The Knicks on Friday made the first of what could be several moves to clear the way to bring back Tim Hardaway Jr.
Marshall Plumlee was waived in the morning, removing his $1.3-million salary from the Knicks’ books. They also likely will have to renounce the rights of Derrick Rose and Sasha Vujacic to open the money to give Hardaway.
The Knicks signed Hardaway, a restricted free agent shooting guard, to a four-year, $71-million offer sheet Thursday night. Hardaway officially could become a Knick on Saturday. The Hawks received the signed offer sheet Thursday and have until Saturday night to match it.
As if the contract total wasn’t enough of a deterrent for the Hawks to match it, the offer sheet contains a 15 percent trade kicker and a fourth-year player option.
If the Hawks don’t match the offer sheet and Hardaway returns to the team that drafted him 24th in 2013, the Knicks still will have some work to do. In addition to clearing money for Hardaway, they have to find a veteran point guard to help guide first-round pick Frank Ntilikina and second-year player Ron Baker.
Signing Hardaway would leave the Knicks with only the $4.28-million room exception and minimum contracts to offer free agents. They have been in contact with the representatives for Rajon Rondo and Shelvin Mack, but Mack reached a two-year, $12-million agreement with Orlando on Friday.
The Knicks could try to acquire a point guard in a trade for Courtney Lee or Kyle O’Quinn. Lee would seem to be the odd man out if Hardaway comes in because they play the same position. But a league source said the Knicks aren’t looking to move Lee and that they plan to play him and Hardaway together.
That could change, but the source said the Knicks want to have a mix of young players and veterans.
Lee, who signed a four-year, $50-million deal, is a solid professional and a good locker-room presence. He’s also the Knicks’ best perimeter defender. That was a weakness of Hardaway’s when he was with the Knicks, but he became a better defender while playing with Atlanta.
Still, the Hardaway signing was surprising. The Knicks could have used that money — which they seemingly were unwilling to spend when free agency started last Saturday — on a point guard.
Jeff Teague and George Hill received three-year, $57-million deals from the Timberwolves and Kings, respectively. Darren Collison got two years and $20 million from the Pacers.
But the Knicks’ free-agency plan changed when Phil Jackson was removed as team president. General manager Steve Mills is running the basketball department now. Instead of looking for players who fit the triangle, Mills is said to be seeking young, athletic players, and his first big move in free agency was to try to bring back someone Jackson traded two years ago.
Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said keeping Hardaway was a priority, but there were reports that Atlanta anticipated Hardaway getting a deal that would average roughly $12 million per season. He will make $17.75 million, a remarkable amount for someone who has been a reserve for most of his four-year career. But Hardaway, who averaged a career-best 14.5 points for the Hawks last season, likely would be the Hawks’ starting shooting guard and more of a featured player. The Hawks lost Paul Millsap to Denver in free agency a year after Al Horford left Atlanta for Boston.
Before signing Hardaway to the offer sheet, the only things the Knicks had done in free agency were reach an agreement on a new two-year deal with Baker, sign Ntilikina to his rookie contract and ink undrafted center Luke Kornet to a two-way contract. They also began discussions with second-round pick Damyean Dotson on a multiyear contract.
Plumlee averaged 1.9 points and 2.4 rebounds in 21 games for the Knicks last season. They could try to re-sign him later this summer.