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NBA Daily: Fixing The New Orleans Pelicans

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the New Orleans Pelicans.

Ben Nadeau

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As franchises have been eliminated from postseason contention, Basketball Insiders started to diagnose their ailments and offer future plans of attack.

Unfortunately, it may take a whole lot more than that to fix the New Orleans Pelicans.

The Pelicans, who now find themselves in a unique circle of basketball misfortune, had a frustratingly inconsistent campaign further nosedived by a mid-season trade request from their superstar. After two weeks of will-they, won’t-they rumors with the Los Angeles Lakers, Anthony Davis was not moved at the deadline, ensuring that he’d awkwardly stay put until the summertime at the very least.

On top of Davis jumping in and out of the lineup post-All-Star break, Jrue Holiday recently underwent season-ending surgery, while Elfrid Payton and E’Twaun Moore have struggled to stay healthy all year as well.

Oh, and the Pelicans’ third-best asset is expected to hit unrestricted free agency to boot. So, without sounding too hyperbolic, this may just be the most important offseason in franchise history.

What Is Working?

All things considered, employing Anthony Davis was working out pretty well.

In 2017-18, the Pelicans won 48 games, Davis and Holiday were praised as defensive forces — and awarded as such — and then they went and swept the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Since then, anything that could go wrong has.

Davis, despite the media circus surrounding him since January, has tallied 25.9 points, 12 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. Before his abdominal strain, Holiday was averaging 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals on 47.2 percent from the floor. Even in the tough Western Conference, that’s a stellar way to kick off any competitive rotation. Plus their shrewd addition of Julius Randle — a career-best 21.2 points and 8.6 rebounds this season — gave the Pelicans plenty of worthy offensive pieces.

In fact, even today, New Orleans’ scoring acumen is not in question.

The Pelicans rank first in points in the paint (58.4), third in points per game (115.5), pace (103.9) and 11th in offensive rating (110.8). Simply put, those numbers are far too good for a team currently 13 games under .500.

And although the Pelicans aren’t often hailed for their development, they’ve succeeded with a small number of young assets. Christian Wood, picked up off the scrap heap this month, has averaged 18.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first three games with New Orleans — a keeper, in all likelihood. Jahlil Okafor — yes, that Okafor — has played well when given the opportunity and Frank Jackson remains promising at the age of 20. Still, Kenrich Williams, an undrafted free agent, has been the pièce de résistance.

Williams, 24, has been a much-welcomed boost to the rotation, even grabbing some extremely positive praise from Holiday in the process:

“A star, really. [Williams is] someone who can come out and fill up the stat sheet. Offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds . . . he can lock up your best player.”

Even if the Pelicans have to go full rebuild this offseason, they’ll be starting with at least Holiday and Williams — there are far worse fates to hold.

What Needs To Change?

Before hopping into the Davis-related debacle ahead, there are four other quick-hitter topics that the Pelicans must tackle this offseason:

1. Defense

Since Davis was drafted No. 1 overall, the Pelicans, surprisingly, have been a pretty poor overall team defensively — but, as of late, they had begun to turn the corner.

In chronological order from 2012, Davis’ rookie year, here’s New Orleans’ defensive rating by season: 28th, 27th, 23rd, 26th, 9th and 14th. Unfortunately, this season, that rating is back in the dumpster at 111.7 — good for 23rd-worst. Whether or not Davis sticks around, the Pelicans must focus on adding defensive-minded players in both the draft and free agency. In the Western Conference, they’ll continue to toil in mediocrity without an average unit to combat that great previously-mentioned offense of theirs.

2. Health

Of course, at the end of the day, this is hardly New Orleans’ fault.

But, to date, ahem, here’s how things shook out for the Pelicans on the missed games front:

Davis has been withheld from 21 games, followed on the superstar front by Holiday at 10. Trailing that dynamic duo, Elfrid Payton, freshly signed, has lost 40 games to injury, while E’Twaun Moore lost 24. Even the blossoming Randle sat for seven games himself. Before he was traded to Milwaukee at the trade deadline, the chronically-injured Nikola Mirotic — and the team’s most reliable stretch four option — had missed 23 games.

