By John Schmeelk
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The Knicks are going to be without Tim Hardaway Jr., their second leading scorer, for at least two weeks and maybe more because of a “stress injury” to his leg.
If it is only a stress reaction he could be back shortly thereafter, but if it is closer to a stress fracture he could be out months rather than weeks. Bones need time to heal.
However long Hardaway ends up being out, the Knicks are going to have to figure out a way to survive without him. They play three of their next four and six of their next 10 at home before embarking on a stretch of 19 of 25 on the road, including a five-game West Coast trip. The Knicks are just 1-7 away from the Garden so far this season, making it imperative they take advantage of their home games between now and Christmas.
The Knicks will have to do it without Hardaway, but it does look like Kristaps Porzingis will return from what looked like a horrific ankle injury last week. The Knicks didn’t have much of a chance to compete without both players, but with Porzingis back in the lineup they should be able to take it to a higher level. Porzingis immediately makes Enes Kanter a better player by covering up his lack of rim protection on defense, and he also gives the team a true number one option on offense.
The Knicks have shown they can win when everyone is healthy, but the sign of a good team is the ability to withstand an injury like the one to Hardaway and stay above water. The Knicks will continue to turn to one of their promising rookies to replace Hardaway: second-round pick Damyean Dotson. His shooting was disappointing in his first two starts, but he defended well and played within the structure of the offense. Given his history, there’s no reason to think Dotson’s shooting won’t come around. If his short stints are any indication he may be a defensive upgrade to Hardaway.
Dotson had been trapped behind Hardaway, Courtney Lee, and Doug McDermott, which kept the Knicks from learning about one of the players that could be a big part of their future. This is a golden opportunity for him to show the team he deserves playing time even when Hardaway returns. He has to do what Willy Hernangomez didn’t when Kanter was out with his bad back. Despite their fast start, the Knicks are still not primarily about this season. The future should still be the priority.
The Hardaway Jr. injury might also make what could be a difficult decision in the beginning of February much easier. If the Knicks are still within striking distance of a playoff berth when the trade deadline rolls around before the All-Star game, they will have to decide whether to make a playoff run or make some moves to better position themselves a couple years down the road.
The early season success of veteran players like Lee and Kanter could make them highly sought after on the trade market for a team trying to make a playoff run. Lee is on the wrong side of 30, while Kanter can opt out after the season. Getting valuable future assets for either or both players could be enticing if the team is out of the playoff hunt.
This Hardaway injury could set the Knicks back far enough in the standings before their long road trip that they might have no choice but to become sellers. Keeping veterans around and playing them ahead of young players wouldn’t make sense if realistic hopes of making the playoffs are extinguished. It would be a tough fact for the Knicks front office to admit, but the sooner the better if it means positioning the team well in the future.
How the Knicks play without Hardaway will give Steve Mills and Scott Perry a better idea of whether this this team can make noise in the postseason or if it is more likely to fade down the stretch. If the team struggles before their road-dominant stretch and then can’t win away from the Garden, tough decisions will have to be made. Hardaway’s injury might make it a little bit easier.
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