Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke very promising news for the New York Knicks on Wednesday when he reported that the NBA has denied the Knicks a $7.8 million Disabled Player Exception following the Mitchell Robinson injury suffered by the center last December.
ESPN Sources: NBA is denying the Knicks a $7.8 million Disabled Player Exception for loss of Mitchell Robinson, because there’s optimism that Robinson can return from ankle surgery to play late in regular season. Knicks could be getting back one of league’s best defensive… pic.twitter.com/W9qaOy63Lq
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 10, 2024
This means that NBA doctors checked on Robinson’s status and deemed a comeback probable before the season is over next mid-June. By extension, Wojnaroski reported the obvious in saying there is “optimism” in New York regarding Robinson’s return before the season is over, potentially at the end of the regular season in mid-April and most definitely at some point during the playoffs if the franchise makes it there.
Don’t take Mitch’s return for granted, however. The fact that the NBA docs don’t think his recovery will take the big man past June doesn’t mean that he will undoubtedly be back before the (post) season is over. The Knicks might just decide to delay his return instead of rushing him back—Robinson has played more than 66 regular-season games just once in his first five NBA seasons—and while having Mitch could prove to be crucial in the playoffs if only for depth purposes, it’s not that Isaiah Hartenstein isn’t playing like a bonafide starter.
It’s worth remembering, however, that before going down injured, Robinson was playing his best basketball ever, including leading the league with 5.3 offensive rebounds per game to go with 6.2 PPG, 10.3 RPG, and 2.8 stocks (blocks and steals) per game. He was initially expected to be out of action for 8 to 10 weeks after undergoing ankle surgery, but the latest update before Wednesday’s suggested a season-long absence.
In light of his injury, the Knicks applied for a Disabled Player Exception (DPE) shortly before Christmas, seeking some salary-cap flexibility ahead of the February 8 trade deadline, and most pressingly looking into adding reinforcements to the big-man rotation with only Isaiah Hartenstein, Jericho Sims (then injured) and an old Taj Gibson available.
As explained by head coach Tom Thibodeau last month, applying for the DPE was simply the front office’s due diligence. The $7.8 million exception, had it been granted, would have been equivalent to half of Robinson’s 2023-24 salary and could have been used in a trade (for a player on an expiring deal) or to sign a free agent off the street.
The Knicks solved part of the problem by trading for OG Anunoby and including four/five big Precious Achiuwa in a Dec. 30 trade, softening the blow of losing Mitch for the season (or whatever time he is off the court) before the NBA came up with a final verdict on the DPE requested by New York.
On Friday, Thibodeau said, “[Robinson] will be re-evaluated, so probably another four to six weeks, and then we’ll have more information… and then whatever they feel the best course is for him, that’s what we’ll do.” Even if Mitch misses 12 weeks in a worst-case-scenario timeline, starting to count on Dec. 8, he’d be back or at least close to returning by mid-to-late March, way before the end of the postseason in mid-June. Alas, the NBA’s denial of the DPE.
Coincidentally, Robinson shared a post on Snapchat on Wednesday, Dec. 10, the same day the news about the DPE denial was reported by Woj, in which the center announced he was temporarily moving away from all social media (h/t KnicksMuse).
“My mental health have been giving me hell the past few weeks so ima be off social media for awhile till I can get myself back I appreciate everyone that supports me on my journey. all love,” Robinson wrote.
Robinson signed a four-year, $60 million extension with the Knicks in 2022. For now, the Knicks will keep Hartenstein as their starting center, and knowing Thibs’s modus operandi that’s probably not going to change for the remainder of the season even if Robinson eventually returns for the postseason.
Hartenstein is set to become an unrestricted free agent next year, and given his dominant play of late that has started to generate some buzz regarding what the Knicks will do in July when they have to decide I-Hart and his future with the organization as the franchise is coming off extending Mitch just a few months ago, naming him the starting center of the team. No need to mention that I-Hart could simply price himself out of New York.
The Knicks are 10–6 since Robinson went down, with Hartenstein averaging 10.6 rebounds, 8.2 points 2.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1.8 blocks since becoming the starting big of the Knicks.