Perhaps next year, the basketball gods won’t frown upon the Pelicans so harshly — fingers crossed.

3. Three-Point Shooting

Speaking of long-range efforts, New Orleans finds themselves cemented firmly in the basement here as well.

This campaign, the Pelicans have connected on just 10.2 three-pointers per game at a 34.4 percent clip, numbers that rank them 22nd and 25th in the NBA. New Orleans’ lone player to average over two three-pointers per game, Mirotic at 2.7, was traded last month. Darius Miller has posted back-to-back strong seasons from deep, but that’s practically all he offers on the offensive end.

Holiday has hit a career-best 1.8 three-pointers per game on a career-low 32.5 percent, which basically sums this all up. Moore is an above average shooter — 43.2 percent in 2018-19 — but his injuries have kept him from contributing to that nightly total. Of the eight teams that have made fewer three-pointers per game than New Orleans, only three of them will reach the postseason — the Spurs, Clippers and Pacers.

On the flip side, that trio of teams also convert at the first-, second- and fifth-highest percentages from deep this season, respectively — so, basically, a monumental trade-off that the Pelicans just cannot match in either direction. The modern landscape dictates a need for multiple high-volume or high-percentage three-point shooters and New Orleans barely claims one at this point in time.

4. Depth

Then there’s the lingering depth issue that has plagued New Orleans time and time again. Remember the Pelicans’ second-best points per game number? The starters have accounted for 82.3 of their 115.5 points, or, in other words, a whopping 71.2 percent of their per game total. Presently, New Orleans’ bench notches the seventh-lowest average in 2018-19 so far, which isn’t inherently a problem as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Golden State, Oklahoma City, etc, all thrive without one.

But those bottom-ranking bench squads typically boast multiple future Hall of Famers or elite defensive units to help counterbalance that effect — something, again, that New Orleans certainly lacks. When Davis is dealt, the Pelicans must round out the rotation and find the depth they’ve been missing.

The Anthony Davis Part

At long last, here’s the most simple, crucial and difficult portion of New Orleans’ entire offseason: Moving on from Davis.

It’s hard to believe that the Pelicans’ franchise leader in points, rebounds and blocks is the major piece that needs to change this summer — but the last few months have been anything but normal in the Big Easy.

Davis’ late January request to be traded — to his credit, he’s been willing to continue playing — fractured a unique, unhealable bond. Rehashing the numerous public negotiations made with Los Angeles now seems fruitless — now his departure is not a matter of if, but when.

Disastrously, since the trade deadline, the situation has somehow become even trickier. Brandon Ingram, the Lakers’ best and leading asset in their offers, was diagnosed with deep venous thrombosis and underwent season-ending surgery. Lonzo Ball, talented as he may be, has been shut down due to lingering injuries in both of his professional campaigns so far.

If the Pelicans held out in hopes of Jayson Tatum’s eventual availability, that itself is far from guaranteed with so much hanging on Kyrie Irving’s upcoming trip to free agency. Should the Lakers’ offer look less intriguing than it once did, that leaves immense pressure to broker a deal with Boston. But given general manager Danny Ainge’s usual stinginess, the Celtics will definitely flinch at moving a trove of assets for a potential one-year rental  — especially one that has all but confirmed he wants to team up with LeBron James.

The threat of Davis leaving in 2020 for Los Angeles will dampen every single trade offer that New Orleans receives this summer — a real Sophie’s Choice of bland blockbuster returns. As always, the Pelicans could force Davis to sit out the remainder of his contract but losing their once-in-a-generation star for nothing would be a massive blow to one of the already lowest-attended franchises in the league.

When Davis is inevitably traded this summer, they’ll hope to recoup even half of his value — a goal that seems lofty as of now — but even snagging a few quality pieces like Kyle Kuzma or Jaylen Brown and a future draft pick remain an absolute must.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Outside of the Davis hubbub, the currently general manager-less Pelicans will have loads of decisions to make in July.

Of note, Holiday is locked into a deal valued at about $26 million until at least 2020-21 and Solomon Hill has one more season left at a hefty $13.2 million. But other than that, the Pelicans will have some money to spend if they’d like to.

