Tom Thibodeau could start Nerlens Noel over Mitchell Robinson

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SAN ANTONIO — When the Knicks were at their best last season in the second half, Nerlens Noel was the starting center and Mitchell Robinson was rehabbing a broken foot.

After 23 games, it appears Tom Thibodeau is heavily considering returning Noel to the starting lineup and demoting Robinson, who has struggled with conditioning after gaining muscle weight during his long foot rehab.

Noel was spotted in a starter’s blue jersey during Tuesday’s morning shootaround at AT&T Center before facing the Spurs.

Thibodeau wouldn’t confirm he’s landed on Noel as the second big change following the wiping out of “The Kemba Walker Era” to start Alec Burks.

But Robinson sounded like he’s headed to a new role off the pine as the Knicks (11-12) are on a three-game losing streak. Robinson is seeking a contract extension as he becomes a unrestricted free agent this summer.

“We’ll find that out,” Robinson said of whether he’ll look good on the speedy second unit. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Thibodeau declined to give Spurs coach Gregg Popovich any heads-up.

“Still mulling,” he said. “Just thinking about everything.”

Knicks Nerlens Noel Mitchell Robinson
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau may start Nerlens Noel (l.) over Mitchell Robinson (r.) against the Spurs on Tuesday.
NBAE via Getty Images

Thibodeau has across the season talked about Robinson’s conditioning issues as the 7-footer doesn’t look as spry as his first three seasons, perhaps because of the muscle gain. Robinson said he’s starting to drop weight — from 280 to what he is now at 265.

“I wish I could jump right back into it and be who I was before the injury,” Robinson said Tuesday. “It’s cool. I’m going to work and be back to myself.”

Robinson said “stamina” is an issue. “I’m getting tired real quick,” he added. “After six, seven minutes, it’s boom, I’m gassed.”

Knicks Tom Thibodeau
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau speaking to reporters Monday at the Knicks’ practice facility.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Noel has had myriad hamstring/knee issues that have cost him a lot of the season and hasn’t been a reliable defensive specialist. Noel was a team-worst minus-24 vs. Denver on Saturday.

Robinson has yet to develop any sort of jump shot and his alley-oop connection from past years also hasn’t been a constant.

“I’m actually getting back to it,” Robinson said. “I’m still strong and I’m still want to get back to myself. I had a lot of extra weight that wasn’t muscle.”

Denver’s Nikola Jokic torched the Knicks in the Nuggets’ blowout win Saturday, scoring 31 points in 28 minutes.

Oftentimes, Robinson wasn’t getting out to the 3-point line.

“Yeah, just be in better shape,” Robinson said of what he didn’t do well.

Knicks Mitchell Robinson
Mitchell Robinson (l.) defending Nikola Jokic (r.) during the Knicks’ loss to the Nuggets on Dec. 4, 2021.
AP

Thibodeau said Robinson’s lengthy absence took its toll. He was lost in March.

“The conditioning aspect is something that he’s still working on,” Thibodeau said. “There’s been some real good moments and moments that haven’t been as good as we would like, but that could be said for our whole team. There’s been some great games and been some games where we didn’t play well. We have to develop a consistency and we’ve got to concentrate on improvement.

“The fact of the matter is he was out so long. He missed all the summer, missed all the fall basically, got cleared right before we started training camp and even then he couldn’t do the entire practice, so it’s been a work in process.”

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