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  • Tim Hardaway Jr. Just May Be the Second Scoring Option the Knicks Have Been Searching For

Tim Hardaway Jr. Just May Be the Second Scoring Option the Knicks Have Been Searching For

THJ’s scoring prowess has seen highs and lows this season. Where does Hardaway Jr. fit in the Knicks’ offensive scheme?

Wednesday’s win over the Jazz encapsulated the Tim Hardaway Jr. experience. He was the hero of the game, sparking the Knicks’ clutch comeback with a game-high 26 points (14 in the fourth), along with six rebounds, six assists, strong defense late, and a dagger three. It was also a stressful and uncertain adventure, featuring shaky shot selection, high-energy plays, and exquisite shimmy-ing.

When Hardaway Jr. signed a four-year, $71 million deal this past summer, it placed the former Knicks’ first-round pick in a tricky spot: fans were happy to welcome back the athletic 25-year-old but dismayed with yet another fiscally irresponsible contract. Plus, the exorbitant compensation implied that Hardaway Jr. would be sitting shotgun as the franchise rides an arm-sleeved Unicorn into the future (in fact, Hardaway Jr. is earning $12 million more this year than Lord Kristaps, still on his rookie-scaled contract).

Well, 14 games into his second New York stint, it’s apparent that the team functions better when Hardaway Jr. plays (mostly) within the offense and isn’t relied upon for consistent, dependable scoring for four quarters — though his ability to score in bunches certainly comes in handy, as the Jazz witnessed firsthand.

Perhaps unfairly to Tim, it’s difficult to separate the production from the money, since his expected role is directly tied to his inflated paycheck (at the Garden last Saturday, in a stress-free Knicks romp over Sacramento, I overheard displeased mentions of his contract after almost every brick). But with a surprise playoff still in sight — as he confidently suggested, by the way—let’s put money (and defense) aside and examine Hardaway Jr.’s ideal role on offense.

Hardaway Jr.’s toolset is undoubtedly enticing, and his appetite for scoring is insatiable, yet inconsistency plagues his game. He’s a weapon when grooving — as evidenced against Denver (11 straight fourth-quarter points in a two-minute span), Houston, Orlando, and in both Cleveland matchups (31 points per contest), in addition to Wednesday’s night’s heroics. But he’s far from polished, and declaring him “The Knicks No. 2 Option for Years to Come” seems as rash as one of his early shot clock heaves.

First, his three-ball is a major work in progress. He shot just 35.7 percent from deep last season, a personal best (although only league average), and has regressed to 30.9 percent thus far this year. More destructively, his shot choice tends to be impatient and overeager, and he’s perpetually prowling for heat-checks, resulting in premature forces and a troubling proclivity for early threes, often coming at the expense of a productive team possession:

(via FanSided)

On this occasion, two consecutive jacks provoked a chill-out reminder from Kristaps:

Even his game-sealing three vs. Utah was a questionable choice, in addition to the most Timmy shot imaginable: A confident pull up three on the tails of a hot quarter, coming after his own wild miss on the same possession.

Dependable outside shooting will be both crucial to his effectiveness as a number two option and render him a better running mate to Porzingis, whom has been earning aggressive collapsing nature of opposing defenses (THJ was 3-6 from downtown on Wednesday). Tim and Kristaps have (unsurprisingly) shared the floor more than any other Knicks duo this season, but rank towards the middle in eFG% per 100 possessions (Basketball-Reference).

Overall, Tim is averaging 17.8 points on the season—a career-high—and he’s gone for 20-plus on six occasions. He’s also posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists, steals, and minutes. But his field-goal percentage sits at 41.1, and his NetRTG sits at 0.9 (down from 3.1 last year). To be fair, he got off to a horrid start (perhaps a result of new contract stress, or the fact that the he didn’t know the plays), and is averaging 19.6 points per game on 44.3 percent in November, although he’s making threes at a similarly unreliable clip this month.

While his hot hand is undoubtedly energizing and valuable, it’s also sporadic, and his scoring output is not necessarily a good indication of the team’s overall performance. The Knicks have dropped half the contests in which he’s eclipsed 20 points, and won the last three instances in which he’s registered fewer than 15 points.

Fortunately, two years in Coach Bud’s fast-paced, motion-heavy offense ingrained the concept of playing within a system orchestrated around ball movement. Hardaway Jr. thrived when encouraged to look for opportunities, yet was not expected to carry too big of a load. Bud’s system also highlighted his underrated off-ball cutting, which should be a weapon in Jeff Hornacek’s scheme:

His handle and drives can be rushed and sloppy, though he compensates via his above-average athleticism, indicated by his 60.1 percent rate on shots inside 10 feet in 2016–17, per NBA/Stats. It’s good when he attacks—the Knicks have won all three games in which he’s attempted at least eight free-throws for that matter.

Plus he can be devastating in the open court, and quickly turn defense into offense:

In Monday’s hotly contested showdown with Cleveland, Junior excelled and looked noticeably antsy to get involved in the second quarter binge as the Garden rallied around Frank and Enes, leading to some impetuous hoists. Still, he led the game in points (28 on 10-of-20 from the field, 4-of-11 from three), and was a pure delight once he got in on the action, including a batch of exciting plays as the Knicks tried to stave off the Cavs comeback. His eagerness to set the Garden off at any given moment is simply endearing.

The Knicks lost to Cleveland, of course, despite Tim’s strong line. The starters did almost all the heavy lifting (minus Jarrett Jack, who loathes looking at the basket and reluctantly contributed two points), combining for 87 of the team’s 101 points.

This begs the question; could Hardaway Jr.’s destiny be as an elite sixth man like his spiritual predecessor J.R. Smith?

The Knicks currently rank 20th in points per 100 possession among bench units (83.5), while their starting unit rates 3rd (125.1) behind elite squads Golden State and Houston, and ahead of the streaking Celtics. Overall, they average the 21st most bench points per game (31.5), compared to the sixth most points from starters per game (78.3). Clearly, they could use some balance, and Tim is tailor-made to feast on weaker second units. The Knicks were hoping Michael Beasley would provide a bench boost, but he has yet to tap into 100 percent of his brain.

Of course, it’s nearly impossible—and unrealistic—to imagine Hornacek swiftly making that drastic of a move at this point, as it would clearly appear as an unwarranted demotion. It’s certainly worth exploring, though, and would probably benefit the team’s balance. If Tim, his representatives, and Knicks fans (who shouldn’t actually matter in this) are willing to overlook ego and salary, he could thrive leading the second unit, where his strengths—energy, athleticism, a Jamal Crawford-ian ability to score in bunches—are more valuable, and his inconsistency and inefficiency (and defense) are less damaging.

Again, money aside, Tim Hardaway Jr.’s scoring can carve himself a long-term role on this team.

Staff Writer

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