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Tim Hardaway Jr. still has something to prove

With a new contract extension in hand, the sharpshooter will be vital to Mavericks success in a new era.

Los Angeles Clippers v Dallas Mavericks - Game Six Photo by Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

For stretches over the last two-plus seasons, Tim Hardaway Jr. has truly played like the prized possession from the Dallas Mavericks’ January 2019 trade with the New York Knicks. Though it’s been said time and again, it begs repeating just how impressive the sharpshooter has been since arriving in Dallas.

Of course, too understand that is to accept the cold stretches and the limitations to his game. But anyone who claims to have predicted this sort of play — and that MFFLs everywhere would be celebrating a $75-million THJ contract extension in our lord’s year 2021 — is also claiming they are Nostradamus.

Let us not forget the path he took to get to this moment. In his first six seasons in the league (19 games in Dallas) Hardaway was barely a 34 percent three point shooter. Bluntly, his game did not match the checks he was cashing. To his credit he kept grinding. The synergy of his confidence, Rick Carlisle’s coaching, and playing next to the league’s best young playmaker catapulted his game. Shooting at the highest volume of his career, Hardaway was a 40-percent three point shooter the last two seasons, and he finished fifth last season in Sixth Man of the Year voting while averaging 17 points and three rebounds per game.

So here we are. Having proven his worth and secured a four-year extension, Hardaway enters a new era of sorts, both personally and for the Mavericks. He has shown himself capable of either being a reliable starter flanking Luka Doncic or playing the role of bench flamethrower next to Jalen Brunson. While both roles are functionally similar, it was important that Hardaway produced consistently in both situations.

Biggest Question

Way back in December 2019, after posting 27 points (7-of-11 from three) in a road blowout win against the Philadelphia 76ers, Tim Hardaway Jr. mentioned Carlisle’s one-on-one help making adjustments to the mechanics of his jump shot early in the season. Outside of leading the Mavericks to their first NBA title, Carlisle will be most remembered in Dallas for this sort of work. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban, often in a bid to cut roster corners, would give Carlisle spare parts and reclamation projects, and in return he’d perform tactical wizardry.

Hardaway has certainly done the work to repair his image as overpaid chucker, and all credit to him for that. But as Jason Kidd takes over the bench in Dallas, it’s worth asking if Hardaway can continue to produce. Though the offense should still be heliocentric with Luka Doncic making magic, even small adjustments or changes in responsibility can impact a player like Hardaway. Will he still be as effective if Kidd can’t put him in the same advantageous spots or he isn’t trying to earn a new contract?

So much of this question, and its answer, is focused on Kidd rather than Hardaway himself. But as the pressure to produce in Dallas intensifies, Hardaway will be a key player to watch.

Best Case Scenario

In a perfect world where the Mavericks are contending for a top three seed in the West, Hardaway is not only sustaining but surpassing his production from 2021. It is not clear whether Kidd sees Hardaway as a starter or sixth man gunner, but it doesn’t matter. His job will remain the same.

When he is hitting, the Mavericks are often unbeatable. He alters the balance of the defense, either bursting off a screen or stretching opposite of Doncic. Adding Reggie Bullock should increase that pressure on the opponent, a welcome relief considering the long stretches of Hardaway being the only reliable catch-and-shoot scorer (last season THJ was 41 percent on C&S with five attempts per game).

The Mavericks need more ball handling, so it would be nice to see Hardaway’s off-dribble pull ups improve (he was 34 percent last season), but even in a dream world beggars can’t be choosers. If he can average close to 18 points per game (his career high for a season) while shooting around 40 percent from deep, the Mavericks will be happy with the newly signed extension.

Worst Case Scenario

A cold and violent wind blows through American Airlines Center as an overconfident and downright defiant Timothy Duane Hardaway Jr. chucks three after three. Jason Kidd has opted to start Jalen Brunson next to Luka Doncic, giving all of the bench keys to THJ as he leads a group of Sterling Brown, Josh Green, Maxi Kleber and Willie Cauley-Stein. He shoots 34 percent from three on eight attempts and barely pushes 14 points per game.

This is always the concern with paying decent money to rhythm shooters who can’t provide defense or playmaking. The good news is Hardaway built on the success from his first full season in Dallas and looked better last season (especially given the fluctuation of his role from the starting lineup to the bench and back again). But there will always likely be an undercurrent of anxiety that Hardaway’s shooting numbers come back to earth.

Overall

The Mavericks absolutely had to re-sign Hardaway this summer. Without a grand slam signing in free agency, the Mavericks needed to keep the shooting production they had the last two years next to Doncic. A large part of that was Hardaway.

I’ll admit a nervous energy knowing the signing was coming, worried they’d throw too much money his way. So when the 4-for-75 notification popped across my iPhone I was fairly relieved, seeing numbers much higher than that among other teams. Then when the details of the deal, reportedly descending payouts that begin with $21 million this season to just $16 million in the fourth year, I was downright ecstatic.

It is a gamble to put your chips on four more years of consistency from Hardaway, who turns 30 next spring. But the chemistry he built with Doncic over the last two seasons is worth the investment now. There will be plenty of pressure on Kidd and this roster to finally secure a playoff series victory, the first since the 2011 title run. For the Mavericks to take that step, they’ll need Hardaway to show that the last two seasons weren’t a mirage.