What are we to make of Tim Hardaway Jr.’s return to the Knicks?
If you’ve been on Twitter this offseason, you’ve seen it; a big photo of Tim Hardaway Jr. next to a headline reading something along the lines of “The Biggest Mistakes of the Offseason”. In a summer where the Knicks fired their chief executive almost immediately following a crucial draft, the Knicks couldn’t help but top themselves.
The rumored palace intrigue has been that Steve Mills forked over the reported 4 year $70.9 million deal to win the permanent President of Basketball Ops job from Knicks owner and renowned Eagles opener James Dolan. Which, incidentally, he did.
But it would be foolish to compare this signing one to one with last season’s worst deal, Joakim Noah’s albatross 4 year $72 million dollar deal. Though Hardaway was arguably the worst deal given out this summer - certainly the most inexplicable – he is not Joakim Noah.
Hardaway is young, athletic and still improving. There is logic to the signing even if the value assessment is completely out of whack. To be clear, this is a bad deal. Even in the best case scenario and THJ outperforms even the most optimistic projections, he has a player option for the 4th year which erodes any leverage the Knicks might have had. But even though this is a bad deal, that doesn’t mean that Hardaway will be a net bad player for the Knicks.
All that said this is a puzzling reunion for the New York Knicks, who walked away from THJ just 2 years into his rookie deal in a trade that netted them the pick that became Jerian Grant. Since his days as an unrepentant gunner for the Wolverines and the Knicks Hardaway has been studying as an underclassman at Hawks University. So what kind of player should the Knicks expect?
The Knicks will be looking to Hardaway for scoring and in that regard at least, they should feel fairly satisfied on their investment. Hardaway can score from all 3 levels and is above average in efficiency from a variety of spots on the court.
As you can see, he is particularly effective from the top of the key and right side of the court. Including a scorching 50% rate from the right corner (20/40 attempts).
This could be a blessing if Courtney Lee stays on with the team as Lee, the Knicks most efficient bucket getter last year, favors a collection of spots that THJ isn’t nearly as effective at.
THJ ranked in the 86 percentile on spot ups, per Synergy. Off of those spot ups he generates 1.15 points per possession (PPP). This is a very promising mark. For reference, Kawhi and Melo produce 1.23 PPP. What remains to be seen is if the Knicks have anyone capable of playmaking that will facilitate Hardaway’s development, as many of Tim's attempts came from excellent Hawks ball movement.
Tim ranked 88% coming off of cuts, per Synergy. He is good at getting separation from his man and springing to the hoop.
He was 13th in the league last season coming off of cuts in effectiveness, just behind Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant (minimum 50 possessions). Just by sensing the developing play and taking advantage of sleeping defenders he managed to generate 1.46 PPP.
Hardaway posted the highest effective field goal percentage of his career at 51.4%. That’s more or less identical to that of shooting guard and fellow Knick Courtney Lee and last season’s 6th man of the year Eric Gordon. While this number isn’t outstanding, it is a good foundation to build upon.
He scored 1 PPP off of isolation attempts too, which has real value. Though straight isolation is an inefficient play for all but a handful of players in the NBA when defenses stiffen or the offense breaks down having a go to guy that can get a reasonably efficient play still matters. Whenever the Knicks do move on from Melo, this kind of back pocket option is pretty valuable.
All that said, THJ still doesn’t provide much else on offense beyond than his scoring ability. Until such a time that he can become such an outside threat that bends the defense by his mere presence, he brings limited surplus value to an offense.
What about the other side of the ball?
Defensively the Hawks considered Tim a project and the Knicks are paying for him like he’s a finished product. It would be a mistake to overvalue his improvements as a defender. While the Hardaway has made strides on that end, he still ranks as a net negative defender by any metric. He has neither the size nor effort required to stay with most of his direct competition and it’s doubtful if the Knicks coaching staff will be able to get as much out of him as Coach Bud did. When Hardaway drifted on assignments in Atlanta, he rode the bench. It’s unclear if Coach Hornacek will have enough clout to make the same kind of demands on Hardaway’s engagement on the defensive end.
It wouldn’t surprise me if Hardaway has a breakout season upon his return to New York this year but his true ceiling will be tied to either developing a floor game to compliment his innate bucket getting talent or by increased devotion on the defensive end. This may never look like a good contract for the Knicks but Hardaway could quiet a lot of critics if he continues on the development path the Hawks coaching staff has set for him.