That breath of fresh air you may have noticed wafting through Mavericks’ training camp comes courtesy of some honest commentary from Tim Hardaway Jr.
The 6-6 swingman is coming off surgery to fix a stress injury in his left tibia, a problem that cut short his 2018-19 season. After he was included in the Kristaps Porzingis trade, Hardaway missed the last 11 games of the season to get the leg repaired.
He’s come back to training camp 100 percent and coach Rick Carlisle already has called Hardaway one of the team’s most important players. Hardaway also is genuine about what he feels his role will be on this year’s Mavericks, although he’s fully aware this new era revolves around Porzingis and Luka Doncic.
However, Hardaway wants to be more than a complimentary piece. He said that being in the starting lineup next to the two young stars is important – to a point.
““It matters,” Hardaway said of being a starter. “If an NBA player says it doesn’t matter … like, it matters.
“But at the same time, you have to pick and choose your battles. Coach has the last say and you have to roll with it and stick with it. I’ve come off the bench and I’ve started. I was effective in both scenarios. Whatever coach Carlisle wants to do, he’s going to do it and we have to roll with it and trust him. It’s not about yourself at the end of the day, it’s about the team. And I’m all for it, 110 percent.”
To that end, Hardaway has taken a novel approach to ensuring that he can be an effective third wheel for the Mavericks.
He has spent considerable time studying film of one of the greatest Mavericks of the last era, hoping to learn how to take as much pressure as possible off Doncic and Porzingis, who are 20 and 24 years old, respectively. Hardaway, at 27, feels the need to be sort of a veteran guidelight for the young stars.
“I always compare these guys to Steve (Nash) and Dirk (Nowitzki),” Hardaway said. “Luka and KP are probably the next generation of that, Luka being a little taller than Steve.
“When those guys (Nowitzki and Nash) were playing with each other, Mike Finley was on the team and he was a little older than those guys. And I feel like that will probably be my role. I’ve been watching a lot of film on how he played around those guys, how he was effective and how he impacted the game.
“Moving forward, I’m going to continue watching film of him and get an idea from the coaching staff and KP and Luka how I can be effective.”
Finley was a two-time all-star early in the Nash-Nowitzki era. By the time the 2001-02 season hit, Finley slowly started to step aside – statistically, at least. He was still a major force in molding both Nash and Nowitzki.
Nowitzki has often credited Finley for teaching him how to be professional and how to approach the craft and get better from day to day and season to season.
Hardaway is realistic enough to know that he’s going to have to change if he wants to be efficient in his new role.
“It’s all about adaptation at this point,” he said. “I know I’m not going to be that guy in New York shooting the ball 15, 20 times a game. I have to be more efficient. I know that. Whatever I can do on the floor to take a load off those guys, I’m going to be willing to do it.”
Comparisons to Finley’s role on those early 2000s Maverick teams are a bit unfair. Nash and Nowitzki were entering their hall of fame prime. Finley was an all-star twice and a solid 21-point, 6-rebound, 5-assist producer until Nowitzki officially became “The Man” for the Mavericks.
But having Finley-esque aspirations is a noble pursuit. Hardaway has scored 17.8 points per game the last two seasons, albeit on teams that were not playoff competitive. If Hardaway can be a floor-spacer and a cutter to the basket, he could end up being a very strong lieutenant to generals Doncic and Porzingis.
“It’s a creative way of looking at it,” Carlisle said. “I don’t have any problem with it at all. But these guys are their own people. The comparisons to Dirk and Nash, I’m not going there.
“We got different guys. This is a different time. These guys, both Luka and Kristaps, they’re making their own history here now. That’s what they should be concentrating on.
“Tim’s a great team guy, a great worker, a great energy guy. He’s a winner. And he’s going to be one of our most important players, as well.”
Hardaway also has the benefit of being one of the few Mavericks who have seen extensive game action with Porzingis.
And by the way, Hardaway says Porzingis’ reputation as a unique player is well-deserved.
“To have a 7-3 guy that can move like this – people don’t understand,” he said. “People laugh and joke about the unicorn thing. But it is true. You’re playing with a creative player. You can throw him the ball anywhere on the floor and he’s either going to score or have a presence on the floor while you’re out there. He put on a whole lot of muscle while he’s been out. He’s ready. I’m happy he’s back.”
And happy to be healthy and ready for whatever his role will be. Looking back, he said he probably should have had surgery sooner than he did. He knew something wasn’t right with his leg. But he also wanted to continue to help the team as long as he could. And the summer turned out to be plenty of time for a rigid rehab.
And he likes the way the team has come together in a short amount of time.
“Right now, I’m 100 percent ready to go,” Hardaway said. “I can’t wait. I feel like we are definitely a playoff team. You can’t put doubt in your team. As long as we’re together all year, when adversity hits, we can overcome that very, very quickly, get past it and win the games we’re supposed to win, yes, I feel like we can make the playoffs and we will be a playoff team.”