Tim Hardaway Jr. New York Knicks
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A promising New York Knicks season has once again started heading in the wrong direction. Here’s why Tim Hardaway Jr.’s absence has been an even bigger deal than anyone realizes.

Oh how quickly they forget.

When the little elves of Vegas got together and made the NBA over/under win totals for this year, the New York Knicks were given the uninspiring number of 30 1/2. Through 39 games, they’re about 3 1/2 wins ahead of where they were slated to finish…or right about on target considering the home-heavy schedule.

Ho hum. If you scroll through the Twitter feed of an average Knicks’ fan, you’d think this was 2016-17 all over again.

Sure, it’s New York…we like nice things and when we get a taste of them, we don’t like to give them up. The 16-13 start included several wins either without Kristaps Porzingis or where he left early. It gave the fanbase a false sense of hope that the team could overcome more than its talent allows. Promising signs from a 19-year-old point guard only added to the hoopla.

Most of all, New York’s initial weathering of Tim Hardaway Jr.‘s absence made everyone forget how vitally important he is to the team. Looking closer, their 5-3 record without Timmy was a bit of fool’s gold. Four wins came at home, with the fifth coming a few miles away in Brooklyn. Moreover, three wins were against the Hawks, Lakers, and Grizzlies – the three worst teams in the league. They also caught Oklahoma City at the low point of their season.

Since that Thunder game, the team has gone 2-8 facing actual, competent NBA competition. The numbers behind that record tell a very clear story as to why the drop-off has occurred.

An Offensive Mess

Prior to the Melo rematch, the Knicks sported the league’s 10th-best offense and a very respectable 105.2 defensive rating, good enough for 15th in the NBA. Since Lance Thomas—a stout defender—took over for Hardaway in the starting lineup, the defense has unsurprisingly remained strong, falling one spot to 16th at 106.7.

The offense, well…avert your eyes, kids. Despite having a healthy Porzingis for all but the first game of the last 10, the Knicks have run out the second-worst offense in the league over that span, ahead of only the Utah Jazz (but please, let’s keep talking about the transcendence of Donovan Mitchell. I’ll be right over here totally paying attention, promise).

“Well duh, KP’s been off…no wonder they can’t score.”

Yes and no. During this stretch, Porzingis has an offensive rating of 100.3 and a net rating of minus-5.6. Those numbers are…not great. They’re also second on the team among rotation players. More revealing is that when KP is off the court, the team sinks to an unsightly minus -11.1 net rating and scores 97.1 points per 100 possessions, which would be the worst in the NBA by a wide margin over the full season.

So while the big guy deserves some of the blame, the drop off isn’t really on his shoulders. Sadly, this one falls on one of the team’s consummate professionals…just one that’s in over his head a bit.

No Easy Solution

When Thomas is playing 15 gritty minutes a night, he looks like a guy who could be on the floor for the last five minutes of a Finals game. He’ll shut down the opposing team’s best wing, and his 37 percent conversion rate from deep keeps defenses honest.

What Thomas isn’t is a guy who can juice an offense that needs some lubrication. Via NBA.com, the Knicks original starting lineup with Hardaway as one of the wings had a net rating of plus-5.6 in 233 minutes, which would be fourth in the league and comes in just below the Wizards ballyhooed five-man unit of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Markieff Morris, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat (plus-6.0 in 317 minutes).

The same Knicks lineup with Lance Thomas in his place? Minus-5.1 in 215 minutes. Oof.

It get’s worse. A popular solution to fixing the team looks a lot worse when Hardaway’s injury comes into play.

The notion of playing Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina together more definitely has the stats to back it up. When the two share the court, they outscore opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions – easily the highest of any New York two-man combo that has played at least 100 minutes together. However, that number drops down to plus-5.1 when Hardaway Jr. is off the court, via CleaningTheGlass.com.

After Kristaps and Frank, the next five highest-rated duos that have played at least 100 minutes together all involve Hardaway. The Timmy/KP pairing ranks eighth with a plus-4.0 net rating in 571 minutes. When Porzingis has been on the court without Hardaway? In over 1000 possessions, he is a minus-1.3 (again via CTG.com).

Missing Timmy Across the Board

What about everyone’s favorite punching bags, Jarrett Jack and Enes Kanter? When they shared the court with THJ, they were doing just fine with a plus-5.4 net rating. Without him? the number falls to a minus-8.1 according to CleaningTheGlass.com.

Is Hardaway ever going to be worth the contract he got this summer? Probably not. Are these numbers skewed by the fact that the team played so many home games early in the season when Timmy was healthy? A bit, sure.

Even keeping those factors in mind, Tim Hardaway Jr. being out hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it’s deserved, even from the 24/7 New York media.

The most recent reports have Hardaway potentially returning to practices as soon as this week. For a Knicks team on the brink of allowing their season to spiral out of control, his return can’t come soon enough.

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