Do the Knicks need a backup power forward?

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Josh Hart

Josh Hart / USA TODAY Sports/SNY Treated Image

After dealing Obi Toppin to the Indiana Pacers for two second round picks, the Knicks are thin at the power forward spot.

Julius Randle is the clear-cut starter, but after the two-time All-Star, the Knicks are likely to fill the spot in non-traditional ways.

The No. 1 option to handle the job is recent contract extension signee Josh Hart.

Historically a wing throughout his career, Hart is also a capable option at the four. According to Basketball Reference, 15 percent of Hart’s playing time was at the power forward position in 25 regular season games with the Knicks. It was the most he played at the position since the 2019-20 season (17 percent) with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Despite being listed at just 6-foot-5, Hart has been one of the better rebounding wings in the NBA. He has the highest rebound rate (12.4 percent) of any rotation player in the NBA under 6-foot-7, per NBA Stats.

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He’s also thrived at the four in minutes with Team USA during the FIBA tournament. He had 11- and 12-rebound performances in consecutive games against Greece and Jordan.

Having a bench lineup with Immanuel Quickley, Donte DiVincenzo, Hart and Isaiah Hartenstein alongside starter RJ Barrett is intriguing, but there are some qualms.

Having Hart, Barrett and Hartenstein on the floor together could lead to spacing problems in the halfcourt, which is a concern.

A career 35 percent three-point shooter, Hart’s outside shot comes and goes, and he’s been reluctant to launch at times during his career. It can be a problem because opposing teams often don’t respect him from the outside and will crowd the paint.

Where the bench unit can really make up for the lack of spacing is in transition. Hart’s ability to rebound, handle the ball and lead a fast break could be useful for New York in playing faster and picking up a few extra points in transition to offset the spacing concerns.

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That previously mentioned bench unit has four players capable of grabbing a board and bringing it up, which can be useful for getting into offensive sets quicker and attacking faster.

Mar 22, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) protects the basketball from Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin (16) during the first quarter at Miami-Dade Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; New York Knicks forward Julius Randle (30) protects the basketball from Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin (16) during the first quarter at Miami-Dade Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports / © Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Success hinges on Randle’s availability

The impact of not having a more traditionally sized power forward could become a problem, but it all depends on Randle’s availability.

For the most part, Randle has been healthy and available for the Knicks. He’s missed just 16 of a possible 220 games over the past three years. Randle also rarely rests, leading the NBA in minutes per game in 2020-21 and finishing in the top 20 in the category the past two years.

However, Randle is coming off of arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle that caused him to miss time in the playoffs. If he’s out while managing the previous surgery or due to an unforeseen injury, the Knicks have limited options to replace him.

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The other options would all be classified under “break glass in case of emergency.”

The Knicks can plug in third-string center Jericho Sims as a power forward next to Hartenstein. New York used that pairing for a month last season when Toppin was out with an injury. The Knicks were outscored by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in 128 minutes.

There’s also Isaiah Roby, who was signed toward the end of last year to a non-guaranteed contract, and Nathan Knight, who was added in the offseason on a two-way deal. But neither player is proven and it’s difficult to see head coach Tom Thibodeau relying on either during the regular season.

As Ian Begley pointed out last week, the Knicks have 14 players on traditional contracts, so the team can add another player at the four such as veterans T.J. Warren, JaMychal Green or Justise Winslow.

Avoiding the hard cap and keeping a roster spot open for flexibility later on in the season could be a preference for the Knicks, but Randle’s health could cause the club to act fast and find a suitable backup.

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