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Tim Hardaway Jr.’s season is remarkable in every way

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It’s hard to think about where the Mavericks would stand without an explosion from an unlikely source.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Hardaway Jr. is indispensable. The Mavericks might be doomed without him.

The fact that the statement above isn’t wild hyperbole goes to show just how incredible Hardaway’s season has been. Over the last few months his season has gone from “oh wow, this is neat” to “is Hardaway the second most important player on the team?” The Mavericks keep winning games and Hardaway keeps making threes at a bonkers rate relative to the rest of his career. If this is a hot streak, it’s a helluva run.

For the season, Hardaway is now shooting almost 41 percent from three (40.8 to be exact). There are only 11 players in the NBA who have played in at least 35 games, take at least six threes per game and hit at least 40 percent or better from three. Hardaway is one of those 11, which, again, is crazy. Hardaway’s previous career-high from three was 36.3 percent back in 2014, his rookie season. In fact, he’s only been at 35 percent or better from three just twice before this season — his rookie season and the 2016-2017 season in Atlanta.

Here’s the even crazier stat. Hardaway is currently hitting 44 percent of his catch and shoot three pointers. Last season? He was at 32.3 percent. The season before that? 34.2 percent. The season in Atlanta, which was easily his best season as a pro before coming to Dallas? 36.1 percent. It’s hard to put into words how remarkable this turnaround is.

Hell, think about this: last season, playing with Luka Doncic after being traded to Dallas, Hardaway only hit about 33 percent of his catch and shoot threes. Even this season didn’t start well. He shot 29.5 percent from three in this season’s first 13 games and 34.4 percent from the floor overall. The nadir was the 13th game of that stretch, a 15-minute scoreless output against the Spurs where Hardaway missed all five of his shots and was benched in the second half. At that point it wouldn’t have been outlandish to think Hardaway’s season was lost and most Mavericks fans would continue counting down until his contract expired in a few seasons.

Of all the remarkable things about Hardaway’s season, this might be the most outrageous part — the very next game, two nights later against the Warriors, Hardaway went into the starting lineup for an ill Seth Curry. He shot 6-of-7 from the floor, he hit all four of his three pointers, he scored 20 points and the Mavericks won by a zillion points.

In the 42 games Hardaway has played as a starter, which he never went back to the bench after that Warriors game, he’s shooting 43.7 percent from three on over seven attempts per game. Sheesh.

If you told me in August that Hardaway would be a better shooter than Danny Green, I would have slapped you. Yet here we are and Hardaway has been putting up even better numbers than any theoretical off-season signing would have done. Dallas desperately needed a shooter last summer and they got one! It was just one the Mavericks apparently already had. I wrote earlier this season how the Mavericks are math-ing teams to death, launching lots of quality threes and outscoring teams despite hitting them at an average clip and without an elite shooter. At the time, Hardaway was “only” at 38 percent. Whoops! Guess the Mavericks have an elite shooter now.

There are now two questions about Hardaway: How is he doing it and what happens next? For the how, this part is a little hard to parse. Conventional wisdom says that Hardaway got healthy last summer (he underwent surgery as soon as last season ended for a stress fracture in his lower leg), he got used to the Mavericks system with a full off-season of training and has been blessed by the touch of Luka Doncic. All of that makes a lot of sense and is likely true, although Hardaway has been in a good system before in Atlanta and didn’t see anything close to these results. He also played with Luka some last season! Granted, he wasn’t healthy. Still, the Luka touch has to be talked about, because the numbers are eye-popping.

On passes from Doncic, Hardaway is hitting 45 percent of his three pointers. He gets about two of his seven three attempts per game from Doncic, by far the most of any Maverick. So it’s clear that Doncic is creating great looks for Hardaway in a starting lineup that typically features a 7’3 center in Kristaps Porzingis that draws a lot of attention.

The other curious area of this radical improvement is this tidbit that was dropped back in December:

Who knows, maybe Rick Carlisle has the Midas touch? Even when you combine all these factors, it’s hard to say that they’re all the sole reason contributing to Hardaway’s success. The improvement is just so drastic for a player in his seventh season, it almost feels like there has to be more. Whatever it is, it’s obvious that it’s working for the Mavericks.

Now the not so fun question: what happens next? Not as in the rest of this season or the playoffs, but what happens this summer? Hardaway has a $19 million player option that six months ago seemed like a lock for an opt-in, much to the chagrin of Mavericks fans. Now, who knows. The wing market this summer is particularly bleak and if Hardaway closes the season on this heater, he’ll be by far one of the primer shooting and scoring options to hit the open market if he did decide to opt-out. He could likely easily secure a multi-year deal near the rate he’s at right now, as opposed to locking himself in and risking a bigger and longer payday to injury or an extended slump.

If Hardaway opted-out, it almost feels like the Mavericks would have to pay him. The crop of 2020 free agents isn’t great and if they let Hardaway go, they’d be risking another nuclear summer of free agency if they don’t secure a top star to use up Hardaway’s vacant cap space in 2021. I’m getting shivers just thinking about the scenario, which feels all too real given the Mavericks free agency history. Just imagine if the Mavericks are left holding the bag again in 2021 while Hardaway keeps doing what he’s doing for another team.

For now though, that’s a problem for another time. I didn’t even get to every part of Hardaway’s brilliant season too. Did you know he’s in the 72.3 percentile for pick and roll ball handler scorers? Or that he’s shooting a career-high 46.7 percent from 10-16 feet, expertly leveraging the spacing his hot shooting has given him with successful one to two dribble closeout jumpers? Oh, how about his great defense well wait hold on. Nevermind. OK, so he can’t do everything! I think the Mavericks are more than happy with the rest of his game.