One of the few bright spots of the Knicks' 3-7 start to the season has been the play of Tim Hardaway Jr. In his sixth year, and fourth in New York, Hardaway is the team's leading scorer with a much-improved outside shot, and has been their most dependable option on the offensive end as other players shuffle in and out of the lineup.
But the 26-year-old Hardaway is also due a lot of money -- $17.3 million this season, and $37.1 million over the next two. By the time his contract is up, he'll be 29 and due for an even bigger payday, and it remains to be seen whether the Knicks will be any closer to a return to the playoffs by then. It's a worthwhile question as to whether the Knicks' best course of action is to keep Hardaway around during the rebuild or cash in on his value right now and go even younger.
With Kristaps Porzingis sidelined for the foreseeable future, Hardaway is seeing the most offensive responsibility thus far in his career, and he's making the most of the opportunity. He's shooting a career-high 40.2 percent from three-point range on 8.7 attempts per game, while also getting to the free-throw line more than he ever has (a career-high 25.7 percent free-throw rate).
The improved shooting in particular makes him an attractive trade chip for a team that needs another scorer. The Philadelphia 76ers, for example, could greatly use Hardaway's offense given the shooting struggles of Markelle Fultz. Hardaway is much better equipped to play next to Ben Simmons due to his ability to play off the ball and knock down shots. The Sixers could attach a future draft asset along with the $12.8 million expiring contract of Wilson Chandler to create some short-term cap relief for the Knicks as New York prepares to make a run at big-name free agents this offseason. Philadelphia could manage Hardaway's contract because Simmons and Dario Saric are still on cheap rookie deals that don't expire until Hardaway is set to hit free agency, and their window to contend is now.
That's just one example of a team that could use Hardaway and even make it worth the Knicks' while to explore trades. New York certainly doesn't need him to help the team win now. But there's also a compelling argument for keeping him.
For one thing, they have almost no proven, reliable offense on the roster outside of Hardaway. The Knicks' next four leading scorers are big man Enes Kanter, second-year guard Damyean Dotson, undrafted rookie Allonzo Trier and guard Trey Burke -- none of whom are exactly proven first options. Lottery pick Kevin Knox is out for at least the short term with an ankle injury, and there's no telling when or if Porzingis will play this year as he rehabs a torn ACL suffered last season.
With or without Hardaway, the Knicks are going to lose a lot of games the rest of the season. The flattened-out lottery rules that went into effect this season make it less worthwhile to shoot for the worst record in the NBA, and even if they did, the Knicks have some serious competition with the openly tanking Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls. In David Fizdale's first year as head coach, there's a lot to be said for attempting to establish continuity and empowering Hardaway to carry the majority of the scoring load, if nothing else to show better players who may be on the market this summer how his system could benefit them. Hardaway would slot in well as a second or third option next to a more established star the Knicks could hypothetically sign in free agency, and his presence on the roster will make him more attractive to them than yet another future draft pick or unproven young player.
Hardaway's contract, which looked like a massive overpay when the Knicks signed it in the summer of 2017, also looks much more reasonable now. The salary cap is expected to jump to $108 million this offseason, and a capable scorer like Hardaway making under $20 million per season is right around market value, even a smidge below. Provided GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills can put good players around him, he's a helpful player who could have a place on the eventual playoff contender the Knicks are hoping to build.
While it's tempting to lean fully into what looks to be yet another lost season and trade their best healthy player, the Knicks would benefit more tangibly from keeping him on the roster, at least in the short term.