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Thunder could seriously complicate Knicks’ Isaiah Hartenstein plans

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DALLAS — The competition for Isaiah Hartenstein could very well include a team with a dangerous trio — cap space, legitimate title aspirations and need for a center.

The Thunder is viewed by NBA sources as the top threat to pry Hartenstein away from the Knicks in free agency.

After finishing atop the Western Conference with 57 wins in the regular season, Oklahoma City can make a stronger bid for Hartenstein than the Knicks, who are capped out but can offer a starting salary of roughly $17 million using their Early Bird Rights.

The Thunder has roughly $35 million in cap space and a glut of draft assets to build on its surprising success last season.

The roster could also use a hard-nosed center like Hartenstein, who broke out with a career season after replacing the injured Mitchell Robinson in Tom Thibodeau’s starting lineup.

Isaiah Hartenstein could be pried away from New York from the Thunder in free agency. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

“It’s real,” an NBA source said of OKC’s interest in Hartenstein.

For any team pursuing Hartenstein in unrestricted free agency this summer, the big question is worth.

Last season was his first as a starter after getting picked in the second round of the 2017 draft.

A journeyman for the first part of his career, the 26-year-old has already been a part of five NBA organizations.

Now there’s an argument for Hartenstein being the top center in 2024 free agency — depending on where you rank him with Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton and New Orleans’ Jonas Valanciunas.

The value of centers in the NBA is diminished and last season ESPN front office insider Bobby Marks projected Hartenstein’s next deal to start at roughly $13 million-$14 million.

That would certainly fit into New York’s Early Bird Rights. But there’s also a supply-and-demand factor that could launch Hartenstein’s salary.

The 2024 free-agency class is weak and several teams — the Spurs, Magic, Thunder, Jazz, Hornets, Pistons and Sixers — are loaded with spending cash.

Knicks goes up to slam the ball during the second half of game 3 of the Eastern Conference first round at the Wells Fargo Center, Thursday, April 25, 2024. Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

One league source speculated the Thunder would offer a short-term deal (such as two years) with a high salary, providing both sides with long-term flexibility.

Given their cap restraints, the Knicks’ offer for Hartenstein can max at four years, $72.5 million — essentially the same contract they gave Joakim Noah in 2016.

It would represent a hefty investment while the Knicks have another center — Robinson — on the books for the next two seasons at roughly $27 million.

Moreover, if the Knicks re-sign OG Anunoby, as expected, they’re operating dangerously close to luxury-tax thresholds. That would make it more difficult to chase a star in the trade market.

Regardless of his cost this summer, Hartenstein was vital to the Knicks run to the conference semifinals and is exceptionally durable compared to Robinson, who has undergone several surgeries.

Last season, Hartenstein posted career-high averages in rebounds (8.3), assists (2.5), shooting percentage (63.4 percent) and minutes (25.3). He was fifth in the NBA in total offensive rebounds.

OKC’s starting center last season was Chet Holmgren, who is more of a finesse power forward — a la Kevin Durant — than a bruising center like Hartenstein.

Knicks center Isaiah Hartenstein (L) blocks Chicago Bulls guard Javonte Green during over time at Madison Square Garden. JASON SZENES FOR THE NEW YORK POST

The Thunder’s biggest weakness, not coincidentally, was rebounding. No team in the conference had a worse rate.

Part of that was by design — the Thunder’s space-the-floor offense is predicated on having five shooters in the lineup.

But that wasn’t enough to get OKC out of the second round of the playoffs, having lost to the Mavericks while its offense plummeted.

Now the Thunder are entering a summer with plenty of options, and Hartenstein could be one of them.

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