Arguably, Knicks swingman Tim Hardaway Jr. is doing his best to live up to expectations even in Kristaps Porzingis’ absence. Both his contract and performance, however, are problems.
Not all NBA skills are created equal. Steph Curry’s pull-up threes are harder to learn than basic outlet passes, for example. The former takes decades of mundane drills, practice against live bodies, and a dash of unteachable talent to master, while the latter requires barely functioning motor skills and a barely functioning brain.
It follows then that not all NBA skills are valued equally. Curry, a (historic) shooting specialist, makes a lot more money than someone like Patrick Beverley, a defensive specialist. This kind of pay discrepancy is easy to wrap your head around with players like Curry and Beverley. It gets very murky with someone like Tim Hardaway Jr.
After a solid start to the 2018–19 season, Hardaway’s production tapered off until his most recent string of 20-plus scoring nights. He has scored under 10 points in seven games so far. That’s not ideal for a one-dimensional scorer who doesn’t offer much else when his shot isn’t falling.
The alarm bells quiet a little when you compare him to someone like D’Angelo Russell, who shares Hardaway’s penchant for pull-up midrangers, and scores at a very similar rate. Russell has scored 10 points or fewer in eight games so far. He also has a tendency to disappear from the box score some nights. The difference is the two player’s ceilings. Russell has averaged 24.3 points per game over his last 10, on monster shooting splits—Hardaway has never had a stretch like that—and is miles ahead as a playmaker. He’s also four years younger than Hardaway. He’s also $10 million cheaper than Hardaway this year.
Timmy catches and shoots, knocks it down!— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 21, 2019
15 for Hardaway. pic.twitter.com/Ew7e428tGg
Prior to last season, the Knicks signed Hardaway to a gargantuan four-year, $70.95 million contract (the last year is a player option he’ll almost certainly opt into). It taints everything he does. For that level of pay, teams hope to get something like Buddy Hield’s production in return. They pray for something like Bradley Beal.
It’s a can’t-win situation for Hardaway. All the hullabaloo about improving his defense has amounted to nothing. He is, across the board, worse or as bad as before (which was very, very bad) at every defensive metric: basic counting stats like steals and blocks, Defensive Rating, Defensive Box Plus/Minus, Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Rebounding Rate (if you consider that a part of defense); everything.
Advanced stats tend to be misleading; they don’t just fail to paint the whole picture, they’re akin to a single drop of paint on the entire canvas. But when there’s smoke, there’s fire, and Hardaway doesn’t pass the eye test on that end either.
He tries on defense now, and understands rotations and other advanced NBA concepts better than before, but it’s still not at the rate you’d expect for someone with a contract of his size.
On offense, he’s got more responsibility than ever, operating as the number one option for almost an entire season now if you count all the way back to Porzingis’ injury. To his credit, Hardaway has handled it well. He’s scoring around 22 points per 36 minutes, a career-best.
But his shooting has actually plateaued and regressed in some areas. Hardaway’s True Shooting, at 53.7 percent, is slightly below his career splits. For reference, the much-maligned Andrew Wiggins, recently roasted for chronic passivity by the great Doris Burke, has a TS of 49 percent. And that gap can be almost entirely attributed to the free-throw discrepancy between the two (Hardaway shoots 86 percent from the line, Wiggins shoots 71 percent).
The only thing Hardaway has made a significant leap at—and it’s nothing to sneeze at—is drawing fouls. He’s averaging a career-high 7.5 attempts from the charity stripe, blowing away his career average of 4.9.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that means Hardaway is driving more, though. He’s actually averaging fewer shots around the rim (Basketball-Reference qualifies this as field goal attempts from three-feet or less) than ever before. To earn trips to the line, Hardaway has instead added a healthy dose of veteran trickery, leaning into contact a split second early when he feels his defender rushing to recover on him.
His assist ratios? Identical to last season, and the year before that. His rebounding numbers, both offensive and defensive? Haven’t changed, either. Turnover rate? Still middle of the road, around nine percent of his possessions. What you’re left with is a slightly above-average scorer who adds nothing else to a team.
It’s an unenviable position to be in. Hardaway has taken, and made, more unassisted shots than ever this season. He’s not a catch-and-shoot guy anymore, and there’s value in that, for sure. Lou Williams has made a career of being a low-efficiency scorer that can get a shot off, regardless of quality, whenever he wants. But how much value is there in that, especially now that it’s become more obvious Hardaway is more at home as a catch-and-shoot guy? Is there $18 million a year’s worth of value in that? $10 million? $7 million?
? ??— The Knicks Wall (@TheKnicksWall) January 21, 2019
Put em in a blender, Timmy! pic.twitter.com/T0UhKvXTmQ
It’s been reported that, along with the very disgruntled Enes Kanter (a more egregious “Empty Stats Guy” than anyone on this Knicks team), Hardaway and Courtney Lee are on the trading block. A straight-up swap with the Bucks of Hardaway for George Hill works money-wise, and makes some sense for both teams. Hill, always injured, could be a valuable mentor to Frank Ntilikina and Alonzo Trier, and the Bucks could always use another floor spacer around Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Knicks already have a glut at guard. And it seems dubious that the Bucks would want to fully commit to the team they have right now, which is essentially what they’d be doing if they took on Hardaway’s albatross contract.
Go down the line, and you find the same problem across the league. Hardaway to Toronto, in exchange for Jonas Valunciunas? Works this season, but then the Raptors would have no way to clear the books this summer, and would have to pay a ludicrous amount in luxury taxes. Hardaway to Oklahoma City for Patrick Patterson and Andre Roberson? Again, it leaves the Thunder without much flexibility moving forward.
There’s absolutely a market for someone with Hardaway’s discernibly limited abilities. Everyone could use another guy that can put the ball in the basket. The market for someone that limited who is still owed $36 million after this season? Much slimmer.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping Hardaway until 2020, when his stock will trend up as a massive expiring contract teams clearing space for free agents might want to hold. He’ll only be 28, and again, he does do the one thing that’s worth the most money in the NBA.
Besides, it’s looking less and less likely that the Knicks will land the free agents they’ve been eyeing this summer, so having Hardaway around to give Porzingis some stability upon his return, as well as nurture whatever draft pick the team lands, is probably a net plus.
Still, it’s worth wondering now, with the Knicks trying to trade Hardaway, whether they massively overvalued the most valuable skill in the league. Sure, not all NBA skills are created equal; but is scoring, just scoring, really worth a contract like Tim Hardaway Jr.’s?