Tim Hardaway Jr.’s four-year, $71 million contract with the New York Knicks was panned as the worst signing of the 2017 NBA offseason. Hardaway developed into a solid rotation player during his two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, but executives around the league were shocked by the size of the deal. ESPN’s Zach Lowe called the contract “ludicrous,” and his colleague at ESPN, Kevin Arnovitz, reported that the Hawks, who had the right to match any deal signed by Hardaway, a restricted free agent, were thinking somewhere in the area of $45 million to retain the streaky shooting guard.
The signing was made even more confounding by a peculiar chain of events. Hardaway was drafted by the Knicks and played his first two seasons in orange and blue. New York traded the shooting guard to the Hawks during the 2015 draft in return for Atlanta’s first-round pick, Jerian Grant. A year later, the Knicks included Grant in a deal with the Bulls for Derrick Rose. This summer, New York renounced its rights to Rose in order to bring Hardaway back to the Big Apple. NBA fans chalked it up as another boneheaded move by an incompetent Knicks front office.
Then something surprising happened. Hardaway began playing the best basketball of his career.
The Knicks made the former Michigan Wolverine a full-time starter for the first time and he has capitalized on the opportunity. Hardaway is the Knicks’ second-leading scorer, averaging 18.1 points per game. More impressive has been his progress in other areas of his game. Hardaway has been active on the glass and a more willing passer than in years past, averaging career highs in rebounds (4.6) and assists (3.6) per 36 minutes. He has already amassed two double-doubles this season, something he did not do once during his first four seasons in the league.
Hardaway continues to take advantage of his athleticism by getting out on the break and has become more of a scorer, as opposed to just a shooter. His 3.8 free throw attempts per 36 minutes is also a career high. No. 3 plays with tremendous energy and he is not afraid to take a big shot late in the game. Jeff Hornacek often calls Hardaway’s number in the closing possessions of quarters.
There are still significant holes in Hardaway’s game. His shot selection has improved since his first run with the Knicks, though far too often, he still heaves up ill-advised three-pointers or worse yet, long twos. He has not developed the ability to break down defenses off the pick-and-roll, preferring to rely on clear outs instead. His shooting numbers are low this year (41.8 percent from the field and 31.8 from three) though that may be due to a combination of a higher usage rate and New York’s lack of a play-maker at point guard.
Defense was Hardaway’s biggest shortcoming when he entered the league, and Atlanta’s coach Mike Budenholzer would not play him until he could hold his own on that end of the floor. Hardaway no longer looks lost defending the pick-and-roll nor is he regularly caught looking at the ball while his man beats him back door, but he still tends to die on screens and is a subpar defender according to most metrics.
Still, the positives have clearly outweighed the negatives for Hardaway this season as demonstrated by his 16.2 player efficiency rating, which is well above his career average of 13.5.
Does that mean that Hardaway has justified his $71 million contract? Not exactly.
Hardaway deserves credit for working hard to improve his game and exceeding the expectations of most NBA insiders. His contract can no longer be deemed ludicrous. It is not comparable to Joakim Noah’s $72 million deal. The Knicks would be able to find takers if they decided to trade the shooting guard down the road.
However, well-run organizations sign players for below-market value. That way they can afford the additional pieces necessary to contend for a championship. They do not ink players to exorbitant contracts in the hopes that the player elevates his game to live up to the contract.
Hardaway is still too inefficient on both ends of the floor to be among the two or three best players on a contender. Yet, he is being paid like one, which contributes to preventing the Knicks from adding the two or three all-star or near all-star level players they would need to compete for a championship.
Knicks’ management has made a commitment to building around young talent. One of the benefits of young talent is that it comes cheap. Hardaway did not. The Knicks could have used the cap space spent on Hardaway to acquire cheap, young talent and/or draft picks much like the Nets did when they took Timofey Mozgov off the Lakers’ hands with D’Angelo Russell as the sweetener.
Throwing that much money at Hardaway demonstrated a lack of vision and poor understanding of the market. Hardaway’s strong start to the season does not change that.