The Knicks need Tim Hardaway Jr.’s scoring, but they need less of his specter defense along with shot-chucking and decision-making issues that have plagued his NBA career.
Monday night’s loss in Milwaukee two weeks ago neatly summarized the Tim Hardaway Jr. experience—his elevation to primary or secondary scorer that is.
Hardaway played commendably on offense. Arguably, without his and fellow Michigan alumnus Trey Burke’s efforts on that end of the floor, the ‘Bockers wouldn’t have even seen daylight and knotted the game up in the fourth quarter.
However, it would be a mistake not to mention THJ’s subpar shooting — 43 percent from the field, 40 percent from long range—as well and, uh, what’s a word worse than horrid, putrid defense. Usually Hardaway’s defensive assignments leave him in the dust, but on this night, he was handsy, eventually fouling out with 38.3 seconds remaining in the half. On two occasions, his personal fouls led to crucial, back-breaking and-one opportunities for the Bucks. With Enes Kanter manning the paint, the duo makes for cringe-inducing pick-and-roll defense that teams with a modicum of common sense understand they can exploit.
Last week we ran an article from staff writer Mike Cortez on both the on-court and leadership intangibles that Hardaway must grapple with if he wants to prove he belongs on the team. It’s indicative of the type of scoring season THJ is having and it righteously touches upon Hardaway’s coming-of-age responsibility to move the team to a higher pace with steals and transition game alongside becoming a playmaker, not a chucker.
Hardaway had a career night on Wednesday versus Victor Oladipo and the Indiana Pacers. Showing up Oladipo for three quarters, Timmy sunk 7-of-11 three-pointers and was a perfect 10-for-10 from the charity stripe. Despite a 37-point Garden-pleasing performance on Halloween, Hardaway Jr. ended the night a game-low -14 while playing a game-high 38 minutes in a close game decided by six points at the buzzer. Now, extrapolate plus-minus in a single game however you like, but beyond the numbers, THJ fumbled the ball five times—including a crucial sequence where the All-Star Oladipo swiped it near halfcourt at the top of the key for an easy bucket to put Indiana up a single point after the Knicks stumbled in the fourth quarter again.
There’s the rub: Hardaway isn’t meant to be a number-one option for New York. He’s having a career year—averaging 25.1 points and 3.2 assists and shooting lights-out from deep. Nonetheless, the flaws and poor tendencies in his game surely stick out to a greater degree when he’s launched as the primary option for this developing team. It’s not exactly fair for the former Wolverine, and maybe his contract will look slightly better next year when Enes Kanter can be off the books—along with Joakim Noah’s diminished salary hit—but a team leaning on youth will always come up short with a devout faith betting on Hardaway Jr. to come up big down the stretch.
Tim Hardaway Jr. was supposed to be the antidote to unexciting guard play for the Knicks in 2000’s, save for Jeremy Lin, Stephon Marbury, and Allan Houston. Drafted 24th overall in 2013, Hardaway’s initial campaign in the Big Apple was par for the course of a developing swingman—he had exciting games that lit up the Garden crowd and cold spells that shot the Knicks out of contests. Eventually, New York gave up on him—literally and metaphorically. Traded on draft day in 2015 for Atlanta’s first-round selection, which would turn out to be Jerian Grant, Hardaway Jr. had to save face under Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks. After spending a couple of stints in the D-League, Hardaway lent a more restraint spectrum of skills for Budenholzer’s squad. In a toned-down role, THJ was able to play admirably, even clocking in several nice scoring games for the Hawks in the playoffs. (Coach Bud leads the Bucks now, the team Hardaway found folly against on Monday when the Knicks lost their third consecutive match.)
His deal with the Knicks has been a mysterious moment in history, too. Like how your high school glosses over the Articles of Confederation and infancy years of the United States following revolutionary victory, details of Hardaway’s signing are seemingly shrouded to this day. He signed in the moments just before hiring general manager Scott Perry, ostensibly a decision by team president Steve Mills alone.
Anyway, coming back to the Garden, we knew Hardaway was a chucker, but since finding himself as the go-to guard option on offense, his shot selection needs adjustment. It’s easy to throw out this season as a “rebuilding” year as David Fizdale develops the young roster, but old habits die hard, and Hardaway is negatively impacting this team. He’s shooting 42.9 percent on the season, with an improved three-ball propelling his long-range average to 40.5 percent, per NBA Stats. Admittedly, his unconscionable field-goal percentage is deflated by his penchant for the trey—47.2 percent of his shots are launched from deep, a number that’s great if Timmy continues to shoot well enough from out there.
And this is all J.R. Smith-like to me, possibly to some of you, too. Smith, notably, somewhat acted as a mentor to Hardaway while the two shared a locker room before J.R. was traded to Cleveland in 2015.
All of this points to, in my mind, the need to push Hardaway into a smaller role, a super sixth man, if you will.
The con argument is facile—he’s their leading scorer, they need him on the court playing major minutes, right? That’s correct, and I mostly agree with the sentiment. What drives me away from Hardaway and his…Hardaway-ness is his total lack of efficiency. He can be a productive player, in some ways, and at the same time lack efficiency that negatively correlates to his team’s on-court success. They need his scoring, but they need less of his specter-like defense along with shot-chucking and decision-making issues that have plagued his NBA career. I can’t admit that THJ is not a good, maybe above average baller; in fact, both descriptors are apt, really. However, this raw team, under Fizdale’s guidance, should prepare for when Kristaps Porzingis healthily returns to the hardwood, and the Knicks shouldn’t put the ball in Tim’s hands because, “Hell, who else is going to step up?”
Maybe grooming Hardaway into a sixth man role should be the next step to hone in on what makes the Wolverine a good role player—and what prevents his mistakes from overwhelming the team’s chances to win close ball games.
You could also be saying, probably in your head, that the Knicks are not good anyway, why care whether Hardaway is costing them potential victories or if they’re losing by more with another player? That’s a huge point of contention, though, because Junior should live out the ceiling of his contract, among other reasons. We’ve seen the ceiling thus far—NBA Jam-style “on fire” moments overlooked by paltry attempts to step into the sneakers of a bona fide All-Star team catalyst.
Hardaway is signed through 2021 and he’s expected to take on a large role for this team even after Porzingis returns from his ACL tear. While THJ plays incredible for himself, he still raises questions on his impact on defense. It’s tough to analyze one player’s impact in basketball since he’s playing with four others at the same time, but Hardaway’s unfair thrust into the spotlight both catapults him into career bests and the showcase for blunders that cost games in which the Knicks would otherwise never be competitive.