Tim Hardaway Hall of Fame

The Time Traveler: Tim Hardaway Was The Future Before Anyone Knew It

It’s the middle of May, 1997, back at the old Miami Arena – a downtown lot where you can now find parking near the new Brightline station – and the No. 2 seeded HEAT are holding a six-point first-quarter lead in Game 7 of the second round against the No. 3 seed New York Knicks. Heading into an early timeout, Tim Hardaway had yet to put his signature on the evening.

Miami split the first two games of the series at home, but they dropped two in New York and were now vying for the sixth 3-1 series comeback in NBA history – a comeback no doubt influenced in some form or fashion by a Game 5 fracas which began with Charlie Ward boxing out, to put it one way, P.J. Brown on a free-throw and led to the eventual suspensions of Brown for the final two games of the series and, for New York, Ward, Patrick Ewing, Allen Houston, Larry Johnson and John Starks all missing one of the next two. New York’s penalties had to be staggered due to a rule requiring the Knicks to have nine players available, leading to Johnson and Starks being out for this Game 7. They’re suspensions that must be mentioned because of the way, as Pat Riley put it postgame, they “turned the whole thing around and upside down.”

That’s all just table setting you can relitigate elsewhere. This is a story about Hardaway, the five-time All-Star and now member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame who partnered with Alonzo Mourning to build the foundation of the Riley era in Miami.

On New York’s first play out of that timeout, Hardaway tracks Ward setting up the offense. Ewing goes to set a downscreen for Houston, who curls around to catch at the elbow – as was en-vogue at the time. Reading the set, Hardaway immediately peels off Ward to double Houston. Two seconds later Hardaway sprints across halfcourt with the ball. Ward tries to stop the ball. Hardaway hits him with the ol’ one-two, crossing between his legs to his left hand before snapping back to his right. Fully okey-doked, Ward freezes and watches Hardaway lay it in.

Tim Hardaway 1997 Game 7 Killer Crossover

If you’re interested in reading about Tim Hardaway in 2022 there’s a good chance you know that move. The UTEP Two Step. The Killer Crossover. It’s the move you’ll hear and read all about this weekend. And for good reason. Not only was it genuinely innovative at the time, it was deadly effective. Hardaway used it more often earlier in his career, during his days with Golden State before a knee injury, but no matter how much reputation preceded him he could still break it out and seize your ankles in a playoff game.

His legacy also shouldn’t be limited to just one move, no matter how great it was.

There’s something about watching older games. There are frustrations with grainy footage and the lack of both score and clock consistently on the screen. Even in standard definition, it’s still an opportunity to see the old legends not only pull off incredible feats but you also get to see the old legends screw up. They miss shots. They turn the ball over. They get to be human, not just pages on Basketball Reference. Hardaway, like every other Hall of Famer, wasn’t perfect. He has six turnovers in this Game 7, including one where he fumbled the ball for an over-and-back violation because Riley – seen fessing up with a ‘My bad’ on the broadcast – distracted him with a new play call from the sideline. Game 7’s are usually full of mess, and Hardaway was in it. But watching these games also offers context. Those turnovers come, in part, because Hardaway – whose passing ability Riley compared to that of a shorter Magic Johnson – carried such a gargantuan playmaking role.

Last season alone there were five players – Luke Doncic, James Harden, Nikola Jokic, Dejounte Muray and Trae Young – who posted an assist percentage, the percent of team assists said player accounted for while on the court, of at least 40 with a usage rate, the number of team possessions they used with a foul, shot or turnover, of at least 25. In 1997, Hardaway was at the time the fifth player to ever reach those marks, following in the steps of Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Kevin Johnson and Rod Strickland. Alonzo Mourning was the anchor of those HEAT teams. Hardaway was the engine. In this Game 7, with Mourning only playing 32 minutes due to foul trouble, Hardaway had to clear the way.

In this Game 7, Hardaway answered the call with 38 points. Eighteen of those came in the third quarter, with Mourning mostly on the bench and New York making their first five shots out of the break.

Do yourself a favor and make a promise here. Promise that you’ll watch this next clip. It’s pretty common for video clips to be used in articles now. Plenty of them get skipped over. Don’t skip this one. Watch these four shots, a stretch in the final four minutes of the quarter that decided what was then the biggest game the franchise had been a part of. Even if you’ve seen it all before, watch this and think about what you’re seeing.

Tim Hardaway 1997 Game 7 Threes

Does that look like 1990’s basketball as it is commonly spoken about, the era most associated with words like rough, tumble, physicality et al? Or does it look a little more modern than you might remember? A little more today than yesterday.

As it turns out, the slowdown – No. 25 in pace that season – grind-it-out HEAT team that fashioned itself the meanest, toughest, nastiest group around – No. 1 in Defense, No .12 in Offense – were led by a player whose offensive influence extended far beyond the handles and playmaking that were more likely to earn him renown in those days.

Hardaway was not a great shooter. He wasn’t a bad one, either. In fact he was about bang-on average for his career at 35.5 percent, only once – in his rookie season – finishing above 39 percent or below 33. More noteworthy is that he was a volume shooter, one who created shots in ways very few of his peers could even attempt.

