As it usually does, when anything of significance happens to Jeremy Lin, the Internet caught fire over the weekend when rumors leaked from several outfits about the likelihood of the New York Knicks matching Houston's contract offer to the restricted free agent. The Rockets had signed Lin to a backloaded contract offer that would pay him a below-average salary during the first two years of a three-year, $25.1 million deal, before ballooning to $14.5 million in the third year of the contract. The Knicks, suddenly sensible as the rumors would have it, would not match.
Though New York has until late Tuesday to match the Rockets' offer, just the thought of the team passing on retaining their 2011-12 phenomenon was met with outrage from even the most financially aware of Knicks fans. The absurdity of it all was heightened, and we're not making light of this matter, when former All-Star and would-be mentor Knick guard Jason Kidd was arrested for a possible DWI after a Sunday morning SUV crash.
Because of New York's current payroll and the onset of a new, nastier luxury tax, the team would end up paying Lin around $30 million for his services in the final year of his deal, and a tax hit of anywhere between $35 million and $45 million as reported by the New York Times. Tossed onto New York's already-massive payroll, that's quite a fee. And it's a fee the Knicks have to pay. Absolutely, and utterly, have to.
[Marc J. Spears: Carmelo Anthony wants no part of Jeremy Lin saga]
He has to stay for reasons that aren't a knockout in any regard, but ones that stack up once you realize that this move is years in the making, even if it took New York and the NBA until February of 2012 just to determine how good Lin could be.
Questions about how good he can be, even after that sterling month of play last winter, are legitimate and the answer is years away from being sized up appropriately. As we attempted to point out incessantly during his run last February, much of Lin's work came against less-than-stellar teams, and coincided with an improved defensive bent from the Knicks that would really take hold once coach Mike Woodson took over the squad to end the regular season. His individual numbers, save for turnovers, left him with a borderline All-Star statline, but the sample size and competition level still make him a hard sell merely as a starter some five months later.
Much less a starter costing a team the same salary that Michael Jordan cost the Bulls in Chicago's 69-win year of 1996-97. If we're going to think finances first, though, we can still argue away Lin's cost to New York.
His was the hottest name in New York during the end of a dispute between the Knicks' MSG-brand and Time Warner cable, and many credited Lin's play with forcing Time Warner's hand as it agreed to MSG's terms and ended its Knick game blackout. MSG stock rose significantly once Lin took over as Knicks starter and turned in back-to-back Sports Illustrated covers, and it has fallen precipitously as news of his potential departure looms — and that's for a player that hasn't played a minute of NBA basketball since suffering a MCL tear on March 24. "Linsanity" has faded, in a day-to-day realm, and yet deep into summer just rumors about a man who hasn't played in nearly four months are setting the tickers off.
Adding to that is the continued revenue that the Knicks would receive in terms of global sponsorships, local ratings, national TV cherry-picking by the NBA, and merchandise sales. By the time I flew into a LaGuardia Airport that was strewn with Lin jerseys in late February of this year, you felt as if the Knicks were just a win away from their first championship in 40 years and Lin leading the ticker tape parade.
In February, it felt that way. February.
And the real, actual basketball end of this? Lin's potential gets New York closer to that parade. Amar'e Stoudemire could go at any time. Carmelo Anthony might be in his prime. Tyson Chandler might tire soon due to overuse after playing deep in 2011, and following up this season with an appearance on Team USA. The Knicks need to develop Lin, but they also need someone to contribute right away. Considering the options already on the Knicks, Lin in just his third year still might be that guy.
In his absence sits (usually) Raymond Felton, a point guard that has been seriously overvalued in his previous stops in Charlotte and New York before turning into a shortened season that made him the biggest villain in Portland we've seen since a can of a beer with a born-on date. He's in his prime, and he's not that great. He could improve with a better training regimen, to be sure, but he's no answer.
Lin, with his ability to dominate the ball and pass creatively, could be. Lin, with his best years ahead of him, could be. The Knicks, who have dug their own grave with years of payroll abuse, have to make Jeremy Lin a part of their team. They can afford him (or, at worst, they can't afford to try not to), they can work around the terms of that final year with smartly placed transactions, and he's working from a position that New York badly needs help at.
This isn't a knee jerk response to — after years of tossing money at limited players — New York's sudden fiscal sensibility. Sudden rumored fiscal sensibility. Though that was our initial reaction, to bring up Jerome James and dealing one maximum contract for another, newer one under Isiah Thomas' leadership, this has leveled since then. And the level-headed move, even for New York and even understanding the severity of that final year and Lin's still-developing game, is for New York to match this contract offer.
It has to. This is no time to stop taking chances.
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