$71M offer to Tim Hardaway Jr. raises questions about Knicks' building plan

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Tim Hardaway Jr. will soon be back to put up jumpers in Madison Square Garden. (Getty Images)
Tim Hardaway Jr. will soon be back to put up jumpers in Madison Square Garden. (Getty Images)

After sitting out the first few days of the NBA’s 2017 free agency period, the New York Knicks leapt into the market with gusto on Thursday night, getting restricted free agent shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr.’s signature on a four-year, $71 million offer sheet. To some, this particular leap might look like a majestic cannonball. To others, it’s more akin to a painful full-extension belly flop.

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How much did Knicks general manager Steve Mills, who’s taken the organization’s reins following the ouster of Phil Jackson, want to ensure that he got his man? He structured the offer sheet to include a fourth-year player option that, if exercised, will pay Hardaway nearly $19 million for the 2020-21 season, according to Shams Charania of The Vertical.

He also included a 15 percent trade kicker, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Ian Begley — a bonus paid directly to a player when he’s traded, making the prospect of moving on from said player more painful and costly. Such a bonus “can be a nuisance” when trying to move that player, because it increases the amount of incoming salary that must be accounted for under the salary cap by your trade partner, as detailed by salary cap expert Larry Coon.

The Hawks had reportedly represented that they wanted to keep Hardaway, a 25-year-old shooting guard whom they acquired from the Knicks back in 2015. But early word from ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz and Zach Lowe suggested Atlanta was unlikely to commit $71 million to Hardaway for the next four years — “a contract that far exceeds anything that most NBA executives anticipated for the 25-year-old who was drafted by the Knicks in 2013,” according to Sam Amick of USA Today Sports — with $54.3 million already earmarked for Kent Bazemore over the next three seasons.

Sure enough, the Hawks informed the Knicks this weekend that they would not match the offer sheet. Hardaway will head back to New York, where he spent the first two seasons of his career, and become a key piece of what Knicks management (whoever that term winds up encapsulating) views as the core of the team for the next several seasons.

(Briefly: Yes, the fact that the Knicks traded Hardaway only to give him a monster deal two years later is pretty funny. So, too, is the fact that the return for Hardaway — a first-round draft pick used on Notre Dame point guard Jerian Grant — was later flipped, along with center Robin Lopez and point guard Jose Calderon, to the Chicago Bulls for Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday. The Knicks let Holiday, who played pretty well last year, walk back to Chicago for two years and $9 million, and will have to renounce the rights to Rose to have enough cap space to sign Hardaway. Fun stuff, all the way around.)

Atlanta looks to be at or near the start of a multi-year rebuilding effort under new general manager Travis Schlenk, with high-priced veterans Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard being shown the door shortly after the new exec’s hire. It’s not surprising that Schlenk wasn’t willing to match what looks to be an above-market offer for a player he neither drafted nor acquired in trade, especially with Bazemore joining 2016 draft picks Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry already on-hand and future financial flexibility likely a key consideration for a Hawks team in transition.

“This is not an indictment of Hardaway as a player — he has his flaws but absolutely has his place in the league,” writes Jeff Siegel of Hawks-focused blog Peachtree Hoops. “This is an indictment of the contract, the direction Atlanta is going, and the vast dichotomy between those two things.”

“Direction” is a pretty important word here, and raises a pretty important question: Where, exactly, are the Knicks trying to go?

After four straight losing seasons and the jettisoning of Jackson, the Knicks entered this summer in position to chart a new path. New York controls all its first-round draft picks moving forward, has three young future building blocks in rising star Kristaps Porzingis, center Willy Hernangomez and 2017 first-rounder Frank Ntilikina. With the notable exception of what looks like an albatross of a deal for aging, injury-prone and suspended center Joakim Noah, the Knicks didn’t even have any significant money on the books beyond next summer.

The Mills-led front office had reportedly been telling “agents and rival executives that other priorities in free agency include trying to trade Carmelo Anthony and finding a point guard to help ease the NBA transition for” Ntilikina, who’s got a fascinating collection of physical tools at 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, but who’s still just 18 years old and making the leap to the world’s best league straight from France. The team’s construction seemed conducive to a plan of staying low and building, letting the young players play, keeping the powder dry and cap space clear.

