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New York Knicks Veteran Center Proving Crucial Amid Key Defensive Absences

Taj Gibson has been holding it down as a defensive big man for the New York Knicks, which is quite fortunate as their centers Nerlens Noel and Mitchell Robinson cannot stay healthy.

At 36, Gibson is still very capable of delivering on the defensive end, with Monday night’s win against the Indiana Pacers the latest example. Noel has been struggling with a sprained knee and is set to miss a fourth straight game while Robinson aggravated an already troublesome ankle in the third quarter of said game. Gibson was called upon to step in and would provide a timely boost as the Knicks limited Indiana to just 10 points in the fourth period. 

Tom Thibodeau knows exactly what he’s got in Gibson, who might turn out to be of significant importance should Noel and Robinson remain out for extended periods. The veteran scored two points and didn’t have a field goal but his impact won’t show up on paper except for the fact that the team was a plus-22 in the 28 minutes he played.

“Wearing New York across your chest is enough,’’ the former Chicago Bulls big man said after the 92-84 win, one in which the Knicks had to come from behind. “Just going out there trying to just play hard, understanding the ups and downs of the season. A lot of teams are going through the highs and lows and right now, we were in a rut. Just trying to just make a difference. I knew it was gonna be a tough game, knowing how we’ve been laying eggs at home. I’ve been in the league for a long time now, so just trusting my instincts.’’

taj gibson knicks
Credit: NBAE via Getty Images

New York Knicks Frontcourt Issues

The Knicks aren’t quite strong at center this season. Robinson is still striving for game fitness and was certainly not himself against the Charlotte Hornets on Saturday. He was of little use on Monday, going 1-of-2, and was a minus-14 in his 15 minutes.

He simply hasn’t been the rim protector and alley-oop highlight reel from his first three seasons. Thibodeau has suggested the injury isn’t a very serious one.

“We’ll see where he’s at,’’ the head coach said. “Don’t think it’s serious.’’

Noel, meanwhile, hasn’t been a consistent presence for the Knicks as a backup center. Monday’s absence was the third straight for this spell and he’s only been around for 3.5 games out of the 14 New York has suited up for so far. He suffered from hamstring and knee issues in preseason and did not play then; he’s dealing with a sprained knee at the moment.

Robinson hasn’t played extensive minutes as he’s still affected by a broken foot suffered in March.

“He’s still working his way through it,’’ Thibodeau said. “Obviously he was out a long period of time. He’s a work in progress in terms of conditioning. He’s banged up a little bit. That’s all normal. If you’re a pro athlete, that’s what happens.’’ 

The player has also put on some muscle, which could limit his mobility, though he should be stronger for it. This is hopeful his conditioning will improve. The Knicks’ chances in the East should also improve when Robinson is fully healthy and the betting markets should also reflect this.

“We monitor that pretty closely,’’ the coach explained. “As he’s allowed to do more running and conditioning I think that’ll improve as we go.’’ 

Noel, who had an injury-filled start to life as an NBA pro, is back to being a regular absentee after signing a three-year deal to the tune of $32 million.

Nerlens Noel Lawsuit

He is currently embroiled in legal issues with agent Rich Paul, having filed a lawsuit that accuses Paul of causing him to lose around $58 million in potential earnings. Paul has since filed a motion to have the lawsuit dismissed.

“Noel’s lawsuit against Paul and Klutch Sports Group alleges they breached their duties to Noel and caused him to lose out on approximately $58 million in potential earnings,” The Athletic reported last month. “In the motion to dismiss, Paul and Klutch said that the terms of the standard player-agent contract with Noel require him to resolve any disputes via NBPA arbitration. Klutch should not be a party to the dispute at all because only individuals can represent players as agents, they argue.

“In addition, Noel owes Paul earnings from negotiating a one-year, $5 million contract with the Knicks for the 2020-21 season, according to the motion to dismiss. Because the contract was negotiated prior to Paul and Noel ending their agent-player relationship in December 2020, Noel was required to pay Paul 4 percent of his earnings under their contract.”

On a more positive note, sophomore Obi Toppin has seen his reputation grow this season as fans are feeling pretty good over his prospects. His name is being chanted at Madison Square Garden and Knicks supporters are hoping to see his minutes increase,

“It’s all based on performance,’’ Thibodeau noted. “It’s not an individual thing. It’s a team thing. It’s how the team is functioning and there has to be a balance to offense and defense. That factors into it as well.”

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