The role in which an NBA player operates in is critical to both the player’s and his team’s success on the court. The Cleveland Cavaliers do not make it to the NBA Finals last year if Kyle Korver is initiating the offense and kicking no-look passes to LeBron James for a corner-three. Robert Covington doesn’t have the ninth best RPM (5.45) and third best RAPM (5.27) in the league if he isn’t fulfilling the 3-and-D role on the Sixers. Rudy Gobert isn’t one of the league’s best rim protectors if he is, you know, not defending the rim and instead chasing perimeter players around the three-point line.
Tim Hardaway Jr.’s best role in the NBA is the third offensive option on a team. We saw him succeed in this role only two seasons ago. He isn’t a second offensive option and he certainly isn’t a first offensive option; however, due to unforeseen circumstances and a lack of overall talent, those are the roles New York forces Hardaway to play. Unless you’re a glutton for Enes Kanter post ups, or wanting to put pressure on a rookie in Kevin Knox to be the fulcrum of the offense, or even bank on Trey Burke being a slightly less version of Chris Paul again, Hardaway is more than likely going to be offensive option number one.
Entering upcoming season, Tim Hardaway Jr. faces three important questions:
- Will he live up to the value of his contract, let alone exceed its value?
- Can he be successful as the focal point of an offense?
- Does taking on an even larger offensive role thwart any changes of further improvement and progression?
In a league with a salary cap, having players perform beyond the value of their contract is the difference between a good team and a great team. Without Porzingis and surrounded by a combination of inexperience, unproven youth, and guys looking for a second and third contract, the situation appears to be untenable for Hardaway. He will be playing outside of his optimal role, which in turn prevents him from playing at level that exceeds the value of his contract.
When in Atlanta, Hardaway was the clear and defined third option behind Paul Millsap and Dennis Schroeder compared to this past season with New York. You can see this difference just by looking at some key statistics. The percentage of Hardaway’s two-point and three-point shots made on assists dropped from 63.53 percent and 84.56 percent in 2016–17 to 50.43 percent and 79.23 percent in 2017–18, respectively, per PBP Stats. Defenders were giving him less space while in New York as his wide open field goal frequency dropped from 23.4 percent to 18.8 percent, per NBA Stats.
Hardaway Jr. was third in both field goal attempts and in usage rate with Atlanta — behind Millsap and Schroder, obviously. Even after the All-Star Game when Hardaway began starting more, he was still third on the Hawks in usage rate. With the Knicks, he was the clear second option behind Porzingis. Before that dreadful early February night, Hardaway averaged the second-most field goal attempts per game and the third highest usage rate on the team (remember, the offense went through Beasley when Porzingis was on the bench). After Porzingis went down, Hardaway averaged the most field goal attempts and had the second highest usage rate on the team. During this stretch, New York had a 6–21 record and a net rating of -8.8, third and fifth worst in the league, respectively. This is what happens when Tim Hardaway Jr. is your first scoring option: a 22.2 win percentage.
The roster, for the most part, remains the same unless there is significant internal improvement and rookies Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson are more NBA-ready than anticipated. This is not the best position for Hardaway to be in given the amount of growth he had since his rookie season.
You can see clear, linear lines for Hardaway for both offensive and defensive performance, especially in the RAPM metrics. And then it comes back down in this past season because of that combination of wrong role and added responsibilities.
Though the environment played a significant role in the performance of Tim Hardaway Jr., he still needs to take some responsibility upon himself. That responsibility involves a combination of better shot selection and just flat-out being more efficient. How many times last season did you say to yourself “man, that was a bad shot” when it came to Hardaway? A lot, right?
Scoring efficiently is, above all else, the most important aspect of Hardaway’s game that needs improvement. Shooting 31.7 percent from three on high volume is simply not going to cut it. Having your zone true shooting and true shooting drop from 61.2 and 56.8 percent in 2016–17 to 56.2 and 53.3 percent this past season, respectively, is simply not going to cut it either. Hardaway is going to have to improve his shot profile and selection this upcoming season to justify the expected volume he’s going to have. If he is not going to be shooting at even a league average percentage, defenders can sink back towards the paint, taking away his driving and cutting lanes. Hardaway is going to need to be multidimensional on offense if New York just wants to be competitive in games.
What needs to happen to help Hardaway’s efficiency? Well, that’s going to primarily be up to Coach David Fizdale placing Hardaway in positions to succeed. Playing with Trey Burke more, for example, is something that should be explored. When sharing the court with Burke, Hardaway’s true shooting jumped up to 57.4 percent — Hardaway was actually slightly more efficient after the Porzingis injury, for what it’s worth. Having another guard who can break down the defense should, in theory, help free up Hardaway for some easy looks.
Speaking of the looks Hardaway got last year and the looks he should get, let’s take a peak at his play-type data from the 2016–17 and 2017–18 seasons:
It’s quite interesting that outside of a few small, yet noticeable differences, Hardaway was ran the same plays at the same frequency. To improve upon those off-screen and handoff points per possession, ensuring that they aren’t the primary action but rather a secondary or tertiary action while the defense is rotating could force Hardaway into making quick, easy decisions. Something to keep in mind is that Fizdale did run more off screen plays than Dave Jaeger in Memphis and Mike Conley was hyper-efficient off screens in 2016–17. Though not a point guard, hopefully Fizdale can work with Hardaway on that aspect of his game.
If we do not see any improvements in Hardaway’s shooting efficiency, then it’s going to be a long year as critics who scoffed at the initial signing will be giddy at the thought of telling you, “look how right I was about a basketball player!!!” Being a volume 30 percent three-point shooter and a marginally plus player on the court is not performing at a level that exceeds the value of his deal. On the off chance that New York does sign a big-name free agent to pair with Porzingis, Hardaway will again be the tertiary — maybe quaternary if the Knicks sign a second player or one of Kevin Knox or Frank Ntilikina breaks out — option again. And to be successful in that role, a player needs to score efficiency off the ball: spotting up, cutting, running off screens, etc.
Having an inefficient offensive player making roughly an average annual value of $18 million over the next three seasons is far from ideal. Maybe judging Hardaway on a curve this season given the circumstances is the fair thing to do; however, even if he replicates his last Atlanta season, the Knicks are not going to be a playoff team, so maybe no curve? Hardaway isn’t going to make or break this season even if he does average something along the lines of 20 points on 60 zone true shooting, four rebounds, three assists, and plays respectable defense. He does need to show something like this, though, because if getting to playoffs when Porzingis is healthy in 2019–20 becomes the goal, that’s the type of player New York needs to compliment The Unicorn.