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Obi Toppin nearing return; What does that mean for the Knicks’ 9-man rotation?

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Obi Toppin Knicks
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Darius Garland, left, defends New York Knicks forward Obi Toppin (1) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, in New York. The Knicks won 92-81. (AP Photo/John Munson)

After just one practice with the Westchester G-league team, the Knicks announced that Obi Toppin was recalled to the team and would travel with them to Toronto

The power forward hasn’t played since suffering a stress fracture in his fibula on December 7th, so it’s unclear if the Knicks will get him back into action immediately on Friday night against the Raptors. 

However, his return is imminent which brings up the question of how the Knicks will adjust their rotation once he does return. 

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Much has been made about how New York has gone 11-5 and turned their season around since moving to a nine-man rotation after losing to Dallas on December 3rd. From that point to now, they are 4th in the NBA in winning percentage, 2nd in plus/minus, 2nd in net rating, and 2nd in defensive rating. 

Given the success that the team has had, it seems highly unlikely that head coach Tom Thibodeau would change and move back to a ten-man rotation. Thibodeau himself suggested as much before Wednesday’s game, saying “Right now…we have a nine-man rotation, and we could have an injury; we could have foul trouble; we could have illness. It has to be fluid. But the most important thing is the team playing well, so if the team is playing well, we can’t sacrifice that.”

Since Thibodeau has also made it clear that Toppin would return to the rotation when he’s back on the court, who will be the odd man out?

We have only a one-game sample size of Toppin being healthy and in the Knicks rotation, but he played 13 minutes against the Cavaliers while Jericho Sims was not a part of the rotation. When Toppin got hurt the next game against the Hawks, it was Sims who played five minutes in his absence. 

As a result, it would seem like the logical answer is that Sims goes back to the bench with Toppin healthy, but is it that simple?

Since Toppin has been out, neither Sims nor Isaiah Hartenstein has been particularly good as a backup big man. Hartenstein has averaged 4.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and has a 0.2 plus/minus in 16.8 minutes per game while Sims averages 2.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, and has a -0.5 plus/minus in 12 minutes per game. Hartenstein’s net rating of 0.8 is also better than Sims’ -4.0 mark. 

However, Sims has the better rebounding rate, particularly on the defensive glass, and brings more defensive versatility with his ability to guard on the perimeter. Hartenstein is also more comfortable on offensive working around the three-point line, while Sims is more of a traditional rim runner and post-offensive player. Since Toppin has become more of a stretch four, shooting 35.1% from beyond the arc, he may pair better with Sims than Hartenstein. 

Toppin is also a high-energy player who looks to leak out in fastbreaks. A second unit that features him, Miles McBride, and Immanuel Quickley (once RJ Barrett returns) would be a fast-paced unit that might fit better with Sims than Hartenstein given the difference in their athletic profiles. 

It’s also entirely possible that the Knicks decide to trade one of Hartenstein or even Toppin in the coming weeks. While moving Toppin has been an unpopular idea in the past, the emergence of Julius Randle has continued to put a ceiling on Toppin’s development, which could make a trade more appealing, as we covered earlier this week

Given that Obi Toppin still needs to work back into game shape and shake off the rust, it will likely be a few games before we see him back to his full complement of minutes. That will give Evan Fournier a chance to remain in the rotation until RJ Barrett returns and give Thibodeau a few more games to decide just how best to work Toppin in. 

“Whatever brings the best out of the team, that’s what we have to do,” Thibodeau said. “Oftentimes, there’s difficult decisions that have to be made. So, we have good players and some players have had to sacrifice not being in the rotation and then just stay ready. Things are always changing in this league.”

This next change in the Knicks’ rotation could determine not only the outlook for this team in 2023 but the long-term outlook for their former first-round pick. 

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For more Knicks coverage, like this Obi Toppin article, visit amNY Sports

Knicks forward Obi Toppin dunks over Orlando Magic forward Paolo Banchero.
Knicks forward Obi Toppin dunks the ball.AP Photo/John Munson

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