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

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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.