Tim Hardaway Jr.’s Injury Could Lead To Knicks Being Deadline Sellers

If there was ever a time for Hardaway to be out for two weeks, it would be right now

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New York Knicks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. will be out for at least two weeks with a stress injury in his left leg. Losing Hardaway, who has been enjoying a career-year, will be tough for a Knicks team short of talented, veteran backcourt depth.

The Knicks have started Damyean Dotson in Hardaway’s place and the rookie has shown strong two-way potential. The problem is that any team starting a rookie player drafted in the middle of the second round over a long period of time likely won’t make the playoffs.

Consider the fact that Hardaway might take longer to return than two weeks and then look at the Knicks’ upcoming schedule. The Knicks have actually had the fifth-hardest schedule of the season (SOS) according to ESPN, and their expected win-loss record, surprisingly enough, matches their record in real life. What’s misleading about the team’s SOS though is that the Knicks have played 65% of their games this season at home, which is currently the highest percentage in the league.

If there was ever a time for Hardaway to be out for two weeks, it would be right now. The Knicks have seven games during that span and every single opponent is .500 or worse. What’s more is that of those seven games, only three are away (Chicago, Brooklyn and Charlotte). Considering the fact that New York then plays seven of their following eight games against teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today, the Knicks cannot afford to be under .500 in two weeks time, should Hardaway even be ready by then.

It was highlighted last month how rigorous this team’s schedule will be from mid-December through January. Now picture this: it’s January and the Knicks, a team currently on pace for less than six road wins this season, are in the thick of a brutal stretch where they’re scheduled to play 16 out of 20 games on the road. After that, New York has two home games before the trade deadline on February 8, then seven games (six against teams currently over .500) to close out February and finally a four-game road trip to start the month of March. That could be a pretty sticky situation to be in, eh?

Kristaps Porzingis is expected to return from an ankle sprain tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies and should give the team a much-needed boost. Yet with no Hardaway, the Knicks sorely lack a secondary scorer. One of the major benefits about signing Hardaway over the summer is that he would take pressure off Porzingis and allow the 22-year old to develop as a first option without constantly being double- or triple-teamed. While Porzingis should have no trouble scoring with or without Hardaway, there won’t be a guard who can pick up the slack if Porzingis has a poor game, gets into foul trouble or is injured. And if that happens consistently over at the very least the next seven games, the Knicks could lose games that should have been won.

This isn’t to say that the Hardaway injury will be the sole factor in whether or not the Knicks choose to trade veterans like Courtney Lee and Kyle O’Quinn as the deadline approaches. For all we know, the Knicks front office intends to deal players at the deadline as it is. After all, it’s only the first year of a three-year plan. If the Knicks decide to bring Hardaway along slowly, the team could sell fans on a season lost to injuries suffered by key players as opposed to punting on a year because the team wasn’t good enough at full strength. Fans can then look forward to a 2018 team with Porzingis, Hardaway, Frank Ntilikina and another top-10 pick, as well as the potential for additional cap space during a summer where the majority of teams will be strapped for cash. None of that is a bad consolation prize for a lost season.

When fully healthy, this is an average team with a few young, core pieces in place that could snag a low playoff seed if luck is on its side. However, injuries are simply a part of the game. The Knicks have the 15th-best bench in the league, and with Hardaway out, a player must graduate from the bench to the rotation. This not only hampers bench production but also causes a drop off in production amongst the starters since a player like Dotson now has some large shoes to fill.

The Hardaway injury should mean that Ntilikina and Ron Baker get more playing time as well. Both players performed adequately in the team’s blowout loss to the Indiana Pacers, with Ntilikina doing a better job of attacking the basket thanks to more pick and roll action and Baker getting it done on both ends of the floor. In fact, one could argue that it would be almost fortuitous if Hardaway’s injury served as a catalyst for the development of the team’s young players. Wouldn’t it be fantastic for Ntilikina to improve his offense so he’s ready to be a starter on a potential playoff team next season? And if Baker can become a serviceable role player and earn consistent minutes by working on his outside shot, he might be worth what amounts to a mere 4.4% of this year’s salary cap in a lost season.

The Knicks will sorely miss Hardaway while he nurses his injury. Hope should not be lost on the season but it’s easy to see how Hardaway’s absence can be the beginning of the end for a Knicks team that is still in the throes of a rebuild. In the meantime, it’s up to the team’s younger players to step up in Hardaway’s absence and do everything they can to keep New York in playoff contention. And if those players can’t rise to the occasion, they will at least be getting valuable playing time that will pay dividends in the future.