The Knicks’ defining characteristic is not their badness. They have certainly been bad in recent years, but so have many teams around the NBA. The true essence of Knicksness is the ability to go absolutely nowhere in the loudest, silliest way possible. For example, in 2013–14 the Knicks won 37 games. They then hired the most famous basketball figure they could find, Phil Jackson, to become team president, a role in which he put together rosters that won 32 and 31 games in the past two seasons and alienated the squad’s best players. New York could have achieved a similar result by doing nothing; instead, it paid a supposed genius $60 million for three years of work.
Another example: The Knicks could have made Tim Hardaway Jr. a part of their future for cheap if they’d done absolutely nothing since they drafted him four years ago. Instead, two trades and two front-office regime changes have led them to a point where they’ve signed him to a $71 million offer sheet. The Hawks have the right to match, but likely won’t given that nobody thought Hardaway would get an average salary of almost $18 million a year. (Useless but stunning comparison: Hardaway’s father, a five-time All-Star, made $47 million in his 14-year NBA career.)
In 2013, the Knicks drafted Hardaway Jr. 24th overall. As a rookie, he contributed 10.2 points per game to a team with playoff hopes — not bad for a late first-rounder. (Hardaway and Dion Waiters had an epic duel in the Rising Stars Game that All-Star weekend. The "Rising Stars" thing seemed funny for about four years, since neither seemed destined for much — until the past two days, when they agreed to deals worth a combined $123 million.) Jackson took over as New York’s president heading into 2014–15, and promptly went about reconfiguring the roster to his liking. Hardaway’s scoring (11.5 points per game) improved slightly in his sophomore campaign, but that was mainly because he played an increased role on a team that tanked en route to the worst record in franchise history. His game lacked efficiency and had glaring defensive problems. In June 2015, he was traded to the Hawks for their first-round pick while he was out to dinner with his teammates, ending a stint with the Knicks that wasn’t exactly happy: Carmelo Anthony reportedly threatened Hardaway in the locker room after an in-game argument, and Hardaway confirmed that he asked his girlfriend whether she had ever been romantically involved with head coach Derek Fisher.
As I wrote while chronicling Jackson’s tenure as a Knicks executive, the 2015 Hardaway trade seemed like a great deal for the franchise at the time. It had turned the 24th pick from the 2013 draft into the 19th pick two years later. Hardaway had turned in two seasons that weren’t particularly special; New York used its newly acquired pick on Jerian Grant, a point guard who had led Notre Dame to the Elite Eight during his senior year on campus.
Only Grant underwhelmed as a rookie. As part of his quest to dismantle the team’s roster every season, Jackson traded Grant, Robin Lopez — also acquired the previous offseason — and Jose Calderon for Derrick Rose, an ex-superstar with zero good knees and one year remaining on his contract. Meanwhile, Hardaway blossomed in Atlanta. After making multiple trips to the D-League in 2015–16, he emerged as a member of the Hawks starting lineup in 2016–17, posting career numbers (14.5 points) across the board.
The front-office staffers left in New York after Jackson’s departure must love Hardaway, and they clearly have no interest in re-signing Rose. In fact, they’ll likely renounce Rose — a technical move with some complicated financial implications that essentially ends his tenure with the team — if the Hawks decline to match the Hardaway offer, as it will be the easiest way to make room under the cap. Thus, I present a New York Knicks flow chart:
The Knicks traded Hardaway for a player who became a small piece in a trade for a player they’re eager to cut ties with to re-sign Hardaway. It’s an M.C. Escher sketch: The deals keep escalating, but the team ends up in the same place.
If New York had just retained Hardaway the whole time, it would have held his restricted free-agent rights, allowing the front office to sit back and let the rest of the NBA dictate his worth. Holding a player’s restricted free-agent rights is an enviable position for a team to be in: Either it signs a player to a contract it’s happy with, or some other team overpays. There is an art to Price Is Right–ing an offer sheet, signing a restricted free agent to a deal at — but not over — his ideal value, thereby landing the player or forcing his original team to shell out the maximum amount of money it was willing to spend to keep him. In this case, the Knicks have sent their yodeler wayyyyyy over the cliff.
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz reports that the Hawks were estimating Hardaway would go for around $45 million. CBS ranked Hardaway as the 56th-best free agent this year; Bleacher Report had him 47th; Sports Illustrated had him 43rd. The figures in free agency have skyrocketed over the past few years, but there are not 40-plus players getting $70 million deals.
The contract is all the more jarring given that it’s easy to envision an alternate universe in which the Knicks never traded Hardaway and held onto him entering 2017–18 with just a qualifying offer — 130 percent of what he made last year, or $2.8 million — before negotiating in unrestricted free agency next July. If Hardaway had stayed with the Knicks, he likely would have been another square peg that Jackson tried to cram into a triangle-shaped hole, and his value wouldn’t have spiked dramatically as a result of his play in Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s heralded offense. (The Knicks are still kind of dumb in this alternate universe.)
Paying $71 million for Hardaway is not the worst deal in the NBA. (Though it may be the second-worst.) It wouldn’t even be the worst deal on the Knicks: Last year New York gave more than $72 million to the disintegrating bones of Joakim Noah, who will probably provide negative value for the remainder of his career. Unlike Noah, Hardaway is a somewhat useful basketball player, and he’s only 25 years old. He’s just not worth $18 million annually — that’s about one-fifth of the $99 million salary cap, and Hardaway might not even start. The Noah signing was contract malpractice; the Hardaway offer sheet is merely a comical overpay.
This move is extremely Knicks. New York’s fans would have been thrilled if the team had simply passed on trying to make a splash in this year’s free-agent market — look at these poor souls, who celebrated the franchise’s apparent stretch of reason only to collapse once it signed Hardaway. The Knicks could have moved forward by doing nothing. Instead, they offered to pay extravagantly for a player they could have kept by simply standing still.