from now) and 2030 … and that’s it. Otherwise, they are trading contributors from their rotation.

If the Knicks execute a deal for a center now and unexpected flaws presented themselves during the regular season, they would have no viable way to improve before the deadline. They may want to keep their powder dry because of that.

Of course, acquiring someone like Kessler would not be just a short-term move, considering his age, his archetype (he is the ideal Thibodeau center) and his contract.

The status quo, however, could remain.

If the Knicks execute the Bridges trade in a way that does not hard cap them at the first apron, they would have enough room to bring back Achiuwa. They could retain Alec Burks, another unrestricted free agent. And they could get creative with who plays behind Robinson.

They could deploy a frontcourt of Aunoby, Bridges and Randle, when necessary. Thibodeau has often sprinted away from lineups that place Randle at the five, but he’s also been more willing to go small while Anunoby is on the court, most notably during Game 4 of April’s first-round series against the Sixers, when the Knicks had neither Hartenstein nor Robinson. Thibodeau closed with Achiuwa at the five — though he wasn’t really playing center. Instead, he guarded the perimeter as Anunoby, a wing who can defend anyone, manned former MVP and current giant Joel Embiid.

The Knicks could try those tactics with their second unit during the regular season, using Anunoby to guard bigs, a strategy they could be even more inclined to dig into with Bridges, another wing stopper, in the mix.

But they could still use a physical presence down low, either because it’s how they play or because they need insurance for Robinson.

Now, they just have to find someone.

(Top photo of Clint Capela and Isaiah Stewart: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)