The New York Knicks have been struggling of late, dropping eight of their last 11 games, but they could get a much-needed boost as they head into the weekend. According to Newsday's Al Iannazzone, shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. could return from a stress injury in his leg by Friday's game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Stress injuries can be tricky, so both Hardaway and the Knicks have largely avoided setting a timetable for the 25-year-old, but reports over the past few weeks have suggested that the team has been eyeing a January return. If Hardaway is in fact ready to play in the Knicks' next game, he would give the team a huge boost as it gets set to play 10 of its next 12 games on the road, with seven of those road contests coming against Western Conference opponents.
The Knicks drew some criticism when they signed Tim Hardaway Jr. to a four-year, $71 million contract, but the young sharpshooter proved to be a valuable asset for the Knicks during their surprisingly solid start to the season. Prior to Hardaway's injury, the Knicks—expected to be one of the NBA's worst teams with an over-under of 30.5 wins, per Vegas Insider—managed a record of 11-10, putting them in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff mix. In Hardaway's absence, however, the team has stumbled to an 8-12 record, dropping them to 10th place in the conference standings.
Hardaway's return won't be a cure-all for the struggling Knicks, but it's easy to see why he's an important asset, especially on this particular team. Not only is Hardaway the team's second leading scorer (17.8 points per game) behind Kristaps Porzingis (23.7), but he is also the primary three-point-shooting threat for a squad that takes and makes fewer threes than any other team in the NBA. At 7.2 three-point attempts per game, Hardaway takes a whopping 2.5 more shots from long range than any other Knick. In today's NBA, there is a premium on three-point shooting, and as of now, the Knicks have very little of it. Hardaway can change that.
In addition to Hardaway's tendency to sink three-point shots, the mere threat of him firing from long range would be a boon to the Knicks' offense. Players like Hardaway force opposing defenses to spread to the three-point line, allowing more space for players like Kristaps Porzingis and Enes Kanter to operate inside. With Hardaway on the court this season, Porzingis has shot 46.7 percent from the field; without Hardaway, Porzingis has been forcing a ton of bad shots, leading to a field-goal percentage of 39.9. Even Kanter, who is shooting an impressive 56.1 percent in Hardaway's absence, has seen a big dip from the 64.3-percent mark he posted with Hardaway on the floor.
Porzingis and Kanter are perhaps the Knicks' two best players—they are first and second on the team in Player Efficiency Rating (Kanter: 23.8; Porzingis: 20.4)—but they can't carry this team on their own. They need a complementary player who can spread the floor and give them easier looks at the rim, and Hardaway can be that player.
Hardaway's return is not necessarily imminent. Head coach Jeff Hornacek didn't rule out a Friday return, but he added, per Iannazzone, that the Knicks “have to listen to doctors. We’ve got to be careful with it. That’s why he’s been going through this gradual buildup…so we’ll just continue that.” And whenever Hardaway does return, he'll be eased into action—Hornacek suggested starting him off with about 25 minutes per game.
But even limited minutes from Hardaway could be huge for a Knicks team that has struggled to close out games and could find itself out of the playoff mix by the time the tumultuous upcoming road trip is complete.