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NBA Sunday: For Knicks, Hardaway Jr. Deal Is A Major Risk

While Tim Hardaway Jr. may prove worth a $71 million investment, signing him was a major risk.

Moke Hamilton

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Tim Hardaway Jr. is a fine basketball player. Since being drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft, his star has risen fairly consistently.

He is a young professional who has clearly shown signs of progression over the course of his four-year career and, if he maximizes his potential, can be a great scorer at the NBA level.

Hardaway, however, simply isn’t worth a $71 million investment, and he absolutely isn’t worth the risk for the Knicks. You don’t need Amar’e Stoudemire’s goggles to see that.

As expected, the signing of Hardaway was met with mixed reaction from Knicks fans, while most of the NBA media and personnel who have spoken on the matter agreed that the contract tendered to Hardaway would qualify as overspending.

In the interest of being impartial, it’s fair to point out that at 25 years old, Hardaway still has room to grow. His ceiling is still unknown and better days may very well lie ahead. After all, recall the NBA’s collective response to the five-year, $55 million contract that the Boston Celtics signed Rajon Rondo to in 2009. People felt the same way about the four-year, $44 million deal that the Golden State Warriors inked Stephen Curry to in 2013.

For the most part, in the NBA, young players are paid on promise; you simply have to take risks if you want to win big. Daryl Morey took, for example, a monumental risk on James Harden when he acquired him from the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2012. Morey was willing to roll the dice, and it’s safe to say that turned out well.

So, in all fairness, Hardaway could potentially be the next Harden. As the NBA’s salary cap continues to rise over the coming years, the nearly $18 million Hardaway will average could be considered a bargain.

The major issue with the Hardaway signing, however, is the simple absurdity behind the fact that merely days after announcing the ouster of Phil Jackson, the Knicks re-signed a player that the franchise traded away. It looked especially foolish to consider that Hardaway was indirectly traded for Derrick Rose, whom the Knicks had to renounce in order to sign him. It cost them Robin Lopez in the process, and indirectly resulted in the team signing Joakim Noah to what most people would consider to be one of the worst contracts in the league today.

An intelligent front office would have never found themselves in that type of situation. Considering the fact that it’s the Knicks, the attention paid to the signing, of course, would get amplified attention.

The Hardaway signing also appears somewhat foolish for the Knicks simply because, at least to this point, Hardaway has not proven himself to be a difference-maker on both ends of the basketball court. He has made significant strides on the defensive end, but to frame his signing as anything more than a monumental risk would be biased. The simple truth is that Knicks fans, being dedicated as they are, often find themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to convince themselves that the front office is making wise decisions, or decisions that are indicative of foresight and of seeing the entire forest, rather than one or two trees.

For example, when the Knicks decided to amnesty Chauncey Billups back in 2011, the educated NBA observer knew that the decision was asinine. The Knicks simultaneously lit the get out of jail free card they had for Stoudemire and his problematic knees while also removing themselves from consideration for Chris Paul. Had the Knicks played that situation differently, Paul could have forced his way to the Knicks in the same exact manner he forced his way to the Rockets. This was a scenario that Paul and Anthony had spoken of, and it’s no coincidence that the two are nearing the formation of their long overdue partnership in Houston.

Without question, the front office in New York absolutely lacked the foresight required to realize that while paying Carmelo Anthony a maximum-salaried contract wasn’t the best of ideas, giving him a 15 percent trade kicker and a no-trade clause was moronic. Years later, the Knicks have discussed the possibility of buying Anthony out simply because he has the power to veto any trade brought to him. Had Anthony not had a no-trade clause, Phil Jackson would have long traded him to a small market team that knows that it would never have the opportunity to sign a player with the box office appeal of Anthony. He would have long ago been traded to Sacramento, Orlando or Charlotte, for example, if not for the no-trade clause.

Noah’s contract has already been discussed, ad nauseam. Still, his signing of a four-year contract further illustrates the central point; the Knicks don’t think ahead.

