Entering a key season for his financial future, mitchell robinson could hit 2022 NBA free agency as an unrestricted free agent. The New York Knicks had one opportunity to extend Robinson already — they could have declined his fourth-year option on his rookie contract and let him become a restricted free agent this past summer, allowing him to set a market and reach an extension that way.
But the Knicks instead opted to pick up Robinson’s fourth-year option, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. That said, all hope isn’t dead for Robinson to sign an extension and not hit the open market. He and the Knicks can come to an agreement anytime until the start of next year’s free agency. That said, those in the know don’t think that’s entirely likely, at least not in the near term. Per SNY’s Ian Begley:
The Knicks can offer Robinson an extension any time between now and the eve of free agency. The extension can be as long as four years and worth as much as $54 million in total. In the offseason, some with the Knicks had said the club was unlikely to agree with Robinson on an extension early in the season; they preferred to evaluate Robinson more fully during the season before deciding on a long-term approach, per SNY sources.
A defensive dynamo and an extraordinary lob threat on offense, Robinson has his limitations, but has been an overwhelming positive for the Knicks in his time with the club. If he returns from last season’s foot injury this year and manages to prove he’s healthy, the Knicks could face a franchise trajectory-altering decision if they decide not to extend him.
Per Basketball-Reference, the Knicks finished +3.7 and +5.9 points per 100 possessions better with Robinson on the court vs. when he was off. Last year, they finished -5.6 points per 100 with Robinson on the court, but those numbers are pretty easy to throw out considering Robinson was only healthy for the early part of the season, when the Knicks played roughly .500 basketball and hadn’t made their run at the end of the season — while the two samples from his first season had the minutes roughly split, the B-Ref sample for his third season took into account all of the games he wasn’t available, making the split 852 minutes on/2,638 off.
So in an attempt to create a more balanced picture of Robinson’s impact last year, the BBall Index Lineup Tool comes into play. Below are the Knicks’ potential starting lineups, subbing in Robinson, Nerlens Noel and Taj Gibson in the starting center spot:
First off, wow, the joys of having three defensive-minded centers on the roster. None of the three finished with less than a 94.2nd percentile outcome in Defensive LEBRON, BBall Index’s all-encompassing box score statistic. That means that basically, no matter who the Knicks start, they’ll have an anchor out there at the 5 to hold it down on defense.
What’s more interesting is the overall LEBRON numbers for the three, as well as the finishing at the rim. Robinson leads Noel and comes in just shy of Gibson in overall LEBRON, placing in the 76.4th percentile. Likewise, Robinson graded a good deal higher than Noel in finishing at the rim, ending in the 61st percentile. And while it’s awesome that Gibson is still grading out so high in advanced metrics at the ripe old age of 36, it’s probably for the best that he not be more than the second- or third-string center at this point from a minutes load perspective.
If you consult BBall Index’s Stable Scoring Impact tool, Robinson does even better for the 2019-20 season, in which he set the NBA record for field goal percentage:
You can pretty safely ignore everything up until those last few categories, but they’re very important ones. Mitch finished in the 78th percentile in cuts and dump-offs, 88th percentile in put-backs and a monstrous 97th percentile as a pick-and-roll roll man. His impact on defense is what draws the headlines, but compared to his contemporary on the Knicks — Noel — Robinson’s greatest strength is his vertical gravity going to the rim. There’s only a handful of players in the league that require the amount of defensive attention that Robinson does as a lob threat around the rim.
Another huge disparity between Robinson and Noel lies in their rebounding performance. Robinson took a leap last season as an elite rebounder. Don’t let the hard number of 8.1 rebounds in 27.1 minutes per game fool you — his impact was felt on the glass on both ends last season in a big way.
Take a look at a few useful metrics from BBall Index that illustrate Robinson’s prowess compared to Noel in contested offensive and defensive rebounds, as well as rebounding impact:
“Contested” rebounds are exactly what they sound like, a rebound where a player has to compete with another player for a rebound, rather than one that just happens to be in the right place at the right time. In those situations, it’s not even close between Robinson and Noel. And with Robinson reportedly putting on 20 lbs of muscle over the offseason, the disparity just figures to get bigger, because Noel is still basically built just as thin as the day he entered the league. Just for kicks, here’s Robinson’s numbers in those same categories against some of the more elite rebounders in the league:
All of this is to say, the case for retaining Robinson is pretty simple: He’s an elite defender, an elite finisher around the rim, and now an elite rebounder, all at the age of 23. Not retaining him means giving up on a young core piece that’s done nothing to suggest he’s worth giving up on, other than accrue a couple of freak injuries in his third season that kept him off the court.
The only thing that could stand in the way would be price. As noted in the Begley snippet above, the Knicks can offer Robinson as much as four years and $52 million on an extension. There are a couple of comparable players that used to occupy the Atlantic Division, and they might provide the blueprints for Robinson’s asking price, depending on how this season goes.
Jarrett Allen inked a five year, $100 million deal with Cleveland, in spite of their drafting Evan Mobley third overall in the 2021 Draft. Robert Williams re-signed with Boston for four years and $54 million. So even if Williams is considered the low end of a potential new Robinson contract scale, the Knicks’ maximum allowed amount wouldn’t quite be enough.
That could mean that Robinson hits unrestricted free agency and still signs with the Knicks. If the Knicks have been low-balling in contract negotiations, however, Robinson and his agent might walk into free agency looking to move on from the Knicks out of spite. Letting Robinson walk doesn’t make a ton of sense, because the Knicks don’t have a path towards high cap space next offseason anyway, and the free agent classes of the next few years are underwhelming. Plus, the en vogue strategy for star players to switch teams now seems to be requesting a trade rather than outright signing elsewhere, so why hoard the cap space if you’re the Knicks?
All of this is to say, Robinson is one of the most impactful big men in the NBA at only 23 years of age, and the Knicks should do whatever they can to keep him. Even at a salary of $20 million or so, Robinson will always be movable thanks to his prodigious gifts on the defensive end – which would make him a perfect salary and player to include in a deal for a mega star, should one become available. But who knows if they’d even want to trade a player whose advanced indicators suggest a Defensive Player of the Year award could potentially be in his future.