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Tim Hardaway Jr. could be the Mavericks’ third starter if he can become an efficient scorer

THJ could be the third option the Mavericks are looking for, or things could get much…swaggier.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Hardaway Jr. came to the Mavericks in the middle of last season as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade — a big contract that the Knicks were all too happy to get out from under as the price for being willing to give up KP to Dallas.

Though the Mavericks surely didn’t want to take on that kind of contract, Tim Hardaway Jr. looked more like an NBA player most nights than any non-Luka Doncic player on the Mavericks. But looks can be deceiving. I’m certain this point has been brought up a thousand times: Hardaway is absolutely an NBA athlete, but what is he as an NBA player?

Biggest question

I don’t really want to get into Hardaway’s contract. It is what it is. So I’ll just talk about Hardaway the player. The biggest question for Hardaway this season is: can he be an efficient scorer? Hardaway has career splits of 41.8 percent from the field, 34.3 percent from three, and 81.6 percent from the free throw line. His numbers are not TERRIBLE, but they’re certainly not good, and they look a lot worse when you consider the amount of shots he puts up.

Last season, in his games with the Knicks and the Mavericks, Hardaway took 15.3 shots per games and made 6 per game. SIX. That’s good for 39.3 percent from the field. Those are not acceptable numbers for a player who likely has ambitions to be the third option on the team.

Best case scenario

Tim Hardaway Jr. has been on two good basketball teams in his NBA career. Neither of those teams were Knicks teams, obviously. The 2016 and 2017 Atlanta Hawks were both middle of the road Eastern Conference playoff teams. For our purposes we’ll consider these “good” teams. The reason I bring this up is because Tim Hardaway Jr. has only had one NBA season with a PER higher than 15; not coincidentally, this was the 2017 season. (Hardaway played the fewest minutes of his career as a full-time backup in 2016).

Playing 49 of his 79 games off the bench in the 2017 season, Hardaway averaged 14.5 points on 45.5 percent from the field and 35.7 percent from three. These shooting averages feel a lot better than the spoiled milk numbers we saw last season. Hardaway did this two years ago, and he’s only 27 so we’re not seeing some sort of age-related decline at this point. Everybody knows what playing for the Knicks can do to people, so let’s hope a little more time away from that organization has been good for Hardaway’s soul. Hardaway can still do what he did with the Hawks in 2017, and he can likely do it better.

No offense to Dennis Schroeder, but playing with Luka Doncic could do wonders for Hardaway’s game. Play fast, play hard, be ready to catch the ball, don’t try to be Jimmy Butler, take good shots, and play a little bit of defense. I am still, maybe naively, of the belief that Tim Hardaway Jr. can be the third guy the Mavericks will need this season.

Worst case scenario

BUT I COULD BE WRONG THO. If Hardaway decides he should be the scorer on this team, or if he tries to be the secondary initiator of the offense, things could get ugly. In his few games with the Mavericks last year Hardaway would occasionally make a move that would make you sit up in your chair, and then follow it up by forcing one of the worst shots you’ve ever seen.

Hardaway has played 403 games in his NBA career. On short midrange shots, shots taken from 3-10 feet from the basket, Hardaway has converted 30.4 percent of them. I’ve looked that number up five times since I typed it because it seems wrong. That is 15-percent-lower-than-rookie-Luka bad. 6-percent-lower-than-Rondo bad.

FiveThirtyEight’s Career-Arc Regression Model Estimator with Local Optimization (CARMELO) is an incredibly nerdy data set that maps career projections, five-year market value projections and player similarity scores. CARMELO has Hardaway with a five-year market value of $34.4 million. Oof. (They have Luka Doncic with a five-year market value of $362.3 million, just for comparison’s sake.) But perhaps the strongest indicator of our potential worst case scenario is CARMELO’s projection for the most comparable player for Hardaway this upcoming season: 2013 Nick Young.