The play of Tim Hardaway Jr.—as emphasized by his long absence—has validated the hefty price tag and propelled the Knicks to better play with Hardaway Jr. on the court.

The Knicks are on the brink of implosion. In their recent history, January has become a disaster month wherein the hovering-around-.500 record takes an ugly turn and all eyes fall upon what roster shakeups and management changes New York makes in the offseason. That terrible trend has a chance to stop, and it largely revolves around Tim Hardaway Jr., a player the Knicks truly believe can be a difference maker with the ball in his hands. When handed the keys to the offense, it’s his presence that helped surge the team to early season success.

Hardaway Jr. has been activated from the bench for Coach Jeff Hornacek, returning to action after missing 21 games. In his first match back, against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the 25-year-old shooting guard posted 16 points on 6-of-13 shooting, accompanied by three rebounds, two assists, and a steal. His productivity continued against the New Orleans Pelicans as he was able to play 33 minutes and overtime, scoring 25 points on on 8-of-17 shooting, while also contributing five rebounds, three assists, and three steals. Finally, he put in a solid shift against the Memphis Grizzlies where he scored 16 points on 5-10 shooting alongside four rebounds and four assists.

Despite being a big contributor on the scoring front, Hardaway Jr.’s biggest plus comes with his play style. With former President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson out of the picture, one of the biggest questions about the Knicks this year was how Hornacek would implement his own run and gun offense style instead of the Triangle. Hardaway Jr., a prolific scorer who thrives in transition and on the fast break, fit that offense perfectly, and being a focal point in the system propelled him to being a near 20 point per game scorer prior to his leg’s stress injury.

On the court, the Knicks currently rank 19th in the league in Pace as they average 95.9 possessions per game. Though 19th isn’t horrible, the effect Tim Hardaway Jr. has when he’s fully fit to ball out is remarkable as the team was able to execute more efficiently, totaling 103.1 plays. Hardaway Jr., who ranks fifth on the team in defensive rebounds (3.4 per game), is able to push the tempo from the Knicks backcourt, utilizing his speed to run the floor and find the player running with him, or utilize his shooting prowess to pull up for a jump shot. Timmy’s skill set punishes defenders in the fast break when the shooting guard uses his agility to score quick buckets and maximize mismatches when teams fail to get back.

Utilizing VORP, a measurement of points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a replacement-level (-2.0) player, Hardaway Jr.’s offensive contributions have been immense in the 2017–18 season. Posting a 0.7 VORP, Timmy’s contributions over the 23 games he’s played in stand more effective than that of Devin Booker’s and Andrew Wiggin’s individual contributions to their respective teams last year, while placing Hardaway Jr. in a wheelhouse around Carmelo Anthony, Joel Embiid, and Jabari Parker in the context of last season. Hardaway Jr.’s VORP also currently places him higher than Kristaps Porzingis, the bona fide number one option of the team.

What do the advanced numbers tell us? Kristaps Porzingis now has another scoring option to lean on with “Shimmy Timmy” back in the fold. Proving to be a revelation for much of the first quarter of the season, Hardaway Jr. demonstrated that he is capable of being a piece on a contending team, having improved his inconsistent shot selection and making an effort on his defensive capabilities. THJ is currently posting the highest Offensive Box Plus/Minus on the team (3.0), a statistic that averages out the league and allows for us to see how effective of a scorer an individual player is. He has a wide array of skills, whether it be having a strong range for his shot, his slashing ability allow him to thrive, spacing the floor for both Porzingis and Kanter, or creating havoc by luring defenders out to the perimeter to defend his shot. Despite the argument for a small sample size, whether it be prior to the injury or now in his first three games back, Hardaway Jr. has adjusted to the team and truly become an offensive weapon that Hornacek has utilized well this season.

With THJ’s return, Hornacek can also ration the minutes allocated to Michael Beasley. Although Beasley has put up some entertaining 20- and 30-point games, those performances come with many consequences. Beasley’s shot selection has been in question, and in an attempt to break out of cold spells, he resorts to firing up shots, hoping to restart his hot streaks. Being the erratic player he is, Beasley succeeds on paper, but the Knicks do not succeed on the court, not even winning half of the double-digit scoring games in which Beasley has provided offensive output. Although this may call into question greater obstacles for New York (coaching, roster depth, rotations), in the time Tim sat out, Beasley wasn’t the singular answer to the Knicks’ issues.

All of this alludes to a possible elephant in the room: Has Tim Hardaway Jr. been living up to his contract?

I think the story speaks for itself. In the 20 games Hardaway Jr. was injured for, the Knicks only managed to muster up eight wins, three fewer than the first 20 games of the season. Not only this, Porzingis underwent a shooting slump and Hornacek played with various lineups, attempting to fill Hardaway Jr.’s large void.

It’s fair, on the surface level, to compare the play of Hardaway Jr. to Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who, this past offseason, prior to signing a one-year deal with the Lakers, reportedly was anticipating a five-year, $80 million offer from the Detroit Pistons. The $16 million average annual value of Caldwell-Pope’s deal is slightly less than what Hardaway Jr. earns, but in the same ballpark. Due to the Knicks’ torrid history with contracts, the big signing was heavily scrutinized last summer. Taking the two players into account, though, Hardaway Jr. is far more formidable than Caldwell-Pope.

Keeping in mind that Hardaway Jr. has played fewer games, the Michigan product has 0.4 less win shares (1.7 versus 2.1), a higher ORtg (109 versus 105), a lower DRtg (110 versus 107), while also averaging 4.2 more points per game than Caldwell-Pope with a higher field-goal percentage.

Sorry to pick on Caldwell-Pope, but it’s a clear-cut example of how Hardaway Jr.’s offensive worth to the Knicks validates his contract. Not only does his production line up with some of the highest paid players in the league, but the Knicks, and Porzingis especially, struggled mightily without his prowess on the court, leading us to see not only is Timmy living up to his deserved contract, but his maturation process is truly on display as he is becoming a potent offensive weapon.

The Knicks are currently walking a tight rope where they could tip over and enter yet another tankathon, but Hardaway Jr.’s return might be the element that reignites what was looking like yet another desolate season in New York City.