Why Isaiah Hartenstein could be the best big man available on the market

The playoffs often provide a litmus test, for teams’ respective roster constructions, for a coach’s mettle on the sidelines, for an impending free agent’s upcoming value on the offseason market. There may be no individual who’s postseason benefited his wallet more than New York center Isaiah Hartenstein, the 26-year-old who claimed the Knicks’ starting job after his close friend, Mitchell Robinson, was sidelined by an ailing ankle. Hartenstein never relinquished the role through New York’s run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference second round.

That frontcourt combination was critical in battling against Joel Embiid to help New York outlast Philadelphia in six games in the opening round. “They went through a lot to go up against him every possession,” Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Knowing what [Embiid’s] capable of, knowing that he knows how to play the game, knows how to get fouled, knows how to get points. The things they were able to do night in and night out … they kept fighting.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 22: Isaiah Hartenstein #55 of the New York Knicks reacts during the first half against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Two of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 22, 2024 in New York City. The Knicks won 104-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Isaiah Hartenstein is likely headed for a major payday. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

For his part, Hartenstein will now reach unrestricted free agency as arguably the best big man available, finishing 2023-24 shooting 64.4% from the field, thanks to a weaponized floater, plus a career-best 8.3 rebounds in 25.3 minutes and continued flashes of a deep passing gene that created 4.3 assists each outing against Indianapolis in Round 2. A massive payday is surely looming and should produce a marked leap from just two years ago, when Hartenstein entered the offseason as one of the more coveted reserve centers on the board. Back in 2022, Hartenstein has said he was willing to return to the L.A. Clippers at a below-market number in order to remain with the franchise where he established his NBA footing. Instead, Los Angeles offered its two-year, $13 million salary slot to John Wall, allowing Hartenstein to feel free to take a richer offer from New York.

This time around, Hartenstein may find himself in a similar predicament. The Knicks will be limited to offering their center a four-year, $72.5 million deal because of his early Bird rights. Any interested rival team will have the ability to double that amount — as much as $151.6 million over the same four-year length. There’s little expectation he’ll draw such a significant number, but league executives and cap strategists are projecting Hartenstein will be able to draw at least $80 million, and perhaps upward of $100 million, from a team hoping to steal Hartenstein from Madison Square Garden.

It’s a lucrative position to be in, one Hartenstein acknowledged in New York’s postgame locker room, his feet dunked inside ice buckets, a knee scabbed and bleeding through white tights after his sixth and final battle against Embiid. “I mean, that’ll come,” Hartenstein said about his upcoming opportunity, exhaling as he spoke. “I mean, I’m getting paid regardless.”

For a team that’s looking to upgrade at center, the market isn’t exactly flush with strong starting options. Nic Claxton will likely command a similar dollar figure to Hartenstein’s expected range, sources said, although NBA personnel have long prepared for the Nets’ switchable center to remain with Brooklyn. The Nets can also begin to legally negotiate Claxton’s next agreement the day after the NBA Finals conclude, as part of the league’s new collective bargaining agreement. Cavaliers All-Star center Jarrett Allen still has two years and $40 million left on his deal, and that will leave no shortage of suitors for Cleveland’s big man after a rib injury left him on the sidelines during the Cavs’ second-round loss to Boston. Cleveland, however, has not been truly keen on entertaining rival teams’ offers for Allen, sources said, as the shot-blocker and rim-runner developed a strong on-court connection with Donovan Mitchell during a stretch of winning 17 of 18 games this winter — largely without Darius Garland and Evan Mobley. The Cavs don’t appear very motivated to listen to trade inquiries for any member of their core four, sources said, even with the possibility that Garland’s representation at Klutch Sports could move to request a trade if Mitchell extends long term.

If those bigger pieces remain off the board, Hartenstein would be in prime position come June 30, when the free agency negotiating window opens. The only other established starting center who will be an unrestricted free agent will be Jonas Valanciunas, whom league executives are pinning his salary range more closely to the $12.9 million mid-level exception. Perhaps Dallas’ sweet-shooting Maxi Kleiber could reach the trade block, as the Mavericks will face tricky cap chicanery to re-sign Derrick Jones Jr. after this postseason run. Hartenstein, though, could be had by the squeaky-clean route of cap space.

So, which team could attempt to pry Hartenstein free? Oklahoma City has been the potential destination most mentioned by team executives after rebounding woes plagued the Thunder during their second-round defeat to the Mavericks. Dallas bested OKC 287-241 on the glass over those six games.

In one respect, Hartenstein would seem incongruent with the rest of the Thunder’s roster and playing style, as Coach of the Year Mark Daigneault oversaw a drive-and-kick offense with Chet Holmgren at center and all five OKC players boasting the ability to create off the dribble. Hartenstein is not that, but his prowess as a dribble-handoff screener and passer — constantly slinging back-door bounces to Jalen Brunson and Donte DiVincenzo — could introduce an added dimension to what already exists with the Thunder. Hartenstein has also shown an ability to coexist with another big man amid various lineup structures with New York.

Before joining the Knicks, Hartenstein nearly signed with Orlando, sources said, and the Magic will indeed have roughly $36.4 million in cap space to play with this summer. However, Orlando doesn’t seem like the most obvious fit either, as that mutual interest predated Mo Wagner’s emergence as a bonafide backup, Jonathan Isaac’s return to defensive dominance, and the Magic ultimately dismissing trade offers for Wendell Carter before February’s trade deadline. Detroit is another team that’s often been linked to Hartenstein, and yet the Pistons have committed time and draft capital to pair Jalen Duren with Cade Cunningham, paid Isaiah Stewart and have a decision to make on James Wiseman. Pinning any possible direction for Detroit, after recently hiring Trajan Langdon as the team’s new president of basketball operations, is also a tricky dance at this juncture.

More landing spots can and likely will emerge once the summer starts to spin in earnest. For now, the fact Hartenstein stands positioned for quite a contract is simply an achievement in its own right. He joined the Clippers on a training camp invite, never making it to a subsequent visit with Golden State before the 2021-22 season after Los Angeles was struck by his passing and playmaking in scrimmage play. After beating out Harry Giles for a final roster spot, Hartenstein rounded into a bedrock of the Clippers’ second unit on just a minimum-salary contract, relishing a two-man game with Luke Kennard.

“Anyone out there, you just have to be consistent. And then you have to be humble,” Hartenstein said. “I was humble enough to see why I wasn’t playing right, see what wasn’t going right. In those summers, I really went in and just worked on my game. When the next opportunity came, I really seized it.”

He watched film of Draymond Green’s defensive versatility, how the Warriors veteran called out off-ball switches before they needed to occur, and always stepped into the right place several passes before the possession moved that direction. “A lot of players who don’t play, they’re OK on offense but don’t get why they’re not really on the court,” Hartenstein said. “Most of the time it’s defense. And I took that really personal.”

And to the workers go the free agency spoils.