The Knicks could’ve done worse with their cap space last July. If Phil Jackson were still around, he would have spent it all on aging point guard George Hill to run the triangle.
Instead, acting general manager Steve Mills, before his promotion to full-time president, gave it to Tim Hardaway Jr. — a four-year, $71 million contract that was roundly panned. You could hear Jackson laughing from his Montana lakehouse.
The Garden is rocking these days — despite the blown 23-point lead over Cleveland on Monday — and Hardaway is in the middle of the renewed joy and optimism.
So far, it’s looking like $71 million well spent on an improving 25-year-old athletic swingman, a former Knicks first-round pick the organization brought back home.
Kristaps Porzingis gets most of the headlines and hurrahs because he’s playing at an MVP-caliber level and is a 7-foot-3 unicorn. Enes Kanter is an old-school beast inside and a jovial, fun-loving quote machine.
Hardaway doesn’t get the bouquets. He comes off as a grouch with a distaste for the media. After his 28-point, 10-rebound, five-assist gem against Cleveland that nearly won the game on a night Porzingis was off-kilter, Hardaway grumbled at his locker at what he viewed as silly questions reporters were posing a few feet away.
Disliking the media is no crime. Hardaway considers us an annoyance and often makes snide remarks. That’s probably because he’s been around the circus his entire life as the son of a Hall of Fame finalist, point guard Tim Hardaway.
So he won’t win this year’s “Media Good Guy’’ award, but he’s weaving an exemplary season, playing in all 13 games through calf and ankle injuries and stamping himself a trusty secondary sniper to the lovable Latvian star.
Hardaway is relentlessly pushing the pace and throwing deep passes — perfectly suited for Jeff Hornacek’s speedball.
Hardaway has posted double-doubles in two of his past three games. After a brutal start to the season during which he was pressing because of his contract, Hardaway has been gloriously unsung.
In the past nine games, he’s averaging 20.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.7 steals and shooting 45.5 percent from the field. His 3-point shooting percentage (32.5) could be better, but he’s never afraid to take them and, for the most part, isn’t forcing.
“I think [Monday] a lot of it came just to me,’’ Hardaway said after Tuesday’s practice. “I was making the right plays rebounding and pushing the pace. Guys are running and multiple guys are rebounding, you got multiple guys who can push the ball. I just want to find a way to stay consistent as a ballplayer and I know my teammates want me to do that. So I’m going to do whatever I can to stay consistent.”
After Hardaway, the 24th pick of the 2013 draft, became a first-team all-rookie selection, Jackson and coach Derek Fisher arrived and he became an outsider.
With limited playing time in 2014-15, he clashed with Fisher. Jackson didn’t see him as cerebral enough to play the triangle or a willing defender. His draft-night trade to Atlanta for the rights to Jerian Grant proved to be another Jackson stinker — one that Carmelo Anthony loathed.
Ultimately it has worked out for the Knicks. Hardaway’s two-year internship in the Hawks’ school of defense — under Mike Budenholzer and current Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson — improved his stamina and work ethic on that end. He now rebounds with zest.
“I’d say No. 1, defensively he really improved,” Atkinson said during the preseason. “When he first came to us, he struggled on the defensive end. He improved tremendously there. The second part was he got in elite shape, elite condition and they go hand in hand — defense and conditioning. And then he harped on being efficient on shot selection.’’
The knee-jerk pundits who criticized the Hardaway signing didn’t understand why the offer was so high. Here’s why.
Hardaway was a restricted free agent, the Hawks liked him, too, and Mills needed to bump it enough to ensure Atlanta didn’t match. A lot of free-agent fish had already swum away from the Knicks.
Mills needed to make a splash. Nobody should be complaining now. Hardaway is part of the future.