Tim Hardaway Jr. still has a lot to live up to

by Jared Dubin

A little more than a year ago, the New York Knicks signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year offer sheet with a maximum value of $71 million. From all but the most die-hard of Knicks fans, the deal was met with swift and brutal criticism. It had been just two years since the Knicks had successfully dumped Hardaway on the Atlanta Hawks; and while Hardaway had turned himself back into an NBA-caliber player during his stint at Hawks University, it seemed fairly clear that he was merely a complementary piece — and one who has solely a one-way contributor at that.

Teams generally have to overpay to ensure offer sheets do not get matched in restricted free agency, but rarely do they overpay by quite as much as New York. (That the contract was offered while the Knicks had still yet to settle their front office transition after firing Phil Jackson just days before free agency opened made things all the stranger.) Before the Hawks even allowed the three-day matching period to expire, reports surfaced that the team had planned to offer him, at most, $48 million over four years. Per a league source, no team other than the Knicks offered Hardaway more than that amount last summer.

The size of the deal was rationalized by team president Steve Mills as simply the going rate for a starting 2-guard. Even then, it was difficult to see how the contract would end up being a positive one for New York. In the absolutely best case scenario for the Knicks, the then-25-year-old Hardaway would produce at a high enough level over the first three years of the deal that he would make the easy decision opt out of the final season and hit the free agent market again at 27 years old, when he’d be eligible for a new deal with a starting salary equivalent to 30 percent of the salary cap — and then the Knicks would have to decide whether they wanted to pay him again. In the far more likely event that Hardaway merely lived up to the value of the contract or underperformed relative to his salary, they’d be stuck with yet another bad contract that would not just weigh down their books, but also cut into the cap space they had for the 2019 and 2020 seasons, when they’d already planned to make a free agency splash.

After one season, those concerns about underperforming relative to the contract have already come to bear. A quick and easy way to establish whether or not a player out-performed the value of his contract during a given season: calculate the value of a “win” and compare how many wins said player produced to their salary for that season.

According to Spotrac, NBA teams paid out nearly $3.306 billion in salaries during the 2017-18 season. With 1,230 wins to go around, that would make the dollar value of a single win somewhere around $2.688 million. But since we’re attempting to assign value to individual players rather than teams as a whole, it might be a better idea to use ESPN.com’s RPM Wins as a determinant of how many “wins” there were in the league last season. Per RPM Wins, the NBA’s 521 players were collectively responsible for 1,184.94 wins during the 2017-18 campaign. (That’s pretty damn close to 1,230, perhaps indicating that coaches were “responsible” for something like 45 wins.) By this calculation, a single win would be worth around $2.790 million. Figure, then, that the true value of a win during the 2017-18 season laid somewhere between $2.668 million and $2.790 million.

Applying those values to Hardaway’s 4.81 RPM Wins, Hardaway’s “value” as a player during the first year of his contract was somewhere between $12,927,288.31 and $13,418,877.43. The entire range falls well short of his first-year salary of $16,500,000. (You might prefer Basketball-Reference’s Win Shares here but rest assured, that calculation is even less kind to Hardaway.) And this was the first year of Hardaway’s contract — the easiest one for him to live up to given that the deal calls for five percent raises; he underperformed his salary by somewhere between 19 and 22 percent. While this method is obviously not perfect, it does indicate that Hardaway would need to take sizable steps forward in order to live up to the value of his contract in any of the next three seasons.

Given New York’s obvious desire to chase impact free agents the next two summers, it is fair to ask whether Hardaway should even be considered a definite part of the team’s future. Much has been made of the Knicks’ plan to clear enough salary cap space to hand out two max deals during the summer of 2019. In order to clear that space, Hardaway’s contract is one of three that has to be moved. Dealing two out of the three of Hardaway, Joakim Noah, and Courtney Lee while taking back zero future salary and using the stretch provision on the third just barely gets them over the line. It looks like Noah will be stretched soon, so that means the only realistic way to get there is shipping out Hardaway and Lee without taking back any future salary. That’s not necessarily something the Knicks should be doing right now before they have any firm commitments from max players, but rest assured it is something they will explore both at the 2019 trade deadline and during next summer’s moratorium.

Apart from the financial considerations, there’s also the question of whether Hardaway might have already been bypassed in the organizational hierarchy. The team’s 2017 first-round pick, Frank Ntilikina, has grown an inch to 6-foot-6. The team has been musing about using him not just as a point guard, but also off the ball in the backcourt and even some at small forward. He is, on his worst day, a far better defender than Hardaway will ever be. On a team that already has its primary scoring option (Kristaps Porzingis, who will presumably be locked up long-term by this time next year), just drafted another player with a chance to develop into a plus offensive weapon (Kevin Knox), and has designs on bringing in even more high-level offensive talent in one of the next two offseasons, Ntilikina seems like a much cleaner fit as a role player than Hardaway, who only provides value on the offensive end of the floor. Considering Ntilikina is also nearly six years younger, more than $12 million per year cheaper, and potentially under team control for far longer than Hardaway, it would make sense to prioritize him.

And it’s not as though Hardaway is likely to be prioritized over Knox, who like Ntilikina is younger, cheaper, and under team control for longer than Hardaway; and is also taller, longer, more pedigreed, and more recently-acquired. Hardaway pre-dates both general manager Scott Perry and head coach David Fizdale while Knox was the team’s first draft pick with the entirety of the current regime in place.

So, is there anything he can do to solidify his place in the team’s future plans? It somehow doesn’t seem all that likely, which is a wild thing to say about a guy who is just a year into a four-year contract. The best thing Hardaway can do is drastically out-perform the value of his deal — but even that just turns him into a de facto expiring contract heading into the 2019-20 season. Beyond that, his best shot of remaining part of the long-term core probably hinges on the Knicks completely striking out in their star-chasing next summer and rolling over their space until 2020. That would at least give Hardaway two years to prove he can not just live up to his contract, but provide surplus value, and earn one of the max slots New York would have available, for himself. Needless to say, the probability of that sequence of events coming to pass seems low. Whether that scenario is more or less likely that Hardaway under-performing his contract by enough that he simply becomes a weight on the team’s books is a different question, and the answer is arguably more important to the Knicks’ future than Hardaway himself.

Illustrations for this article were provided by Elliot Gerard. Check out the rest of the Stepmoji series here.

Jared Dubin is a New York lawyer and writer.

Tickets