Atlanta Hawks: Tim Hardaway Jr. Forcing Trade Deadline Decisions

Feb 1, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) takes a breather during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami Heat won 116-93. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Feb 1, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) takes a breather during the second half against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Miami Heat won 116-93. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

With Tim Hardaway Jr. playing some of the best basketball of his career to date, the Atlanta Hawks have some important decisions to make prior to the trade deadline.

It’s no secret that the upcoming trade deadline has the potential to be a very busy one for the Atlanta Hawks.

Having already traded away stalwart shooter Kyle Korver, the Hawks find themselves in a position that’s hard to gauge. If anything, their stance may even change multiple times between now and when the deadline passes.

As a team that lacks an abundance of young talent and will have All-Star forward Paul Millsap hitting the free agency market this summer, Atlanta seems like a logical trade partner for win-now teams willing to give up future assets for a potential missing piece in the now.

On the other hand, the Hawks are still above average. For those who are really optimistic, they could even still be described as good.

Currently tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth spot in the East with a record of 30-21, they may even finish with home-court advantage in the first round by season’s end.

Holding an Eastern Conference-long streak of nine straight seasons making the playoffs, there aren’t many franchises with such a strong recent understanding of how it can only take a team peaking at the right time and getting their share of luck to have a surprisingly deep run.

Even the most ardent Hawks fan would likely acknowledge that a championship should be well beyond their team at present, but there’s a reason why the organization may be curious to see this season through.

The Hawks have spent years being burned in the postseason due to their rebounding deficiencies, but with Dwight Howard manning the middle that’s no longer the problem it once was.

Could that be enough to make Atlanta a tougher out this time? There’s no way of knowing for sure unless they see it through.

This leaves the Hawks in limbo. Not only do they have to weigh up their current pursuits with what they’re building in regards to Paul Millsap (allegedly off the market for now) and veteran defender Thabo Sefolosha, but also with starting wing Tim Hardaway Jr.

Hardaway had already stepped into a bigger role for Atlanta, but has seen his influence expand even further since Korver’s departure. The result has been what’s looking like a career year in progress for the 24-year-old.

In 18 games since the turn of the year, Hardaway is averaging 15.6 points per game on 47.5 percent shooting from the field and 41.7 percent from behind the three-point line.

When he’s been given the opportunity to start, Hardaway’s scoring numbers take a further jump to 17.5 points per game.

Most notably, Hardaway helped the Hawks to complete a major late comeback against the Houston Rockets on the road last Thursday, as he scored 33 points including 23 in the final period.

So, as time ticks down to the deadline and the Atlanta front office assess all of their options, what’s in play for Hardaway’s future? What could, and more importantly should the Hawks do? Let’s take a closer look.

Jan 4, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) points against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Atlanta Hawks defeated the Orlando Magic 111-92. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 4, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) points against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Atlanta Hawks defeated the Orlando Magic 111-92. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Trade Hardaway While His Value Is Up

Prior to the Hawks reportedly taking a less proactive approach in exploring deals for Millsap, ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported on his Lowe Post podcast that Atlanta was also searching the market for a potential Hardaway suitor. In Lowe’s words from that early January podcast:

“They’re already shopping Tim Hardaway for second round picks because they don’t want to pay him.”

Although a lot has changed since then, including Hardaway’s production and importance to the team, it’s not difficult to understand why the Hawks would explore this particular route.

With Hardaway set to hit the open market at a time when the cap remains high and plenty of teams still possess significant cap space, it seems likely that he could field lucrative offers.

If the Hawks want no part of that process facing the possibility of a rebuild, there are a couple of different types of teams who they could target.

A team interested in making Hardaway a part of their long term plans could be willing to part with a young player and a second rounder in order to hold the right to match offers when Hardaway lands in restricted free agency.

By the same token, a contender in need of an offensive bench boost could also have use for a gunner like Hardaway.

If the Hawks feel Hardaway at his best will never be more than a serviceable rotation piece, trading for a pick that can go some way toward adding assets that may better suit their long term timeline would be an understandable decision.

Jan 13, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) attempts a shot against Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) in the second quarter of their game at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 13, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) attempts a shot against Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) in the second quarter of their game at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Keep Hardaway With A View To Re-Signing Him Long-Term

As a franchise with a strong track record of development in recent years, there’s also a possibility that the Hawks see even more in Hardaway than his current level of play has shown the wider NBA.