Maybe, instead of being the kind of team that gives away assets to chase win-now improvements, the Knicks could become the kind of team that takes a more measured, forward-looking approach, renting out its cap space to help teams offload bad deals while charging an asset tax by demanding young players or future draft picks in return. Maybe, for the first time in a generation, the Knicks would actually look to rebuild.

And yet.

New York’s first big move of free agency (with all due respect to Ron Baker) was committing star-level money to a shooting guard, when they’ve already got a shooting guard in Courtney Lee, signed last summer to a reasonable deal that’ll pay him $36.7 million over the next three seasons. The Knicks will now have only the $4.3 million room midlevel exception remaining to use to find a veteran ball-handler to take the reins now so that Ntilikina can come along slowly.

It’s possible the Knicks could find that stopgap lead guard, or more help elsewhere on a roster short on just about everything, by looking to move Lee. How likely is it that the Knicks will extract maximum value, though, if prospective trade partners know New York’s got to try to get off Lee’s salary to make room for the incoming starter they’ve already signed, to avoid locking up nearly $30 million at the two-guard spot, and to prevent having already committed about $100 million in guaranteed salary for the 2018-19 season?

The counterargument: Lee’s 31 years old and has settled into what he is as a 3-and-D type, while Hardaway’s 25 and coming off the best season of his career, in position to enter his prime alongside the Knicks’ existing young core.

After two years of primarily empty-calories scoring in New York, Hardaway found himself reined in by Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, playing a grand total of 44 minutes during his first two-plus months in Atlanta while taking a couple of detours to the D-League due to lackadaisical defense. The shock to the system served him well, as he settled into a reserve role in the second half of the 2015-16 season before earning more minutes and opportunities last year.

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The Michigan product posted career highs in games, minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and field goal percentage last year. He blossomed in a larger role after Atlanta shipped Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers, averaging 17 points per game on 46/36/83 shooting splits in the second half of the season and moving into the starting lineup for good in mid-March. He went toe-to-toe with James Harden in a fourth-quarter scoring duel, and won. He scored 36 to help bring the Hawks back from a big deficit to get within a possession in the final minute against the Cavs, then scored 20-plus in three straight games as Atlanta knocked off the top-seeded Celtics and second-seeded Cleveland three games in a row in the final week of the season.

Hardaway got the chance to put up those scoring numbers because he did take steps forward defensively, improving his effort and awareness in the Hawks’ scheme. It marked a pretty big turnaround from his time at MSG, as noted by Yaron Weitzman of Bleacher Report:

“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.” […]

“Tim wasn’t good when we had him,” a [Knicks] 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.”

Setting aside the disconcerting message there — “as soon as this player completely changed everything we had him doing, he really started to prosper!” — Hardaway deserves a lot of credit for putting in the work to advance his game and develop into a solid NBA rotation player. If that development continues, Hardaway has the physical gifts and offensive talent to be more than that: an efficient 20-point-per-game wing who can shoot off the catch and off the bounce, who can get to the rim and finish in traffic, and who works hard defensively. Sounds like a pretty valuable player.

Yes, banking on that development continuing away from the watchful eyes of Budenholzer’s staff, who have an excellent track record of molding young wings, feels a little dicey, but there’s a real NBA player here. Unlike sinking $72 million into a 31-year-old center with a significant injury history, this deal isn’t tantamount to malpractice. It is, however, aspirational. Incredibly so.

The best-case scenario is that Hardaway becomes a legitimate No. 1 scoring option while holding his own defensively and fueling an honest-to-God ascent for a young Knicks team. If he falls anywhere short of that, it’s going to be really, really hard to justify this sort of expense now, and the way it vaporizes New York’s cap space in years to come. It’s the kind of contract that will make it supremely difficult for the Knicks to ever get true bang for their buck, and could unfairly make Hardaway a villain even if he continues to show up and do his best.

It’s a move that makes the team more expensive at a time it says it wants to cut salary by offloading Melo and shopping Lee, and that prioritizes volume scoring over the Knicks’ clear defensive and playmaking needs. It feels like a grasp at trying to win now in a depleted Eastern Conference while telling people you’re building for the future, without actually making a legitimate concerted effort to do either, which is a good way to land in the NBA’s murky middle. It feels like the Knicks trying to walk two paths at once, again, this time under new management.

A week ago, New York fans rejoiced at the franchise’s repudiation of the triangle. Now, they’re left to hope that they haven’t just replaced it with another dismal shape: the same damn circle of now-for-later that’s left the Knicks standing still for the better part of two decades.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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