As the Atlanta Hawks prepare for their first-round series against the Washington Wizards, the team has to answer several key questions. Defensively, Atlanta has to find a way to slow down one of the most potent backcourts in the NBA, and offensively the team has to find a way to keep up with Washington’s furious scoring. Just how Mike Budenholzer plans to answer these questions will be fascinating, and this first-round series has the potential to be very entertaining.
Among the list of most important players, Tim Hardaway Jr. may not immediately stand out. He has had a solid 2016-17 season by most metrics, but falls behind other players, such as Paul Millsap or Dennis Schroder, in terms of immediate importance. However, Hardaway has the potential to have a huge impact on this series, an impact that could seriously affect his restricted free agency.
In 2016-17, Hardaway emerged as a key rotation player who can provide valuable scoring off the bench, or start in favorable matchups. His greatest strength lies in his scoring — Hardaway can shoot three-pointers or drive to the rim depending on the situation. His three-point shooting numbers never look quite as good as one might expect though, as his mark of just under 36% for this year doesn’t seem to fit with his confident stroke.
Even if he isn’t an elite shooter though, Hardaway still provides real value to Atlanta. He ranks fourth on the team in Value Over Replacement Player, (via Basketball-Reference), and third in Win Shares. In addition, his shooting improved over the season: Hardaway shot 37% on three-pointers after the all-star break.
Hardaway’s greatest value to the team goes beyond the season-long statistical output, though. At multiple times throughout the season he has emerged as a key threat, providing vital contributions in some of the Hawks’ biggest wins. For the most recent example of this, fans can look to the team’s home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on April 9. Hardaway scored 21 points despite only hitting one three-point shot, trailing only Millsap on the Hawks’ roster in points scored.
In the playoffs, the ability to provide key scoring down the stretch of a game is an invaluable skill. So while it may not be smart to assume that Hardaway is going to emerge as a key threat against Washington, it is quite possible that Atlanta fans could see several of these performances from him. If that happens, and the Hawks have another scorer to count on besides Millsap and Schroder, the Hawks’ offense becomes much more threatening.
On the flip side, it’s also possible to envision Hardaway struggling to stay on the court. Atlanta’s solid defense is going to be severely tested against John Wall and Bradley Beal, and Hardaway’s individual defense still isn’t a strength. If he gets continually exploited on defense and fails to score at a high level, this could end up being a rough series for him (and the team).
Hardaway has probably already earned himself at least a decent offer from some team during restricted free agency. Even so, a strong performance in the playoffs could earn him even more money. Bismack Biyombo undoubtedly raised his value by playing well against Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals last Spring, and Hardaway could do the same, here. If the Hawks pull off an impressive upset and face (probably) Boston in the second round, Hardaway’s value could skyrocket even further.
It’s always hard to predict what will happen in the playoffs. Teams are always more locked-in and focused, and previously-invisible role players often emerge to tip the balance of a series. Given the way that Hardaway has exploded during individual games this season, it’s entirely possible that he could be on the verge of a fantastic series. It’s also possible that his defensive liabilities could severely hurt Atlanta. Either way, this is a big series for Atlanta, and for Tim Hardaway Jr.