In the aftermath of Phil Jackson’s removal as president of basketball operations, Steve Mills stepped in to fill the void. His second act in leading the organization forward, after agreeing to another controversial (stupid?) contract with Ron Baker, was to sign OAKAAK Tim Hardaway Jr. to a 4 year, $71 million offer sheet.
Hardaway was drafted by the Knicks in 2013 before being sent to the Atlanta Hawks in a draft day deal two years later for a first round pick. Two more years followed, during which he was initially demoted to the G-League because of his lackluster defense. This served as a wake up call and he improved said defense to the point where he was actually functional on that end of the floor, turning himself into a key reserve before developing into a solid starter on a playoff team.
The two years in Atlanta helped turn Hardaway into a more complete player than the one who left New York. Still, a contract worth an average of $17.75m per year is no pittance. Money like that comes with expectations. Expectations create pressure and nowhere is the pressure to deliver on a big payday greater than in New York for the Knicks.
Memories of past overpays and excesses linger. Wounds inflicted by the likes of Eddy Curry, Amar’e Stoudemire, Allan Houston, Carmelo Anthony, Stephon Marbury and Jerome James have left scars on the collective psyche of the fanbase.
There are, however, some key differences in Hardaway’s contract and large free agent contracts of the past. The Knicks didn’t mortgage the future to get him, he has two functioning knees and, at 25 years old at the time of his signing, he wasn’t even close to being “over the hill”, all hallmarks of past failures. But is he actually good?
The Hawks weren’t convinced, even after half of a good season as a starter. Following his first full season back with the team who selected him, Hardaway’s value remains a question without any clear-cut answer.
He struggled offensively from beyond the arc. A career 35.2% three point shooter over his first four years in the league, Hardaway connected on just 31.7% of his attempts last season.
And there were a lot of attempts.
Handed the ultimate green light by former head coach, Jeff Hornacek, Hardaway attempted over 7 treys per game, averaging 2.3 off the dribble, on which he shot a ghastly 28%. Even on catch-and-shoot looks Hardaway hit just 33.7%.
Of the 13 players last season who averaged at least seven attempts per game last season, Hardaway was dead last in accuracy, lagging far behind Eric Gordon, who hit on a comparatively robust 35.9%. Shooting like Raymond Felton while hoisting at a Klay Thompson-esque volume isn’t a good look.
Three is greater than two, but when you’re shooting at a suboptimal level, gunning incessantly isn’t a smart idea. Eschewing some of his wilder three point attempts for more forays to the rim would have been wise and done wonders for his overall efficiency.
Then there was the general inconsistency of his performances. Every time it seemed he had found his footing and could kick on, he would fall back into a malaise. One step forward two steps back.
During one of the worst 7 game stretches of professional basketball ever played by a heavy-minutes starter, Hardaway went 5/44 from three and 24/93 from the field overall. This came on the heels of a hot return from a stress injury which sidelined him for six weeks from December into January.
Perhaps most frustrating about these wild swings in performance and his overall shooting woes were how they obscured progress he has made in other areas of his game.
Hardaway is no great shakes off the dribble, but his handle has improved by leaps and bounds since his first stint in New York. Past attempts to create off the bounce were inadvertent instances of slapstick comedy. Now he’s able to get to the cup without falling over himself.
His growth as a playmaker has also been evident. Hardaway averaged 4.1 assists per 100 possessions, the 2nd best mark of his career. He showed decent vision and feel as a ball handler in pick-and-roll.
He seemed most comfortable playmaking for others out in the open floor.
Whipped one-handed passes to the opposite corner were not a thing when he was last seen in a Knicks uniform.
This overall growth and diversified ability made him more a driver of team success than it seems on the surface. Shooting struggles and all, Hardaway still ranked in the 73rd percentile in net on/off rating (+3.3 per 100 possessions) among all wings in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. Broken down further, he finished in the 79th percentile (+3.4) offensively and in the 49th percentile (+0.1) defensively.
Of the 1885 total minutes he played last season, 1135 came with Kristaps Porzingis off the floor. Considering the vortex of suck, which was the Knicks in the aftermath of the Latvian’s injury — Hardaway logged 813 minutes after that point — that’s actually pretty good!
None of this is to suggest Hardaway had an unquestionably good year. At his price point merely having a net positive impact on the team isn’t worthy of praise, not when the guys coming in for you are Courtney Lee, Lance Thomas, Ron Baker and Damyean Dotson. The expectations are higher for a starting shooting guard brought in on the kind of money he was handed.
After one season back with the Knicks, Hardaway remains an enigma. What his value is and role are moving forward remain unclear. Is he a piece of the core moving forward, or a mistake made prior to Scott Perry’s arrival, just here until they can figure out where to send him packing?
If you think he sucks and is just the latest in a long line of millstone-type contracts holding the franchise back, there’s certainly plenty of evidence for that. If you’re of the belief Hardaway’s shooting will bounce back to career norms and the value he provided on a team-wide scale bode well for his future, making him a potential asset, there’s an argument for that as well.
For now, we can live in the hope Hardaway will be part of the solution or, at least, not a part of the problem.