What Just Happened Here? Jeremy Lin Leaves the Knicks

The clock has just struck midnight, and Jeremy Lin’s Cinderella Story with the New York Knicks has come to a bizzarre ending. The Knicks have refused to match the Houston Rockets’ offer sheet of 3 years/$24 million. It’s a shocking move for a team that apparently was prepared to match any offer up to $1 billion.

Much has been made of the “poison pill” part of the deal, which is Lin’s $15 million salary in his third year. Through a loophole, only $8 million of that would count against the cap for the Rockets, but the Knicks would have to pay the full $15 million. Thanks to the contracts of Carmelo Anthony, Amare “My Contract Expires In 36 Months” Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler, the Lin deal would add up to a combined $75 million owed to those players alone. After another $20 million to fill out the roster with interns and ilegal immigrants, the Knicks would be way over the salary cap and deep into the luxury tax penalty. Once luxury taxes are applied, that $15 million third year for Lin would actually be closer to an unprecedented $60 million out-of-pocket cost. A steep price for a player who didn’t even have enough minutes last year to qualify for any league categories.

Despite that astronomical cost, every argument against resigning Lin can be put to bed. Let’s break it down.

ARGUMENT #1: HE’LL COST TOO MUCH
$60 million is a lot, but it’s not like the Knicks couldn’t afford him. They’ve spent more money on players than any team this decade, and have thrown money around like an elementary school food-fight. This is the first time in Knicks history (from what I know) that money has been a problem in obtaining a player. Not cap issues, or balancing salaries in a trade—pure money.

That being said, let’s give the Knicks the benefit of the doubt. They’ve finally drawn a line in the sand. They want to be fiscally responsible for once. There’s nothing wrong with smartening up. The problem is, this instance isn’t smart. It’s an another example of the Knicks being near-sighted. There are two ways to avoid owing that $75 million to four players in 2014-2015. These aren’t secrets either—they’ve been thrown around on the radio, television, and in columns the past three days. These ways have been used repeatedly before to get teams out of cap trouble.

1) The expiring contracts. Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler, and Lin would all have expiring contracts going into the 2014-2015 season. Expiring contracts are just as valuable as solid rotation players—they’re both trade assets. Teams are always looking to trade bad contracts for other bad contracts, or to take on bad contracts because they’re expiring. After 2015, these players would be off the books. In short, they’re tender trade bait. Teams sign players to huge deals knowing well that they’ll probably get traded at the end of the contract for cap relief. Trading just one of these mega-deals in 2014 would save the Knicks tens of millions in cap and luxury tax dollars. It would happen too.

2) The “stretch provision.” Worried about Lin being a bust and still having to eat that $60 million poison pill in 2014? That doesn’t need to happen. The stretch provision would allow Lin to be waived on the cheap. Instead of that $15 million counting against the cap immediately (trigging those luxury taxes), only $5 million would. The provision allows the salary to be dispersed over the remaining years left on the deal plus one: $5 million would be paid in 2014, $5 million in 2015, and then another $5 million in 2016. The cap hit would be minimal, and the tax penalties would be practically nullified.

BUT… Should Lin reach his potential, and ascend to top 10 poing guard range, he’ll pay for himself on the court alone. Nate Silver used John Hollinger’s PER rankings, and converted that metric into dollars. He figured that one win costs about $1.63 million on the open market. A good player should produce about 10 wins per season to be worth $16.3 million. Silver then calculated the value of the top 40 point guards in the NBA using his numbers.

If Lin performs like a top 10 point guard, he’s worth about $60 million over those three years in wins alone—roughly $10 million less than his out-of-pocket cost—a difference that can be made up in his merchandise sales and TV ratings that he would bring in anyway. Not only that, but he would only cost $10 million total the first two years, which would actually make him $30 million underpaid. If the Knicks move either Anthony, Stoudemire, or Chandler to clear cap space in 2014 and cut the luxury tax bill, he would actually come out of the deal as an underpaid point guard.

With those two outs, and an examination of Lin’s potential on the court worth, the poison pill argument is null and void. Moving on…

ARGUMENT #2: HE’S AVERAGE AT BEST

26 starts is an extremely limited sample size, but what he did statistically in that time has only been done by some of the best the NBA has ever seen. The NY Times studied this in February. Since 1985, out of the 41 players who’ve averaged 20+ points, 6+ assists and over 50% shooting in four or more consecutive games, only nine players are considered “average,” while the bottom tier of players consists of Pooh Richardson, Jay Humphries, and Lionel Simmons.

Lin is in rarified air with that list. To call him average would be going against history. Beyond that, an average player doesn’t just throw up 38-7-4 on 57% shooting against a team like Lakers. Against Kobe, it was Lin’s first big test, and he seized the moment in a way that only elite players can do. That doesn’t happen to Raymond Felton on a random February night. Average players just don’t go out and do what Lin did.

