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Tim Hardaway Jr. Is no longer a bad contract waiting to be traded

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Hardaway has become an integral part of the Mavericks’ roster.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

A tax to acquire Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe a contract to be traded.

That’s what I thought about Tim Hardaway Jr. when he came to the Mavericks along with Porzingis, Trey Burke, and Courtney Burke in February of 2019. At worst, he’d be on the team for a couple of years and be traded for his expiring contract. Best case scenario, he’d shoot pretty well and be part of a trade package that would net a much better player.

Halfway through Hardaway’s second full season with the Mavericks, I’m ready to admit I was very wrong.

After a run to the NCAA Men’s National Championship game in 2013, Hardaway was selected 24th overall by the Knicks in the NBA draft. After a couple of passable seasons in New York, he was traded to the Hawks, where at first he struggled to carve out playing time. But by year two he found his footing and averaged 14.5 points per game, a career high. More importantly, he averaged 35% on 3-pointers, just as the NBA collectively decided to emphasize shots from behind the arc.

Hardaway became the beneficiary of great timing. After a great performance in the playoffs with the Hawks, his improved shooting coincided with the 2016 cap spike, which led to some outrageous contracts. Hardaway’s contract, four years for $70 million in a return to the Knicks, was considered one of them. He put up a career high 17 points per game his first season back in New York, but his 3-point shooting regressed to 31%. Within a year, his big contract was looking like a mistake.

So when the Mavericks made a move to bring Porzingis to Dallas, the Knicks saw an opportunity to offload a mistake, and Hardaway was included in the deal. Like I mentioned above, he was an afterthought, simply a placeholder until the Mavericks could make another move. And through 19 games in Dallas in 2018, that’s what he was to me.

Hardaway’s start to the 2019-20 season didn’t change my mind. He averaged 10 points per game and shot just 30% from deep through the first 14 games. Then Rick Carlisle moved Hardaway into the starting lineup, and everything changed.

“He’s a guy who’s at a point in his career where he’s become veteran enough to understand the things that are really important to winning, which is giving of yourself, sharing, being there for the guy next to you, working through frustration on the floor by communicating, and he’s a hell of a player,” Carlisle told Dwain Price at Mavs.com. “This is something, again, that has evolved over time and we’ve gotten to this place.”

Hardaway immediately caught fire, averaging 20 points per game and shot 61% on 3-pointers in his first five games as a starter. Carlisle kept him at starting shooting guard for the rest of the season, where he averaged 17 points per game, shot 42% from three, and even chipped in two assists per game. Hardaway was no longer a salary dump in a big trade. Now he was the starting shooting guard for an exciting playoff team.

Once the 2020-21 season got underway, expectations were high, for Hardaway and the Mavericks. And Hardaway picked up where he left off, averaging almost 17 points per game through the first 20 games of the year, though his 3-point shooting did fall a bit to 39%. Carlisle experimented with Hardaway off the bench for a couple games during this stretch, including a game against the Rockets where he scored 30 points on 8-of-10 shooting from behind the arc.

“It’s coach’s decision,” Hardaway said at the time. “You’ve got to be a pro, and I said it since day one, I’m here to help this team out any way I can.” But for 17 of the first 20 games this season, Hardaway was a starter.

In February, in order to focus on defense and bolster the bench scoring, Hardaway was moved from the starting lineup. Again, Hardaway was willing to do whatever was needed for the team. “He couldn’t have been more open minded to coming off the bench,” Carlisle said after a game against the Hawks that snapped the Mavericks dreadful six-game losing streak. “He said, ‘Coach, whatever you need, whatever we need right now. We need to bust out of this thing.’ He goes, ‘Whatever you need, I’m there.’” Hardaway’s shooting was integral to the Mavericks defeating the Hawks that game, which has been the beginning of a strong run for Dallas.

The move to the bench has paid dividends for the Mavericks and Hardaway. The Mavericks have a scorer coming off the bench that could easily put up 30 points on any given night. Hardaway is now a candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Utah’s Jordan Clarkson will probably win the award, but Hardaway is in the conversation. Since moving to the bench, Hardaway is averaging almost 16 points per game and shooting 39% from deep.

It’s Hardaway’s steady demeanor and commitment to the team that’s won me over. He’s been in and out of the starting lineup. He’s had a 36 point night, and a game where he missed every shot he took, going 0-12 from the field. Through it all, Hardaway has remained focused on doing what he does best — shooting. There’s something about a player that knows exactly who he is that appeals to me, and Hardaway never forgets how he can affect the game.

His defense is suspect at times, that’s for sure. Sometimes he’s a streaky shooter, like most players who make their living from deep. But what’s certain is Hardaway has won the Mavericks several games this season simply by getting scorching hot from behind the arc. There’s huge value to a player like that, even if they have deficiencies in other areas. Luka Doncic is one of the NBA’s best at creating open three point shots. On a Mavericks roster that lacks proven, elite shooters, Hardaway is crucial.

Hardaway’s contract is up at the end of this season, and instead of being part of trade or an exit that frees up cap space, I’m hoping that he returns to the Mavericks for another few years. I was wrong about Tim Hardaway Jr., but in the best way.