The New York Knicks declined to match Houston’s offer to restricted free agent Jeremy Lin; Lin-sanity is headed to Houston.
The decision comes as a surprise to many Knick fans, who have been hearing for weeks that the team planned to match any offer “up to a billion dollars.” Coach Mike Woodson repeatedly said that Lin would definitely be back, and that he’d be the Knicks’ starting point guard next season. But Houston’s final offer to Lin – a three-year deal worth approximately $5 million in each of the first two years and a staggering $15 million in year three – apparently soured the Knicks on that plan. Their re-acquisition of Raymond Felton on Friday was the first real indication that they would let Lin go.
Did the Knicks make the right call? From a basketball angle, that’s debatable. Felton might be a better fit for the team than Lin; Mike Woodson apparently favors veterans, and Felton did play very well with Amar’e Stoudemire during his first stint with the team. But Felton’s success came in Mike D’Antoni’s faster-paced system, which the team has since replaced with Woodson’s Carmelo Anthony-centric halfcourt attack. Felton also had a fairly awful 2011-12 season, due in part to the fact that he showed up for training camp badly out of shape.
Lin’s game has significant holes. He turns the ball over too much, struggles going to his left and needs to become a better jump-shooter. But he’s just 23 and has plenty of room for improvement. Felton is about as good as he’ll ever be.
At first glance, the decision is easier to defend from a business perspective. The Knicks will pay over $61 million to Stoudemire, Anthony and Tyson Chandler alone in 2014-15; Lin’s deal would push their luxury tax charge into the stratosphere. But that’s three years from now; general manager Glen Grunwald would have had an opportunity to mitigate the team’s liability before taking that hit. And let’s not forget… the Knicks acquired Lin for nothing, turned him into a valuable asset, and then lost him for nothing. It doesn’t take an MBA to see that as an opportunity missed.
Then there’s the marketing angle. Granted, the Knicks don’t make much money from the Lin jerseys and merchandise that were ubiquitous in New York this season. The NBA splits merchandising and licensing fees equally among all 30 teams; the Charlotte Bobcats made about as much money from those jerseys. Same goes for international television rights; Lin’s presence may have piqued interest in the Knicks in China, but any money made licensing NBA feeds for broadcast in Asia would go to the league and be split equally. Tickets and sponsorships at Madison Square Garden? Both sell out, even when the team is awful. Lin’s presence moved the needle on the Knicks’ local television ratings, but that’s about it.
Still, it’s hard to see this decision as anything other than a marketing debacle. Lin was the Knicks’ most popular player and – by far – the most likeable. To cast him aside seems risky, especially at a time when another NBA team is setting up shop a quick subway ride away from Madison Square Garden. If the Knicks play well this season, all will be forgiven… but if they struggle, and Lin plays well in Houston, this decision will come back to haunt Grunwald and owner James Dolan.
If Lin is as good as some think, he’ll thrive in Houston’s backcourt, alongside veteran Kevin Martin and first-round draft pick Jeremy Lamb. The Rockets have a ton of very promising players – all under age 25 – including Lin and Lamb, 2011 first-rounder Donatas Motiejunas and this year’s other first-rounders, Royce White and Terrence Jones.
And Houston won’t face the same luxury tax issues that would have hurt the Knicks so badly. Under the new CBA, the Rockets can divide Lin’s salary-cap number evenly across the three years of his deal. He won’t count as a $15 million player in year three, for cap purposes, he’ll be an $8-and-change million player for the next three seasons.