Not only did he fill in a fantastic box score, but his also teams won. He dragged the Knicks into the playoffs with his winning streak. He made ran a great pick-and-roll with Tyson and Amare, created Steve Novak’s career renaissance, temporarily saved D’Antoni’s job, and became the team’s alpha-dog. He was the only player the Knicks had last year who played like a proper point guard and made his teammates better. Him not being at least an above-average player would be a historical fluke. Now who exactly wants to bet against history? (This question is obvious and stupid because the Knicks just did.)

ARGUMENT #3: RAYMOND FELTON IS BETTER ANYWAYS

No… Just… No. If I need to actually explain this, then you should stop watching basketball. Let me do it anyway.

In isolation situations last season, Lin scored a quarter of a point more (ranking 65 spots higher—3rd vs. 68th), shot 10% better, and turned the ball over two times less than Felton.

In pick-and-roll situations last season, Lin averaged more points per play, had a higher field goal percentage, and got to that line nearly three times more than Felton.

Lin ranked third in the entire league in field goal percentage off the dribble (minimum 90 shots), just behind Stephen Curry and Steve Nash.

Lin held opponents to less points per play and a lower shooting percentage last season than Felton (.82 PPP for Lin compared to .86 for Felton, and 38% for Lin compared to 42% for Felton).

Statistically, Lin blows Felton out of the water. Would Felton work better with Amare and Carmelo? The argument is that Amare and Felton ran the pick-and-roll so well two seasons ago, but the fact is, Lin runs pick-and-rolls better than Felton PERIOD. There is no aspect on the basketball court that Raymond Felton is superior to Jeremy Lin in.

By this point, unless you’re either Stephen A. Smith or the Knicks, you know that Lin is a no-brainer to be resigned. I could only think of two possible reasons why the Knicks didn’t resign Lin:

1) Dolan was mad. Knicks owner James Dolan had a grudge against Lin for making his wallet work a little bit with the backloaded contract, even though we proved that he wouldn’t have to pay those luxury tax dollars in 2014 if the Knicks made a few realistic moves. Dolan has been known to hold grudges, and he probably didn’t like that Lin asked for all that money in the first place after the Knicks gave him his big chance. This is how he’s repaying me? Lin re-payed you with the reinvigoration of your entire franchise on and off the court. Now pay him back.

2) They genuinely believed he wasn’t good. Although we proved that he’s going to be at least an above-average player, and that he’s an upgrade over Felton, the Knicks didn’t think so. The Knicks can’t say he wouldn’t be worth the money, because we proved that in no way could money be an object. The Knicks must’ve been watching a different Jeremy Lin than the rest of us.

Lin is officially a Houston Rocket, so it’s worth noting what the Knicks missed out on. Should Lin sniff Linsanity levels, he’s the difference in the Eastern Conference. Right now, the Knicks could either finish as either the two seed or the eight seed. The team did nothing last year to help project them for this year. They were in flux all year long, and now their biggest catalyst is gone. After this offseason, they have more questions than answers. Can Melo’s hero ball translate into wins? Who will play at shooting guard? Can anyone stay healthy? Is Amare “My Contract Expires In 36 Months” Stoudemire a basketball player or a contract deadweight? What’s Mike Woodson’s purpose in life? These are all questions that could’ve had answers if Lin had resigned. Lin has the potential to be the reason the Knicks can leapfrog the Celtics, Pacers, Nets, Sixers, Hawks and Bulls.

Just his signing would ward off the inner-city threat of the Nets. The Nets are on the rise, and the Knicks are trending down right now. Beyond New York City, Lin would continue to establish his world-wide popularity. The Knicks had a chance to get every Chinese kid in their jersey, and they blew it. The international branding opportunities he provides cannot be underestimated. There aren’t many players in the NBA who would make the casual NBA fan—even a non-NBA fan—drop whatever their doing just to watch play. There’s LeBron, maybe Durant, Lin, and that’s it. Case in point: My father, mother, and grandmother don’t follow basketball. My father actually hates the game. Did they all watch all of Lin’s games though? Yes. Did he watch LeBron’s dominant NBA Finals? No. Lin’s a living phenomenon.

At the end of this mess, Lin is a player who has a high reward, and a very low risk. He can be tossed to the curb with almost no damage (relative to his cost), just as quickly as he’s taken over the NBA. Let me repeat: worst case, he’s gone with no financial damage done in two years. Best case, he leads the Knicks to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Knicks let the biggest difference maker they had walk away, all because of either a grudge or a misevaluation of his overall ability and worth. Knicks coaches and executives will have to explain themselves eventually, and unless an explanation as complete and thorough as the 9/11 Commission Report is given, the Knicks won’t win this argument. The likeliest reason however: the Knicks are the Knicks. For any NBA fan, that should mean enough.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

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