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The Prospect Post: The Easy Way or the Hardaway

Fred Katz

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in 5th grade, but he maintains that his per 36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

The Knicks can't breathe. And they're not letting anyone else take a breath either.

The fans are hyperventilating after strings upon strings of disappointing losses. The team is tense. And the talent is suffocating.

You read that right. There is talent on this Knicks' team even they're still sitting at 13-22 and out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Blame it on whomever you want, but someone (whether it's James Dolan, Steve Mills, Mike Woodson, or Isiah Thomas for the conspiracy-theory lovers) has snuck into talent's bedroom and smothered its face with a pillow. No one can breathe.

The Knicks' substitution rotations are continuously weird. Every time you check on them, there's something that doesn't seem quite right. We've seen Mike Woodson's staunch stubbornness (yes, he's stubborn about being stubborn) in starting Andrea Bargnani regardless of situation and matchup. We've seen the strange no-defense lineups made up of some sort Amar'e Stoudemire-Bargnani combination. We've seen Woodson get away from the two-point guard lineup that worked so well last year (though that hasn't always been as much of an option with Ray Felton and Pablo Prigioni fighting sporadic injuries).

Yet, even with those injuries, we aren't seeing enough of the two guards who might be able to help the Knicks the most: Iman Shumpert and mainly, Tim Hardaway Jr.

Fortunately for the Knicks, the Shumpert situation is starting to work itself out. Shump is averaging 33.0 minutes over his past six games and has become a more focused upon part of the offense, averaging 14.2 points per game in that stretch. Hardaway, though, still isn't playing. At all. And it's becoming a problem.

Thursday night, Woodson benched J.R. Smith after Smith decided to test the NBA offices, like a child testing his parents after they tell him to stop doing some sort of mischievous act, after the league told him to stop sneakily untying people's shoes in the middle of games. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable request. J.R. apparently disagreed, and after the commissioner's office's warning, tried to untie Greg Monroe's shoe at the free-throw line, the second time he had tried such an act in as many games. He walked right into a $50,000 fine.

If the punishment were to fit the crime, the NBA would've made Smith wear Velcro for a week. Or it would've made him play in Sperry's. See how you feel with no laces. But that's beside the point.

Thursday night, in a nationally televised home win over the Miami Heat, Smith sat on the bench for the whole game. He didn't sulk. He didn't seem to cry about it. He just sat and Mike Woodson wasn't going to let him get up. It was a benching that almost felt like an unofficial suspension.

DNP bonehead.

But the Knicks' bonehead moves didn't end with J.R. Where the heck was Tim Hardaway?

With Tyson Chandler and Beno Udrih hurt and with Smith sitting in the Knicks' corner, facing the proverbial wall in his two-foot high chair, Woodson cut his rotation short against Miami, only playing eight guys in the 10-point win. Shumpert played 43 minutes, and Ray Felton played 39. Even Bargnani played 42. It's hard to critique Woodson, or any coach for that matter, after a double-digit victory over LeBron James and the two-time defending champs, but again, where the heck was Tim Hardaway?

Hardaway played 14 minutes in the win, but this was supposed to be his chance. His moment. His time to get an opportunity. There was no J.R. Smith. He could've nay, he should've played that role. But as Mike Woodson continues to rotate "veterans" in instead of young players, and Hardaway keeps getting stashed.

After the Knicks picked Hardaway at the end of the first round back in June's draft, New York likely hoped it would get a one-day rotation player out of him. That's all a team can realistically hope for when it's picking at No. 24. But Hardaway has pleasantly surprised and has actually been one of the four or five best rookies of this NBA season, along with Victor Oladipo, Michael Carter-Williams, and Trey Burke.

Hardaway is athletic, smart, and efficient. He can shoot, and he can finish at the rim. He's athletic, long, and high-effort enough to develop into a decent defender. But still, we're seeing him for just 18.5 minutes a night. Why?

It's not just the dunks or the athleticism (though Ray Allen would probably attest it's a little bit of both of those things). It's the efficiency and the style that fits the Knicks' offense so perfectly.

Last year's Knicks chucked up a historic amount of threes, shooting 2,371 times from long range, the most of any team ever. More than 35 percent of their shot attempts were threes. That was the most in the league. Actually, the whole reason the team was as successful as it was last year was because of the seemingly unsustainable three-point production.

This year, we learned that shooting performance was definitely not sustainable. While the Knicks are still one of the better-shooting teams in the league, that production isn't there. Jason Kidd's shooting is gone. So is Chris Copeland's and Steve Novak's. It's hard to remember the last time Ray Felton hit a three. And Smith's sixth-man presence has gone from that of Marlon Wayans to that of Kadeem Hardison.

Hardaway, though, will help the three-point shooting, which is so essential to the Knicks' success. 49 percent of his field-goal attempts have been threes this year. And he's making just over 40 percent of those shots. He's shooting 41 percent from the corners, 40 percent from the wings, and 36 percent from the top of the key. Hardway shoots well from everywhere. He's a floor spacer, unlike the Andrea Bargnanis of the world, who play far from the rim and are considered floor spacers because of that. In reality, though, Bargs isn't stretching a defense. No one is closing out on him. With Hardaway, defenses care.

He's another ball handler in an offense that has an inefficient Felton and an injured Prigioni. Putting Hardaway in a position to learn how to run the pick-and-roll wouldn't be the worst thing for his development considering he'll be doing that consistently at some point down the line. But the Knicks haven't done it. We keep seeing the same rotations, he same players over and over again, and the same strategy. It's repetitive. It's monotonous. It's the Knicks.

Since the 1959-60 season, no NBA player has shot worse than 35 percent from the field while averaging more than 30 minutes a night. Amazingly, there are three qualified players on a pace to do just that this year: Ricky Rubio, Kirk Hinrich, and of course, J.R. Smith. Smith hasn't just been ineffective this year; he's been historically ineffective given the amount of time that Mike Woodson continually lets him see a basketball court.

The Knicks need to improve on the void that was created when 2012 J.R. Smith left us and when 2013-14 J.R. Smith came to be. They need to develop Hardaway, who could if all things go well turn into a top-10 player at his position, one of the weakest positions in the NBA, by the peak of his prime. That's Hardaway's ceiling at this point, but instead of grooming, the Knicks are stifling. Isn't that what they do best?