Letting Jeremy Lin leave your team and getting nothing in return is like winning the lottery and then feeding your ticket to a pigeon. That much is clear. But when you consider the entire context of the Knicks’ situation right now — for one, their alternatives at point guard are a fat guy coming off the worst season of his mediocre career and an old guy who just drunkenly crashed his car into a telephone pole in the Hamptons — the potential move looks even worse.
The clearest way to understand why the Knicks need to keep Lin is to consider the only three possibile outcomes of the team’s decision: they keep Lin, and he’s great; they keep Lin, and he sucks; and they ditch him and give the starting job to Raymond Felton. A lot of excellent analysis has been done on Lin’s potential impact on the team, so let’s consider all of it in the context of the choices the team actually has, rather than forefronting gut reactions ($60 million is a lot of money! I had a good time watching Knicks games last Februrary!). It’s time to look into the future — all the way to the year 2015.
SITUATION ONE: The Knicks keep Lin, and he’s great.
The reason why New York could end up smothering this opportunity before it comes to fruition is, presumably, salary-cap based. Trying to deter the Knicks from matching their offer to Lin, the Houston Rockets offered him a contract that, given the Knicks’ already-sizable salary commitments, would ultimately cost the team something like $60 million when penalties for exceeding the salary cap are included.
(Speaking of which: guess how the Knicks spent the last week leading up to receiving Houston’s bid for Lin, which they knew was coming? Signing Steve Novak, Jason Kidd, and Raymond Felton plus the 38-year-old Marcus Camby to contracts that pay out a combined $10+ million in 2014-15 salaries! How about that.)
By most accounts, though, that tax penalty is chump change compared to what the Knicks could earn by keeping Lin. Wins in and of themselves are worth a lot, and if Lin keeps up the pace he set in 2012, or, better yet, improves — not unlikely for a 23-year-old with a renowned work ethic — he will unquestionably make the Knicks a better team. And better teams make more money. Considering New York’s choices, this is the only option with any upside, because the only possible way to see upside in professional sports is to win — the amount of money you can make off of an unsuccessful team is limited. But if Lin does pan out, and the Knicks remain a contender, every informed observer says they will recoup the tax penalties.
SITUATION TWO: The Knicks keep Lin, and he sucks.
This might seem like the worst option at first: the Knicks sign Lin, he’s immediately a disappointment, and they’re bound into his contract through 2015. But here’s the part that no one seems to acknowledge: there’s very little chance that this roster will be intact in 2014-15 anyway. Of the players currently signed to the team, the longest-tenured is Amar’e Stoudemire, who has been a Knick for all of two seasons. In 2009-10, there wasn’t a single player on New York who remains with the team. Three years passed, and the entire roster flipped.
This kind of roster turnover, particularly for an ownership-ravaged team like the Knicks, is more the rule than the exception in basketball these days. That doesn’t mean the Knicks should disregard planning for the future; instead, it shines a light on why Lin’s contract would actually be a positive for the team, and would add to what will already be a deep treasure-chest: it’s expiring. So is Melo’s; so is Stoudemire’s. Expiring contracts are a coveted and desirable trade asset, because they provide cap relief for the receiving team the next year. If Lin turns out to be terrible and the Knicks, say, miss the playoffs in 2013-2014, the team would have no problem unloading Stoudemire, even with his huge 2014-15 cap number, over the offseason to a team that wanted to clear their books. They could do the same for Lin. If the Knicks sign him and he doesn’t work out, the structure of his contract would actually HELP them in 2015. (They could also drop $10 million off their salary cap just by cutting him, as explained here.)
SITUATION THREE: The Knicks replace Lin with Raymond Felton.
As a basketball move, swapping Lin for Felton would be an abomination. Felton is a below-average basketball player coming off a year in which he played overweight and reportedly irritated every man, woman, and vegan in Portland. On his career, Felton has a 14.4 PER — below average — and a pretty terrible 109 defensive rating, six points worse than his 103 offensive rating. ESPN’s TrueHoop did a nice job of breaking down how Lin was better than Felton in almost every category last year, and it’s last year’s numbers that matter. Despite some observers calling for Felton’s Knicks numbers from 2010-11 to be compared to Lin’s, that seems a little arbitrary given that Lin’s numbers came while playing with teammates like Iman Shumpert, Tyson Chandler, Novak and JR Smith who are still on the team, while Felton’s were notched with guys like Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari. Only Amar’e Stoudemire played with both Lin and Felton, and it seems likely that his pick-and-roll game fits well with either point guard.
Regardless of how you feel about Jeremy Lin, Raymond Felton’s ceiling has been well-established; he’s a known quantity. An average quantity. A Knicks team that plays Raymond Felton at point guard will be only a tiny bit better than the team that lost last year’s first-round playoff series to the Heat. In a conference whose top tier is quickly getting stronger — the Heat just added Ray Allen; the Celtics are replacing Allen with Jason Terry while adding Jeff Green and apparent draft steal Jared Sullinger; the Nets have Joe Johnson now; a young, improving Pacers team has gotten deeper; we haven’t even mentioned the Bulls — a 2012-2013 Knicks team featuring Raymond Felton at the point is going to lose in the first round of the playoffs or, maybe, AT BEST, the second. Which will leave them in a position of having to add salary to have any chance at winning by 2015, which is the expiration date for the current core of Chandler, Stoudemire, and Anthony. Which will leave them paying the luxury tax for a player who, because they’ll have to be acquired on the open market, will probably be even less cost-effective than Jeremy Lin.
Last year, Lin put up the numbers of a top-10 point guard — his PER was basically identical to the newly max-contracted Deron Williams — and if he can keep up anything approaching this pace, not only will this contract not be bad: it will be a steal. The only move for the Knicks that has any upside is keeping Lin, because even if he suddenly becomes as terrible as Felton was last year, they won’t have kicked all of their fans in the crotch to get there. Make no mistake: a kick to the crotch is exactly what swapping out Lin for Felton would be. Not to mention that, let’s face it, he won’t be terrible. Critics are acting like Lin’s this completely unknown commodity, but he played half of an NBA season at an exceedingly high level, and there’s no better proof of a player’s ability to succeed in the NBA than NBA games. (Not to mention that he has the profile you’d like even if he hadn’t had that great run: size, quickness, scoring and passing instincts.) No player that scored more points than Lin in his first five starts has ever flopped… because no player since the advent of the modern NBA in 1976 has ever scored more points in his first five games than Jeremy Lin.
But in the deep, dark reaches of Jim Dolan’s peanut brain, something has caused him to ignore this logic. Not initially surprising — ignoring logic is what has characterized the last decade of the Knicks’ franchise. But in the past, New York was constantly grasping at straws, gambling on various players simply because of the hype surrounding them. And the worst thing about the Lin situation is that this time around, blindly seeking hype would lead to the correct decision on the merits. A miracle has fortuitously fallen in the team’s lap, and the inability to recognize it speaks to an even deeper perversity than anyone could have imagined.
Update: Jeremy Lin will be a Houston Rocket.