Things for the New York Knicks were finally starting to turn around. They said goodbye to Phil Jackson and, correctly, remained quiet during the first week of free agency. No non-stars were inked to star-like contracts, a move the franchise has perfected over the past, oh, two decades.
Then came the news Thursday night, courtesy of ESPN’s Ian Begley and Adrian Wojnarowski: The Knicks and restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. had come to terms on a four-year deal worth…$71 million? That dollar amount looked like a typo. The Knicks will be dedicating about 18 percent of their cap room to a 25-year-old shooting guard who averaged 14.5 points per game last season. And that was a career high.
It gets better, though.
According to ESPN, the contract includes a 15 percent trade kicker, which means that if, down the line, the Knicks decide to trade Hardaway, they’ll be forced to cough up an extra 15 percent of whatever is left on his deal, which means it will be nearly impossible to ever deal him, which means count on the Hawks happily passing on matching the deal and seeing Hardaway, and his $17.8 million per year salary, on New York’s books for the next four years.
“No I can’t,” said an agent when asked by Bleacher Report if he could believe the numbers on the Hardaway deal. “But then again, it’s the Knicks.”
"They're nuts," wrote another agent. "Their two moves are re-signing Ron Baker and crazy overpay here."
Also very Knicksian: the fact that they drafted Hardaway in the first round four years ago, only to trade him for point guard Jerian Grant, whom they traded last summer for Derrick Rose, an unrestricted free agent whose Bird rights they’ll have to renounce (they can still sign him if they want, but they could not exceed the salary cap to do so) in order to complete the Hardaway deal.
As one Eastern Conference front office staffer texted: "LOL."
Add in the $55.6 million the Knicks owe Joakim Noah’s mummified body over the next three years and the fact that there’s no projected salary-cap spike in sight, and suddenly the Knicks find themselves strapped for cap space for the foreseeable future.
Just 24 hours ago you could have made an argument that the Knicks were in prime position to soon pull themselves out of the league’s cellar and maybe even start on the path toward championship contention. For all the drama he created and all the silly decisions he made, Jackson deserves some credit for not leaving a dumpster fire in his wake. (Though, to be fair, given the war he was waging with Kristaps Porzingis, there’s a good chance he would have torched the place had he been allowed to remain in charge.)
The Knicks have all their future first-round picks. They have a franchise player in Porzingis. And in Willy Hernangomez and lottery selection Frank Ntilikina, they have two players who could become part of a solid young core.
That’s why the free-agency strategy they seemed to be following prior to the Hardaway deal made sense. There was no reason to chase expensive borderline All-Stars like Jeff Teague or George Hill or wager on pricey gambles like Dion Waiters. None of those players would launch the Knicks into contention, so why waste the capital? Being conservative was the smart play. Keep your picks and your cap room; give the young guys some reps. You’re playing the long game anyway.
So why’d general manager Steve Mills, who’s temporarily running things in MSG in the wake of Jackson’s removal, decide Hardaway was worth aborting this strategy?
(Maybe Mills, who's gunning for the team president title that Jackson left behind, wants to make the roster as unappealing as possible to keep available personnel men from wanting the job. Or maybe assistant general manager Allan Houston was sick of being labeled the most overpaid shooting guard in team history.)
The Knicks will likely sell this as the opposite: that inking Hardaway—who, according to league sources, did have other teams interested in him—to this deal is part of their rebuilding blueprint, an example of their investing in young talents with upside. Which is great and all, but that doesn’t mean you overpay a player by about $20 million, in a capped sport no less, just because he fits in that box.
That’s like saying you want to start eating healthy but then spending a chunk of your food budget on a single bag of kale.
To be fair, Hardaway is young, and that he took such a major leap last season is a promising sign.
"He can really score," one Eastern Conference scout told Bleacher Report. "His shot selection isn't great, and he doesn't make other players better, but he's got a nice stroke, is a good finisher and can put points up in a hurry. He's gotten a lot better."
Hardaway drilled 35.7 percent of his treys last season; maybe this year he can get that number up closer to 40. Maybe he continues to improve his off-the-bounce game. Maybe he puts in even more effort on defense, an area in which he improved dramatically in Atlanta. (His poor defense got him sent down the D-League during his first season with the Hawks.)
That’s a lot of maybes, though, especially for a player the Knicks viewed as dead weight just two years ago.
“Tim wasn’t good when we had him,” a team staffer told Bleacher Report in April when asked if there was a chance the Knicks would look to bring Hardaway back over the summer. “Atlanta had to totally break him down and put him back together to get him to this point.”
But for Hardaway to prove worthy of this deal, he'd have to morph into a star—and away from the environment in which he was able to excel. That's unlikely ever to happen, which means for the next four years, the Knicks will be giving star money to a player unworthy of such a deal. In a capped league, that might be the most crippling mistake a team can make.