The case for and against the Orlando Magic signing Isaiah Hartenstein

Most observers believe the Orlando Magic will chase a guard or wing in free agency. But they could also eye an upgrade at center. Even in a thin free agent market, Isaiah Hartenstein would be a target worth considering.
The Orlando Magic could be looking to make an upgrade at center. That could have them looking to the only viable starting option in free agency -- Isaiah Hartenstein.
The Orlando Magic could be looking to make an upgrade at center. That could have them looking to the only viable starting option in free agency -- Isaiah Hartenstein. / Mike Watters-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Knicks have been busy since their season ended.

They made the biggest splash of Draft week in trading five first-round picks for Mikal Bridges to reunite the Villanova championship team and stake a claim to the top of the Eastern Conference, chasing the Boston Celtics.

They followed that up by agreeing to terms on a five-year, $212.5 million contract with free-agent-to-be OG Anunoby.

Those were bold statements from the Knicks. But costly ones. Ones that mean they are going to make some significant financial decisions. New York was already pinched financially and were going to struggle to keep their entire roster together.

It seemed likely that Isaiah Hartenstein was on his way out without another move to free up some cap space.

Especially considering the center market in free agency was tight. And only got tighter Wednesday when the Brooklyn Nets agreed to a four-year, $100 million deal with Nicolas Claxton.

The Knicks' activity already this offseason made a tight window to bring back Hartenstein that much tighter. And now that Hartenstein is the only starting center on the market with Claxton setting the market price, things are only going to get tougher.

It is not clear yet who the Orlando Magic will be seeking in free agency. Most expect the team to pursue a guard to bolster the backcourt after it struggled to score and create consistently in the playoffs.

But there is also the sinking suspicion the team could look to upgrade at center after Wendell Carter struggled with injuries throughout the 2024 season. The team could look for a more traditional rim protector and above-the-rim player rather than Carter's defense based on positioning.

It never felt urgent. Even with Carter's injury struggles, he was more than serviceable for the team. But there are always ways to tinker—and Carter might be the most valuable trade chip the Magic have.

There is at least some legs to any of this. Marc Stein reported on his Substack that rival executives believe it will be the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder chasing the German big man who thrived in a new environment with the New York Knicks the last two years.

If the Magic were to zig where everyone expects them to zag, it would seem Hartenstein is their target. He is the only center target that would seemingly fit in with the Magic right now. And so he deserves some closer examination.

The case for signing Isaiah Hartenstein

Most of the conversation about chasing a center like Isaiah Hartenstein is more of a referendum on Wendell Carter and what the Orlando Magic have in their big man. It is more a focus on what the Magic are lacking with Carter—namely sheer size and rim protection.

Even with that consideration, Hartenstein is an impressive player who has become a big presence in the paint.

The 7-footer averaged 7.8 points per game and 8.3 rebounds per game last year for the New York Knicks. He shot 64.4 percent from the floor, taking 269 of his 365 field goal attempts within five feet of the basket.

Hartenstein is the typical dump-down, offensive-rebounding, pick-and-roll center. Playing alongside Jalen Brunson for the most part, the Knicks scored 1.01 points per possession on pick and rolls with Hartenstein as the roll man.

Those are OK numbers, but not fantastic. What Hartenstein gives you though is a hard-rolling big man who takes up space with his size. He averaged 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, seventh in the league last year.

His offensive rebounding is the biggest thing he brings to the team on offense. He is just a force on the offensive glass.

Hartenstein's real impact comes on defense.

He averaged 1.59 blocks per 75 possessions, placing him in the 88th percentile. Opponents shot 11.60 percentage points worse than expected at the rim against Hartenstein, according to Basketball Index. He averaged 1.61 rim points saved per 75 possessions according to Basketball Index. Opponents made 52.5 percent at the rim against him according to data from Second Spectrum.

Hartenstein, in other words, is an elite rim protector. For a Magic team that lacks a true shot blocker, that is enticing.

That is classically what people think a good defense needs.

That was not entirely an area of weakness, but somewhere the team could improve. Orlando was 12th in the league in defensive field goal percentage at the rim at 64.1 percent.

It is arguably one of the areas of weaknesses for one of the best defenses in the league. In the Playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Orlando Magic allowed 62.8 percent shooting at the rim. This is still an area to improve.

And Hartenstein would help.

The case against signing Isaiah Hartenstein

Chasing after a player like Isaiah Hartenstein then is truly about finding a defensive upgrade over Wendell Carter. That would be the bet and investment the team would make at this point. And Hartenstein is one of the best defensive bigs in the league at this point.

But how much better than Wendell Carter?

The eye test would suggest he is significantly better because of his size and presence. But the stats suggest a different story. And so there is a question: How much better defensively is Hartenstein than what the Magic already have?

Carter gave up 3.10 percentage points worse than expected shooting at the rim according to Basketball Index and 1.70 rim points saved per 75 possessions. He gave up 58.4 percent shooting at the rim according to data from Second Spectrum.

Hartenstein is undoubtedly better statistically and a more forceful defender, but the question is whether Carter is that much worse.

The biggest drawback for Hartenstein is his lack of offensive ability. He has never averaged more than 8.3 points per game (during his 2022 season with the LA Clippers before he signed his two-year deal with the New York Knicks).

Hartenstein just is not shooting very much beyond putback and dunks. If the goal is for versatility, Hartenstein offers none of that on offense.

He might be able to play out of the high post and make passes from there he averages +1.05 role-adjusted assist points per 75 possessions (he is a good passer for his role, in other words) according to data from Basketball Index.

But Hartenstein is not someone you run plays for or an outlet beyond dump-offs. And considering the Magic's poor shooting, that could be a problem when it comes to chasing after Hartenstein.

With Hartenstein, you are paying for his excellent rim protection and offensive rebounding more than anything.

Isaiah Hartenstein is the only starting center available, it's his market

And that leads to the biggest problem with the Orlando Magic's potential chase for Isaiah Hartenstein.

Isaiah Hartenstein is the only starting-caliber center available on the free-agent market after Nic Claxton agreed to a new deal with the Brooklyn Nets. And Claxton set the benchmark with a four-year, $100-million deal.

It will likely cost at least $25 million per year to get Hartenstein. And there is indeed competition with the Oklahoma City Thunder desperate to add some size next to Chet Holmgren. Nobody wants to get into a bidding war if they can avoid it.

And it is not particularly clear the Magic need an upgrade at center so immediately. That may be an issue the team has to address down the road.

Considering the team's penchant for versatility, Orlando may not be in a rush to go after Hartenstein over what the team already has. Especially considering Carter is coming off an injury-plagued season.

Nonetheless, it would not be surprising to see the Magic invest more in rim protection and defense and become a better team defending the paint than they already are. Hartenstein would fit that bill even if the Magic will have to make up for some things they lose offensively with Carter's ability to spread the floor to the 3-point line.

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