By John Schmeelk
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I give this Knicks team a lot of credit. Not many teams would come out right after the All-Star break and pick up right where they left off almost a week ago. It was another excruciating loss for the Knicks because of inconsistent effort, bad defensive strategy by the coach and terrible decision-making at the end of the game. If ownership and the front office began to forget what this team was over the All-Star break they were reminded very quickly that the Knicks are a bad basketball team. This chances of this season being meaningful are nil. The Knicks stink.
It's an important thing to reinforce only 48 hours or so before the trade deadline. Perhaps those facts might just convince Steve Mills not to trade future pieces for a point guard who will help this year, but hurt the team's future building plans. Of course, these are the Knicks, and another loss like that might send James Dolan and Mills into a panic deal that would do just that.
The Knicks have very few future assets, and they need to hang onto them at all costs. The first person on that list is Tim Hardaway, Jr. He is far from perfect, but he is the best young player the Knicks have, and he is still on his rookie contract for three more years after this one. As good as his offensive numbers look, there are many things he still needs to work on.
Despite his improved numbers in the last month of games (13 pts/game, 46 percent from the field), the Knicks have been a far better team with him off the floor than on it. When he plays, the Knicks have been outscored by nearly a point per 100 possessions, but when he is on the bench the Knicks outscore teams by nearly nine points per 100 possessions. For the entire season, the numbers are much, much worse.
Lineups numbers like those can get skewed based on who is on the floor with a player, but they do point to a couple of huge flaws in Hardaway's game: rebounding and defense. He is averaging only 1.5 rebounds per game, with a paltry 4.1 percent rebound percentage, which is the lowest on the team. Defensively, he often finds himself lost on screens and in space, leaving players open all over the court. Lineups with him in the game have given up more points per possession than lineups with any other player on the team. That includes Amar'e Stoudemire, just to highlight how bad it has been defensively for the rookie this year.
But those things are all correctable. Young players often struggle on defense, and if taught correctly they can become competent at that end of the floor. Unfortunately, Mike Woodson's switching and double-team obsessed defensive principles clearly haven't helped the young player at all this year. I would love to see if Hardaway could develop into a better defender under a different coach.
Offensively, however, Hardaway has been an excellent find by the Knicks' front office. He can score as a spot=up shooter off kick outs and ball rotations. He can catch and shoot coming off of screens, a skill that has been lost in the NBA. Lately, he has even shot off the dribble a little bit more. He finishes around the basket and in transition better than any other Knicks guard, and it isn't close. Hardaway still struggles creating his own shot off the dribble, but that's something he can improve on, especially if he improves his handle.
Hardaway won't be a No. 1 scorer at 22-plus points per game year in and year out, but he can be the third scorer on the team and be a steady and dangerous contributor at shooting guard for years to come. The fact that he has already shown all this as a rookie is extremely impressive and cannot be overlooked. He is far more likely to show vast improvement than a guy like Iman Shumpert, who has regressed in his third NBA season rather than improve.
That's why the Knicks can't trade Hardaway, Jr. He has too much potential as a rookie, and he will be under the Knicks' control for three more seasons. Shumpert has just one left until he is a free agent. I would prefer not to trade Shumpert either, simply because of his small contract and the fact that the Knicks should be able to bring him back at a reasonable number in 2015 as part of their rebuilding plan. But if I am given a choice, Shumpert leaves first, long before Hardaway and long before the Knicks offer their 2018 first-round pick in any trades.
All the Knicks have left is the future, and they must protect their assets that can help them when the future arrives. Hardaway, Jr. is first on that list. Dealing him would be a dire mistake. Doing anything to help this season, or even next, would more than likely be a dire mistake. Right now the Knicks need to plan for 2015. Nothing else matters.
You can follow me on Twitter @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants, Yankees and the world of sports.
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