So, as it relates to Hardaway, reports out of Atlanta suggest that the franchise—while valuing him quite highly—drew a line in the sand of $50 million for re-signing the guard. That the Knicks offered Hardaway almost 50 percent more and included a 15 percent trade kicker certainly qualifies as overpaying.

While other fans will point to contracts offered to the likes of Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk as evidence of Hardaway’s contract being within the realm of reasonability, there are a number of differences between every other NBA team in the league and the Knicks. The first, and most important, is that the Knicks do not know who will be running their front office next month, much less next year. The team doesn’t have an identity, so signing a fairly one-dimensional player to such a rich four-year deal doesn’t make sense without having leadership in place.

Secondly, as the NBA world sat back and saw the Boston Celtics sweat and eventually sell Avery Bradley for cents on the dollar, we realize that the reason they did so was because of the lack of flexibility that their payroll situation afforded. The Celtics literally scrambled because their miscalculations left them just short of $1 million short of what they needed to offer Gordon Hayward a full maximum contract. This serves as dispositive evidence that in the NBA, when it comes to managing the salary cap, every single dollar counts. That’s why Hardaway on an $11.5 million contract would have looked much, much better than Hardaway on a $17.5 million contract.

Finally, it would be wise to point out a simple truth as it relates to building a winning franchise in the NBA: it’s not wise to clog your cap situation until you know who your primary building blocks are, and the key to winning in the entire ordeal is drafting building blocks and signing pieces around them while they still qualify as cheap labor on rookie contracts. Stephen Curry’s contract, though not a rookie deal, exemplifies the point; had the Warriors not had him signed to a $12 million salary, they would not have had the cap space available to sign Kevin Durant. Had the San Antonio Spurs not had their core players signed to relatively cheap deals, they would not have been able to sign LaMarcus Aldridge as a free agent. Had the Celtics not wisely managed their payroll, they would not have been able to sign Al Horford. For the Knicks, the wisest thing to do would have been to sign lesser-known players with potential to low-risk, short-term contracts, build slowly around Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina and take inexpensive rolls of the dice and hope to find players who could become difference-makers. A player like Justin Holiday, for example, would have been ideal.

Point blank, in the NBA, it’s wise to use your salary cap space to sign auxiliary pieces to a core of three or four young players, and until that core is on the roster on inexpensive contracts, refrain from signing players to big-money deals, because those are the deals that look asinine two or three years down the line. That is, of course, you are signing a certified winner, which Hardaway is not.

As the Knicks brief flirtation with David Griffin ended, we would point to the recently deposed Sam Hinkie for his brilliance in one regard—Hinkie made a habit of using his salary cap space as a dumping ground for bad contracts from other teams. In return, he would demand a draft pick or two. Part of the reason why Hinkie left the cupboard stocked in Philadelphia was because he long ago understood that salary cap space in the NBA could be used as currency.

That was never more aggressively than it was with Hinkie, and now, in Brooklyn, Sean Marks managed to absorb the contract of DeMarre Carroll—one that the Toronto Raptors were eager to rid themselves of—and net two future draft picks in the process.

That, for purposes of team-building, was brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s been far too long since we have been able to describe a move made by the New York Knicks as such.

So, as the Knicks move forward with Hardaway Jr. and Porzingis as their core, it is entirely possible that the two could emerge as a dynamic duo that leads the Knicks back to prominence.

Here and now, however, the Hardaway Jr. signing, for the Knicks, simply appears to be a foolish roll of the dice that isn’t likely to make a substantial difference for the franchise.

In the NBA, salary cap space is an asset that can be wisely used for a number of purposes. For a time, it appeared that the Knicks realized this. Then, with the stroke of the pen and the signing of a $71 million offer sheet, it all came crashing down.

Indeed, history often does repeat itself. For the Knicks, it just always happens to be the wrong type.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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