After taking only 1.1 threes per game in his rookie 1989-90 season, Hardaway jumped up to 4.6 and 4.7 in his third and fourth seasons – a run of three-straight All-Star appearances that began with his sophomore campaign. It wasn’t until 1994-95 – perhaps not coincidentally after missing a full year with a knee injury which robbed him of some quickness, along with a temporarily shortened three-point line that raised attempts across the league– that he really started launching, topping the historic number of seven attempts a night. Why historic? At the time, Hardaway and John Starks were the first players, ever, to attempt seven a night outside of Michael Adams – a member of Doug Moe’s turbo-boosted Denver Nuggets (a year after Moe left but Denver still played the same way) group that messes with historical data almost as much as Wilt Chamberlain.

So why isn’t Starks just as important? We have to fast forward two seasons, with Hardaway now in Miami, to where the NBA started keeping more accurate play-by-play data, but in the same season as this Game 7. That year 78.7 percent of Starks’ threes were assisted (81 percent for his career). How many of Hardaway’s threes were assisted that year, according to baskeball-reference.com? Just 48.3 percent.  

More than three-quarters of Starks’ threes came via his teammate’s passing. More than half of Hardaway’s threes were just like what you saw in the video above, and a massive 75 percent of his long mid-range shots were of the same variety. Via crossover. Via stepback. Via the dribble. Self-created, all.

Hardaway was doing this as the starting point guard on a 61-win team. Going down the list of leading three-point shooters in 1996-97, only three of the Top 20 in makes finished with an assisted three-point rate below 55 percent. One, Damon Stoudamire, did so for a 30-win Toronto team while taking fewer threes a night and once he was traded to an awesome Portland team his threes became far, far more assisted. The second, Nick Van Exel, might be the closest corollary to Hardaway – the Lakers were No. 2 in the West that season – but his assisted rate ticked up after this season and his numbers were always a little short of Hardaway’s.

There just wasn’t anyone else doing it quite like Hardaway was during his five full seasons in Miami, and especially the first three before further knee and foot injuries along with age sapped more of his athleticism. Maybe it wasn’t quite as polished as you see these days, but they were modern star shots all the same. The same shots players like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and many more have turned into the most valuable shots in today’s game. Even years after the 1997 series, when Hardaway was 34 and in his last year in Miami, only Steve Francis equaled him with over 200 points scored on unassisted threes, per pbpstats.com. It wasn’t until 2005-06 that more than two players would reach 200 unassisted points on threes, when five did it. Last year 17 players topped that mark.

A nasty crossover was the headline in the 90’s, with Allen Iverson taking that mantle soon after. Playmaking skills were enough to garner comparisons to the greats of the 80’s. But it was the creative threes, years before defensive rules changed and those attempts exploded in popularity, that made Hardaway a precursor for the post-analytics world. Shots that made him an outlier before anyone was looking for them.

When Chris Bosh entered the Hall of Fame last year we spoke plenty about how his game predicted the direction modern, stretchy, versatile big-man play would go in, how he would have fit 2022 like a glove. There was less than a decade between Bosh’s forced early retirement and his enshrinement. That movement was happening in real time. Hardaway’s best years were 25 years ago. He wasn’t a rogue revolutionary tearing down a monarchic style of play – he was Aristotle, demonstrating a round-earth game in a flat-earth world.

Few, if anyone, appeared to recognize all of this when was still lacing them up, but it was clear in real time what he meant to the Miami franchise.

Game 7 against the Knicks was the first in HEAT history, though they had played multiple Game 5’s back when the first round was Best-of-5. It was Hardaway’s first Game 7, too. Before the game NBC’s Jim Gray relayed a pre-game interview with Hardaway:

“He’s very nervous, he’s very anxious,” Gray reported. “He said he couldn’t sleep last night. He said he hasn’t had this kind of butterflies since the High School championship in Chicago in 1985.”

Hardaway didn’t play nervous, which is exactly what he said after his career masterpiece. For a 1988 expansion team, it was a great feat to be a No. 1 seed playing a do-or-die game for the right to play a Chicago Bulls team that Riley called the greatest in the history of the game. But it’s not enough to win regular season games and go the distance. That’s noticeable, not certifiable. For a franchise to become a fully realized threat, it has to cross the threshold. It has to win.

Miami may have lost their next series to Chicago. They may not have climbed the mountaintop until years later with a different set of stars, but the Hardaway-Mourning core proved battle-tested enough to earn the reputation Riley was aiming for. A franchise forged in the fire, if you will. And it laid the blueprint for Riley’s management philosophy. You need talent. If it’s available, go get it. If Alonzo Mourning is out there, get him. If Tim Hardaway is available, get him. If you’re going to win the games that matter most, you’ll need stars to carry you.

In the middle of May back in 1997, Hardaway carried the weight. He did so in a way that few were trying to emulate or replicate at the time, laying the groundwork for an entire generation of stars that wouldn’t come for two generations. For the league, he was a man from the future. For the HEAT, he was exactly what a still-fledging franchise needed – a man ready for the fleeting moments that define who you are and who you want to be.