In his first game back since a spectacular 42 point performance against Detroit, Tim Hardaway Jr. nailed 10 three pointers on his way to 36 points. He and Luka Doncic helped lead the Mavericks’ offense in a crucial game against the Heat who were without Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro. Since coming over from the Knicks, Hardaway Jr has developed into more than just the tax needed to acquire Porzingis.
His ability to catch fire from deep helped endear him to a fan base desperate to surround its young star with a competent roster. While Jalen Brunson has been floated as a potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate, some would argue Hardaway Jr. has been as if not more important to the Mavericks success this season.
Hardaway Jr. is set to become a free agent this offseason and his departure may be the Mavericks’ best chance at finding the sort of player that can help elevate them in a crowded Western Conference. Hardaway Jr has often been the Mavericks’ best shooter. Unlike players such as maxi Kleber and Dorian Finney Smith, Hardaway Jr’s best skill is rising above tough close outs and hitting contested threes.
While other players rely heavily on Luka Doncic to get them open shots, Hardaway Jr. can simply rise up at will and set fire to opposing defenses. Ask Hardaway to dribble more than two times, and things can get dicey in a hurry. He doesn’t have great playmaking abilities off the dribble and can struggle to finish against above-average rim defenders. Coming off of a 4 year/$71 million dollar contract, Hardaway Jr. will carry a $28 million dollar cap hold. That number eliminates any benefits that come with inheriting his bird rights and will force the Maverick’s hand.
The Mavericks, who can approach 35 million dollars in cap space if Josh Richardson opts out prior to free agency, must decide whether to retain a key rotational player or allow him to walk in hopes of finding an upgrade. At one point in time, Hardaway Jr’s contract was considered an albatross. That is no longer the case. Hardaway Jr. was signed to that contract with the belief he could be the centerpiece of a playoff team. Stops in New York and Atlanta proved he was incapable of being a primary go-to scorer.
Since joining Dallas, he slid in next to Luka and is clearly capable of elevating an offense that can become stagnant at times. In a league starved for outside shooting, Hardaway Jr. will command a contract similar to that of Davis Bertans and Joe Harris. While all indications point to Hardaway Jr. having enjoyed his time as a Maverick, there is no reason to believe he will accept a contract well below his market value.
The Mavericks can sign a max free agent or retain Tim Hardaway, but they cannot do both. Sign Hardaway Jr. to a market contract and the Mavericks will lock themselves into their present core for the foreseeable future. With a war chest bereft of draft capital, a Kristaps Porzingis trade may be the only way the Mavericks can reshape their team.
This current iteration of the Mavericks is not a championship contender and surrounding their generational star with adequate talent is its first and only priority. Locking Hardaway Jr into a long-term deal would be a mistake. It is not hyperbolic to say this coming offseason may be the most important one in the franchise’s history. With Luka a year away from inking a max deal, this is the last time the Mavericks will have significant cap space for years to come. If this team hopes to ascend to new heights, they will have to do so without Hardaway Jr.