In a season bordering on sheer farce, the New York Knicks have been woefully short of pleasant surprises. Tyson Chandler looked strong coming back from last season's injured neck...only to fracture his leg. Pablo Prigioni looked good taking over the starting point guard spot from Raymond Felton...only to break his toe.
Carmelo Anthony has been a beacon of consistency, but he's been forced to play so many minutes that's it is only a matter of time before he breaks down too.
But even within the gaping black void of the 2013-14 Knicks, one flickering light has emerged, and that is the play of rookie shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.
At the beginning of the season, it would have been absurd to suggest that the 24th overall pick out of Michigan would surpass starter Iman Shumpert and reigning Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith as the best shooting guard on the roster. But Shumpert has struggled amid a flurry of trade rumors, and Smith has been quite possibly the worst player in the league this season.
In the meantime, Hardaway has exceeded every sane expectation for his rookie season, shooting 47.4 percent, 14th among all NBA guards with at least 150 field-goal attempts, and 42.7 percent from behind the arc, 24th in the NBA.
That's not simply good for a rookie. That's good, period.
If the Knicks were a meritocracy, they'd start giving Hardaway more minutes, and he would get the same chance to shine that other top rookies have been given. But the Knicks are the furthest thing from a meritocracy, and there's no guarantee that Hardaway will see the court.
A Wide-Open Rookie of the Year Race
Could Tim Hardaway Jr. actually walk away with the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year award? It's not as ridiculous as you might think. In an incredibly weak year for rookies, Hardaway has already done enough to put himself in the discussion.
There didn't look to be much of a Rookie of the Year race at all in the first five weeks of the season. Michael Carter-Williams of the 76ers put up historic numbers in his first few weeks, and No. 2 overall pick Victor Oladipo looked like the only other competition for the award.
But a few things have happened in December to change the course of the race.
Both Carter-Williams and Oladipo have fallen back to Earth this month. Utah point guard Trey Burke, who started his career in late November due to an injury, has come into his own. And three rookie bench players—Oklahoma City's Steven Adams, Brooklyn's Mason Plumlee and Hardaway—have become valuable, efficient contributors.
So what was originally a two-man race for Rookie of the Year has turned into a wide-open dogfight.
|Michael Carter-Williams||551 (4)||18.8 (1)||.077 (5)||17.3 (1)||40.8 (8)||32.4 (7)|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||417 (9)||16.4 (2)||.121 (3)||16.8 (2)||47.4 (4)||42.7 (1)|
|Steven Adams||381 (12)||13.5 (6)||.155 (1)||8.9 (15)||50.0 (2)||---|
|Mason Plumlee||341 (15)||16.2 (4)||.155 (1)||13.3 (5)||69.4 (1)||---|
|Trey Burke||476 (7)||16.3 (3)||.073 (6)||16.3 (3)||39.6 (11)||35.8 (2)|
|Victor Oladipo||822 (1)||12.2 (8)||.006 (15)||15.2 (4)||40.0 (10)||27.8 (10)|
Of course, the starters have superior raw stat totals compared to the reserves. Players like Carter-Williams, Oladipo and Burke are allowed to jack up more shots, regardless of their shooting percentages, because their teams are concerned with their future development.
The two reserve bigs, Adams and Plumlee, will continue to ride the pine because their teams have a lot of money invested in their frontcourt starters.
Where does that leave Hardaway? Looking at the records, the 8-17 Knicks should be just as interested in developing Hardaway as the 8-18 Magic are interested in developing Oladipo. But Hardaway has the misfortune of playing for an owner who has deluded himself into thinking that his team is a contender this year.
What Does Hardaway Offer the Knicks?
At first blush, Tim Hardaway Jr. offers the Knicks only one skill: shooting. He only averages 2.6 rebounds and two assists per 36 minutes, and he is a liability on defense.
But Hardaway offers more than just a jumper. He is a savant on the fast break, capable of highlight-reel finishes and high-percentage shots at the rim even when multiple defenders are in position.
The other Knicks, however, are virtually unusable on the fast break. Per NBA.com, the Knicks are ranked dead last in the league in fast-break points per game, and even their three-on-one breaks often end in disaster. New York could certain use more of the easy transition buckets Hardaway provides each night.
The other thing that Hardaway does well is take care of the basketball. He currently sports the lowest turnover percentage on the Knicks at 7.9 percent. Last season, the Knicks based their offense on two principles: three-point shooting and reducing turnovers. And they rode their league-leading three-point volume and turnover rate into the NBA's third-ranked offense.
This year's Knicks are struggling to score because they are not shooting at a high percentage and because they are turning the ball over slightly more. Hardaway's 42.7 percent three-point shooting and low turnover rate takes care of both of those problems.
A World Without J.R.
Knicks fans caught the briefest glimpse of what Hardaway can give them on Saturday against Atlanta, when Mike Woodson benched J.R. Smith and played Hardaway in the fourth quarter. The backcourt of Hardaway, Shumpert and Pablo Prigioni helped the Knicks pull away from the Hawks. Hardaway played 27 minutes to Smith's 24, and the Knicks won.
It didn't last.
Woodson was back to his old tricks in the next two games, playing Smith huge minutes in both Monday's embarrassing loss to the Wizards and Wednesday's equally embarrassing double-overtime win against the last-place Bucks. Smith played 48 minutes to 22 for Hardaway on Wednesday and attempted a Knicks-record 17 three-pointers, hitting only five. Smith is now hitting 33.3 percent of his shots, the fourth-worst mark in the NBA this season.
Not that he plans to stop shooting, as he made clear on Twitter after the game.
Lol 17 threes tho! Had to say damn my self!— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) December 19, 2013
But trust me give me that chance again I'll shoot it again!— JR Smith (@TheRealJRSmith) December 19, 2013
Smith obviously has far more of a track record in the league than Hardaway, but he is destroying the Knicks' chances to get back into the playoff race at the moment.
It's possible he is still suffering the effects of his offseason knee surgery...in which case he should be playing fewer minutes. It is equally possible that he has completely lost his mind...in which case he should be playing fewer minutes.
At least some of Smith's minutes should be going to Hardaway. If the Knicks are interested in turning their season around, they should give Hardaway more minutes. If the Knicks are interested in developing their first-round draft pick, they should give Hardaway more minutes.
Unfortunately, the Knicks' motives are unclear even to longtime observers.
They say they want to contend, but they don't play their best players. It seems likely that Woodson will continue to roll the dice with Smith, and that Hardaway will remain the NBA's best-shooting, least-used guard.