Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Was Letting Lin Walk Smart?

By now, everybody knows that the Knicks decided not to match the Houston Rockets' "ridiculous" offer sheet to point guard Jeremy Lin. I wasn't personally surprised at the end result, but a small part of me was hoping up until 11:59 p.m. last night that the Knicks would throw a curveball and match the Rockets' offer.

My initial reaction was one of shock and disappointment. How could the Knicks let Lin, a player who showed enough promise to deserve a decent contract to return to the team, walk without getting anything in return? I have let my emotions about this decision stew for a day and, now that I'm thinking clearly, I still can't understand what the Knicks did here.

My first issue is the Knicks' reluctance to outright sign Lin once an arbitrator gave him his early Bird rights and their insistence on letting another team set the market. Instead of offering a deal in the neighborhood of four years, $24 million evenly spread across the length of the contract, they let Houston backload an offer sheet that doomed the Knicks' luxury tax predicament.

That was owner James Dolan's first mistake in this situation. We all know he's made many in the past, but we can overlook those, right? The Knicks insisted they would match Houston's initial offer sheet to Lin, so everything was good in the world of New York basketball.

Then came the absolute poison pill. With knowledge the Knicks would match, Lin secretly flew to Las Vegas to rework the contract, removing the fourth year and earning a $15 million salary in year three that would cost the Knicks anywhere between $30 million and $45 million in salary and luxury tax.

At this point, I was on the fence about keeping Lin. The same player that rejuvenated Madison Square Garden just a few months ago with his ability to finish at the basket, create opportunities for other players and take over multiple games with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire sidelined now went behind the back of the team that gave him his big shot. It became a legitimate question of whether Lin was worth the money.

Forget that the Knicks would have cut Lin before he exploded onto the scene against the Nets in early February. That doesn't matter because if it wasn't for Mike D'Antoni giving the kid a shot nobody would know about him, right?

Wrong, apparently. When I heard about Lin's underhanded move, two thoughts ran through my mind:

Thought one: "What a scumbag! Just a few days ago, he complained that the Knicks didn't publicly say they would match the offer. Then when they did, he went and got a different offer that essentially punched his ticket out of New York. Jerk!"

Thought two: "What a savvy business move. For such an unproven player to get himself $15 million for one season, he must have gone to Harvard or something."

Then on Tuesday, word broke that the Knicks would be able to relieve some of the luxury tax hit that would stem from Lin's contract by using the stretch provision loophole in the new CBA. Essentially, they could cut Lin after two years if they deemed him undeserving of his $15 million third year and spread that cost over the next three years, limiting the luxury tax hit and most of the inherent risk associated with the contract.

Upon hearing this, it made up my mind that the Knicks needed to match this offer. In the worst case scenario the Knicks would be paying an okay point guard $25 million over five seasons and, while that scenario means he would only be on the roster for two presumably disappointing years, he would surely bring in enough revenue to offset the extra salary and luxury tax for the remaining three years.

And that was the WORST case scenario. The best case? Jason Kidd puts down the bottle and shows Lin the ropes. Lin cuts down his turnover rate, develops an average left hand and improves his lateral quickness and ability to keep opposing point guards in front of him on the defensive end.

In that case, he would be worth every penny and more over the first two seasons and likely worth the third as well. Even in an in-between, non-extreme case, matching the offer still would have made the most sense for the Knicks.

I understand that the team got incredible value buying low on Raymond Felton after a lost season where he came in out of shape after a lockout. Felton wasn't the only player to be affected by the lockout and I think he will come back this season and split the difference between his 17 PPG, 9 APG season in 2010-11 and his 11 PPG, 6.5 APG season in 2011-12.

To get a likely 14 PPG, 7 APG point guard for virtually nothing is a win no matter how you shake it. And while I believe Lin to be a better player than Felton, the amount they would have had to pay him does beg the question of whether matching the offer was really worth it.

But from a basketball standpoint and a global marketing standpoint, Lin should have been matched even with Felton on board. Lin is tall for a point guard at 6-3 and is a very adept scorer off the wing; it's very feasible that him, Felton, Kidd and J.R. Smith could share a backcourt and be extremely effective in their own ways even with three of them being point guards.

Lin is also four years younger than Felton and while I don't feel like his upside is that of an All-Star point guard, I see no reason why he can't vault himself into the second tier of NBA point guards and be an above-average player. If Goran Dragic got $8.5 million a year from the Suns, surely Lin is worth slightly less, right? Especially considering his marketing appeal in a city highly populated with Asian-Americans.

Wrong again. At least according to James Dolan, who for the first time in his life refused to open up his wallet to try to help his team win. It's tough to believe that there was any good reason to let Lin go once the stretch provision was uncovered, but Dolan's apparent spite at being "played" by a Harvard graduate was too much for him to overcome.

For the Knicks sake, they better hope that Lin has similar troubles overcoming his deficiencies as a player and the burden that comes with a big contact and no longer flying under the radar. If he doesn't, the Knicks will watch him blossom in Houston rather than on the NBA's biggest stage in Madison Square Garden. And Dolan's already-plummeting stock will fall even further, along with the Knicks' credibility, record and future.