Regardless of whether the Hawks decide to pay Millsap a max-level deal that would see him remain with the franchise into the latter years of his career or move on in favor of a youth-focused rebuild, Hardaway could have a role to play if he has what it takes to kick on and improve further.

Keeping the band together risks dicing with mediocrity for another few years until time catches up with some of the franchise’s key players and they start to fall off, but in the short term it could extend some of the good feeling that surrounds the franchise in light of their rebrand, ownership change and the upcoming addition of a D-League franchise, construction of a new training facility and renovation of Philips Arena.

Without Millsap, if Atlanta believes Hardaway has what it takes, he could join the likes of Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore as pieces who could become the center of the franchise’s long-term plans.

Based on current production it’s difficult to see this as a wise or even viable strategy for the Hawks to pursue, but stranger things have happened. One thing’s for sure; if the Hawks are already mulling over how much they’re going to pay to retain Hardaway, they’re playing a high risk game.

Jan 29, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) drives the baseline around New York Knicks center Joakim Noah (13) during the second half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 29, 2017; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) drives the baseline around New York Knicks center Joakim Noah (13) during the second half at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Ride Out His Hot Streak, But Let Him Walk In The Summer

With Atlanta’s option to match offers on Hardaway, without a decision to break the team up in a larger sense, the most likely outcome is that the Hawks look to get as much as they can possibly get out of THJ for the remainder of his rookie scale contract.

The Hawks have no need to make a concrete decision on what would come next after that just yet, but the most cautious approach they could take may well be to avoid tying themselves up in Hardaway long term.

In weighing the rewards of what the Hawks could be with a version of Hardaway that represents a previously unimagined peak, the risks of how an untimely and unnecessary contract to the former Michigan Wolverine may influence the franchise’s future flexibility still loom largest of all.

Without some other major additions in free agency, or finding a superstar in the middle of the first round in an upcoming draft class, it seems incredibly unrealistic to speculate about a timeline where Hardaway could be a driving force in a new, positive direction for the Hawks.

If the Hawks have doubts over Hardaway’s long-term viability, they can still use him as a part of one final run in the next few months, even with no intention of re-signing him.

In that case it would be wiser to look to move him for an asset, but at the very least you don’t risk any long lasting damage by letting him see the season through as a Hawk before ultimately walking away.

Jan 4, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) looks on against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Atlanta Hawks defeated the Orlando Magic 111-92. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 4, 2017; Orlando, FL, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Tim Hardaway Jr. (10) looks on against the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Atlanta Hawks defeated the Orlando Magic 111-92. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Conclusion

If Tim Hardaway Jr. sees his Atlanta Hawks future decided before the end of the season, it will likely have more to do with Paul Millsap than him.

Although it’s plausible that Hardaway could be traded regardless of whether the Hawks move Millsap or not, it’s hard to imagine a Millsap move not also triggering the departures of Hardaway and Sefolosha.

If the Hawks feel they won’t have enough to make any sort of post-season noise, they need to break it up and add whatever assets they can in the interim. With 30 wins already in the bank, an Atlanta team led by Dwight Howard and Dennis Schröder would likely still have enough gas left in the tank to squeeze their way into the playoffs even after shedding some key players.

In all honesty, that seems like the best outcome too. Keeping the fans engaged (and the revenue flowing) by extending the post-season streak to 10 years, while also getting a head start on an inevitable rebuild could help Atlanta to start their next phase without too pronounced of a step back.

For an organization that has modeled itself on the San Antonio Spurs, that would seem like the most appealing route for any kind of roster retooling.

If Hardaway isn’t traded, I’d expect the Hawks to take a close look at bringinghim back, but also wouldn’t imagine it would take too rich of an offer sheet for Atlanta to refuse to match.

Hardaway has already voiced his desire to stay in Atlanta, going as far as to tell Chris Nelson of the Detroit Free Press of how important he believes the Hawks have been in making him the player he is now.

“Honestly, Atlanta has built me into a better basketball player, and I’m a lot more mature.”

Although that’s undoubtedly true, the NBA generally isn’t a league with room for too much sentimentality.

From Hardaway’s perspective he should be pleased at the value he has added to his next deal either way. For Atlanta, the question now focuses on whether they want to cash in on their development work paying off, or invest long term. Big decisions lie ahead.

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