New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony raised more than a few eyebrows on Sunday when he offered reporters, including Yahoo! Sports' own Marc J. Spears, his opinion on whether the Knicks should match the three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet that the Houston Rockets tendered to restricted free-agent point guard Jeremy Lin.
"It's up to the organization to say they want to match that ridiculous contract that's out there,'' Anthony said Sunday.
There was, of course, a reasonable enough explanation for that arsenic-laced phrase — that the contract is "ridiculous" not because Lin doesn't deserve to be paid, but because Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and company structured Lin's offer sheet to pay him a below-market rate amounting to about $10.2 million over the first two years of the deal, then drop the hammer with a huge balloon payment of nearly $15 million in the third year.
Really, this is merely an example of several not-ridiculous events coming together — Lin finding a deal from another suitor, as is his right in restricted free agency; Lin finding maximum value for his services, as the Knicks allowed him to do by letting him test the market; the Rockets structuring a completely collective-bargaining-agreement-legal deal that optimizes their chances of getting the player they want. But you can certainly suggest that elements of the situation, like perhaps the fact that the Rockets can average Lin's cap hit over the course of his contract while the Knicks can't (more on that below), are "ridiculous." Toss a bit of clarification and a dash of nuance into the mix, and what 'Melo said would've made perfect sense.
However, because this is 'Melo talking to the media, clarification and nuance weren't on the menu ... at least, not right away. Anthony instead reiterated to Spears that "it's up to ownership, not me" to match on Lin, and that he's "tired of people trying to blame me for the fact that the Knicks might not match." No emphasis on the way the Rockets drew up the deal, no complete reiteration of support for Lin's paper chase, no clear division between anger at Houston and dap for Lin. Opportunity missed.
A day and a half later, though, Anthony located those friendlier ingredients. Of course he wants Jeremy back, you silly geese. From Rod Boone of Newsday:
"I hope we get it done, man," the Knicks forward said Monday night after Team USA's 80-69 win over Brazil at the Verizon Center, the team's final tuneup in the United States before heading overseas Tuesday to continue preparations for the Olympics later this month.
"I would love to see him back, honestly. I would definitely love to see him back. But knowing the business of basketball, it's a tough situation, kind of for both of our sides. With Jeremy, I know he definitely wants to be back in New York and [Knicks owner James] Dolan definitely wants him back. So it's just a matter of figuring it out."
Well, that's nice. It definitely would have been nicer 36 hours earlier, before the combination of his comments, the understandable-if-unnecessary take offered by recently re-signed teammate J.R. Smith and the Garden's ever-louder hemming and hawing on Lin's deal made it all but a fait accompli that the 23-year-old point guard will soon be Texas-bound. And I'm not so sure that Anthony changing his tune — or, to give him the benefit of the doubt, just offering a clearer public pitch — will have any impact on what eventually winds up happening, but sure. One big happy family.
Of course, Anthony did hit the woe-is-me note a bit when asked about public reaction to his Sunday comments ("I always get backlash. It's nothing new") and reiterate his feelings on the Rockets' offer ("It was ridiculous for them to do what they did, as far as throwing that out there and making it tougher on us to sign him back"). But if you take him at his word — something an ever-increasing amount of NBA fans seem to be having a tougher and tougher time doing — Carmelo Anthony wants Jeremy Lin back in orange and blue next season. Welcome to the popular side of the argument, 'Melo. There's at least 11,000 of us.
Also, a few words by way of clarifying now un-ridiculous the Rockets' offer is from a strategic perspective:
Morey did this because, whatever you think about his quixotic pursuit of Dwight Howard or his general approach to team-building, he's a smart dude who wants a point guard. (Well, after some recent moves, he needs one.) And thanks to the so-called "Gilbert Arenas provision" in the league's CBA — which allows the team tendering the RFA sheet to average its cost over the full term of the contract, provided they have enough cap room to absorb that average hit in the first year of the deal, while the matching team would have to pay the contract as it's written without averaging out the hit — Houston can spread Lin's deal out to much more reasonable annual salary of just over $8 million, while the Knicks would be forced to pay it in the 5-5-15 format.
That's why they call contract clauses like Lin's third year "poison pills," and that's why it'll hurt Dolan and Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald an awful lot to match Lin, which is why they're making so much noise that they won't, despite the fact that they absolutely should and their fans desperately want them to do so.
So just how much will it hurt? Let's do some math.
The Knicks already have $65 million in salary committed to just four players — Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert — for the 2014-15 season. Add in a mini-midlevel exception hit of just under $3.3 million for new signee Jason Kidd and you're at nearly $69 million for five guys. We don't yet know what the luxury tax line will be for the '13-'14 or '14-'15 seasons, but for this coming year, it's set at $70.3 million, and it's unlikely to increase significantly over the next couple of years. (We don't know what the salary cap will be, either, but the Knicks will be over it, because it's damn sure not going up $12 million over the next three seasons.)
We don't yet know precisely how the rest of the Knicks' recently signed deals are going to be structured, but assuming a similar $3 million-plus figure for fellow incoming point guard Raymond Felton (who reportedly got three years and $10 million from the Portland Trail Blazers before being moved to the Knicks in a sign-and-trade), a number approaching $4 million for just re-signed shooting specialist Steve Novak and factoring in the partially guaranteed third year of the deal Marcus Camby just got in his sign-and-trade, back-of-the-envelope math suggests New York will likely be looking at somewhere around $79 million in salary for just eight players with seven more roster spots to fill, putting the Knicks well into the luxury tax even before agreeing to pay Lin $15 million for that season.
Plus, as Sports Illustrated's Sam Amick noted, the penalties that teams have to pay for going over the luxury tax become much more punitive starting in 2013-14. Teams whose payrolls come in between $15 million and $20 million over the tax line — which the Knicks would almost assuredly be, and they might wind up over by even more than that — will have to pay a $3.25 penalty for every $1 they spend over the line. Every $5 million level over the tax line you go brings another 50-cents-on-the-dollar penalty.
With that in place, matching on Lin — which would look to push the Knicks up to more than $93.5 million in salary for '14-'15, even before they fill out the rest of the roster — could wind up expanding the Knicks' tax payment by "an additional $35 million to $45 million," according to Howard Beck of the New York Times.
Now, it's worth remembering that Lin's deal itself won't cost the Knicks that extra $35 million to $45 million, and that it's unfair to say that he, all by himself, will cost New York as much as $60 million in '14-'15. Remember, luxury tax payments are based on a team's entire payroll. The Knicks will get about two-thirds of the way to the tax line just by paying a combined $47.8 million to Anthony and Stoudemire, and the $14.6 million they'll owe Chandler weighs heavily on the eventual bottom line, too.
This, of course, is why most reasonable people thought it was crazy to pay those three frontcourt players as much as the Knicks did — because it puts the team in a situation where it's got to either turn in a skinflint backcourt and bench, or pay through the nose in tax bills. Refusing to match Lin would seem to indicate that the Knicks have chosen the former.
In the final analysis, then, it's not so much Lin's deal that's "ridiculous" as it is the Knicks' salary structure as a whole. But then, we already knew that, right?
The Knicks must decide whether to match Houston's offer sheet or let Lin walk by 11:59 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday — we think — so we'll know what the choice is soon enough, and whether 'Melo's apparent love of Lin holds any sway with MSG brass.
UPDATE: The Knicks did not match Houston's offer to Lin.