The ever-blossoming Randle can opt out and become an unrestricted free agent — so when Davis goes, throwing near-max money at the power forward would be a suitable option. If losing the franchise cornerstone seems unavoidable, New Orleans might already have their everyday usage replacement on the roster.

Elsewhere, the perpetually confounding Stanley Johnson, has labored since his arrival in February — but can the Pelicans really afford to let a cheap lottery selection leave in RFA? Okafor has an intriguing team option at just $1.7 million but he hasn’t played 25-plus minutes in a game since early last month.

Presumably, Christian Wood, Kenrich Williams and Frank Jackson will all return for another season on reasonable, cost-effective deals.

Nevertheless, the case of Elfrid Payton is sure to give the new general manager some restless nights as an added bonus. On a one-year deal at $3 million, he’s spent most of the season dealing with various ailments… but when Payton takes the floor, he’s been mostly excellent. The point guard’s 5.4 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game are career-highs and he recently posted five-straight triple-doubles — yup, that’s not a typo. In doing so, Payton joined Russell Westbrook, Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history to log such a feat.

That’s not bad company to keep heading into free agency.

Frankly, Davis’ exodus will likely cause a full rebuild around Holiday so the Pelicans should avoid any messy, quick-fix deals this offseason. But here’s the rub, a foundation of Holiday, Williams, Wood, Jackson (plus potentially Randle and/or Payton), their rising 2019 first-rounder and whatever they pry away in a presumed Davis deal would be far from a nightmare start to this multi-year operation.

Focus Area: The Draft

Considering that aforementioned leaping off point, New Orleans should just select the best player available in June. At 32-45, the Pelicans hold basketball’s ninth-worst record and a 20.3 percent chance of jumping into the top four during the NBA Draft Lottery. With five games remaining, they also have decent odds of skipping past Washington and Memphis for slightly more ping pong balls — but, all that said, the Pelicans will add a quality asset no matter where they pick.

Bruno Fernando, who averaged 13.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game for Maryland this year, could be a solid rim-protecting asset to pair in the frontcourt with a re-signed Randle. Inversely, versatile prospects like Rui Hachimura or De’Andre Hunter would shore up New Orleans’ perimeter defense if that’s the path they choose to head down.

Or, if they wanted to pair Holiday with Jarrett Culver — the outstanding sophomore that currently has No. 3-seeded Texas Tech in the Elite Eight — that’d be a selection worth celebrating. Assuming that New Orleans is above to dive headlong into their next era, their decision remains looming. Sure, any incoming Davis package would influence these proceedings — e.g., drafting a power forward if the Celtics finally pony up Tatum would be silly — but it’s far too early to tell on that front.

However, the Pelicans could kill two birds with one stone by adding a defensive-oriented three-point shooter. Today, the aforementioned Hunter fits that bill to a tee.

Given their current state of affairs, predicting anything Pelicans-related may amount to a fool’s errand — as of now, we’re all just waiting for the first domino to fall. The future direction of this franchise — from their role in free agency to their draft day targets — will depend on how the Davis situation unfolds. But since any Celtics-centered deal theoretically hinges on Irving’s return to Boston, this saga could very well bleed into July.

Big money moves aside, New Orleans’ front office has been tasked with some weighty decisions this summertime — ultimately, choosing the right ones will shape this organization for years to come.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?

Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.

Drew Maresca

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This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.

As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.

And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.

Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s  Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.

Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.

At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.

While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.

In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.

But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.

Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)

A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.

First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?

When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.

Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.

Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.

Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.

And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest.  And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.

But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.

And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.

Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.

So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.

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NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch

It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?

Dylan Thayer

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The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.

As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.

1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)

The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.

Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.

Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.

Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.

2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)

Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.

Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol. 

If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?

3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)

If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.

Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.

While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.

4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)

The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball. 

But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game. 

If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it. 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)

The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable. 

Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15. 

While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.

Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)

The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.

As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.

Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.

Drew Maresca

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The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.

The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.

Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.

As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)

But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?

The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.

The timing of the injury is apropos.

The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.

Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.

A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.

Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.

But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.

Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.

But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).

And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.

Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.

Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.

Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.

The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.

So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.

The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.

And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.

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