The Knicks have declined to match Houston’s three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet for point guard Jeremy Lin. If you’re a Knicks fan, you can only hope the team let him walk on Tuesday night for the right reasons — basketball reasons, as it were — and not because of the front office’s resentment toward the Rockets, or bitterness within New York’s locker room over the twice-waived 23-year-old’s sudden rise to fame and fortune.
The decision isn’t indefensible, even though it is clearly going to hurt the Knicks on the court in 2012-13. Point guards Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd are here, but it has been years since either played anywhere near the level that Lin reached last season in his small sample size of 26 games as a starter or rotation regular. Felton was terrible in Portland last season, shooting bricks and coughing up an almost-unbelievable number of crunch-time turnovers with dribbles off his foot. Kidd, 39, is barely a point guard anymore, nearly incapable of attacking the lane off the dribble. He’s an outstanding perimeter quarterback who makes the smartest skip passes in the league, and he’ll toss better-timed and more creative entry passes than Lin could deliver to forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. But let’s not pretend that the Knicks can count on Felton or Kidd to run dynamic pick-and-rolls with center Tyson Chandler next season and dive into the lane, draw the defense and find last season’s NBA’s leader in three-point percentage, forward Steve Novak, spotting up in the corner.
Lin can do those things. It’s fair of the Knicks to ask whether his ability to do those things with this roster was worth what they would have had to pay, especially in 2014-15. Under the terms of the offer sheet, the Knicks would have owed Lin nearly $15 million in that season. Giving Lin that much would have taken New York’s payroll, based on the current roster, to about $92.5 million, nearly $20 million over the projected luxury tax for that season. The league’s new, harsh tax rates will be in effect then, and exceeding the threshold by $20 million would come with a tax hit of a whopping $45 million. Lin’s salary would create the bulk of that penalty.
Can the Knicks afford that? Probably. They’ve been a hugely profitable franchise despite big payrolls in the past, and Lin adds to the team’s bottom line in ways that are hard to pin down with precise figures. The Dolan family, which owns the team, has outside interests in cable television and isn’t dependent on the Knicks for its wealth. And the new collective bargaining agreement includes something called the “stretch” provision, which allows teams to waive players in the middle of their contracts and spread the cap hit over multiple years. If New York wanted to cut Lin ahead of that expensive 2014-15 season, it could have done so and extend the cap hit over three seasons. With that move, Lin’s deal would have counted as “only” $5 million in each of those three seasons.
Want more? In 2014-15, the Knicks will be paying the combination of Novak, Kidd, Felton and center Marcus Camby at least $11 million, only $4 million less than Lin’s bill. Yes, that $11 million will get New York four players instead of one. But two of those players will be in their early 40s by that time (Kidd and Camby, now 38), one is a spot-up shooter with little track record of NBA success (Novak) and the other is a point guard with occasional weight issues (the 28-year-old Felton). And New York, for all its excessive spending, has almost no money on the books for 2015-16, the year after Lin’s new contract expires. That means the Knicks could pay the luxury tax in each of the next three seasons and still duck the dreaded repeater penalty — which jacks up tax rates even higher — by getting under the tax in 2015-16. In other words: Though 2014-15 would have been bad, the prior years would have been run-of-the-mill tax seasons, and the following season would have carried a clean slate.
Still, the cost was high, and perhaps the Knicks thought it was too rich for a point guard with a tiny NBA résumé and a drive-and-kick game that might not mesh all that well with the franchise centerpiece, Anthony, who tends to dominate the ball. (And if you want to sniff out the real problem here, check the proximity of the terms “Anthony” and “franchise centerpiece” in that previous sentence.) That said, Chandler thrives as a pick-and-roll partner with that kind of point guard, as he showed last season during his short time with Lin. Stoudemire struggled to find his way with Chandler in the lane and Anthony dominating the ball, but with time, Lin and the Knicks’ coaching staff should have been able to figure out ways to develop chemistry between Lin and Stoudemire. Felton can replicate some of these skills at his best, but his best is league-average, and he wasn’t close to that last season. Pablo Prigioni, the team’s third-string point guard, is a legend in Argentina, but he has no NBA track record and one doesn’t reach “legend” status anywhere without being old enough to attain it; Prigioni is 35.
This is a long way of saying two things:
1. The Knicks have positioned themselves so that they wouldn’t have needed Lin to play 40 minutes per game or consistently dominate the ball — stuff you expect from a point guard due $15 million in one season.
2. Even so, the Knicks will miss Lin’s precise skill set. It is a valuable skill set, especially on units that don’t include Anthony. The Knicks have no one on hand who can duplicate it — and no one who can even approach it if Felton falls on his face again.
The 2012-13 Knicks project as a mid-level playoff team, one that wouldn’t reach another level unless the high-priced front-line stars found ways to mesh better. That was true with or without Lin, but the “with Lin” Knicks had a better chance of reaching that higher ceiling.
As for the Rockets, this is a painless transaction. The cap rules for this particular situation dictate that Lin count for about $8 million annually in each season of his three-year deal. That’s a manageable number, especially considering the pristine state of Houston’s cap sheet after the team traded point guard Kyle Lowry and used the amnesty provision on power forward Luis Scola. If the Rockets end up with both Lin and Bulls restricted free agent center Omer Asik, to whom they plan to tender a similar poison-pill offer sheet, they could still trim their cap figure to something like $43.5 million. That would give them nearly $15 million of cap space, enough room to take back about $13 million of toxic Orlando salary in any Dwight Howard trade, provided the Rockets send out shooting guard Kevin Martin’s $12.4 million expiring contract and about $6 million worth of first- and second-year players in addition to a boatload of first-round picks.
For instance: Houston should be able to fit both Magic power forward Glen Davis and shooting guard Jason Richardson in this scenario. That isn’t quite the lethal contract bonanza that Houston could absorb without Lin and Asik on the books, but both the Richardson and Davis deals run longer than Orlando small forward Hedo Turkoglu’s contract, and the Rockets can still offer the same generally powerful package of cap relief and picks. Finding a way to include Magic point guard Chris Duhon’s small contract shouldn’t be too hard, either.
Of course, the Rockets could simply have hung on to Lowry’s cheap contract or re-signed point guard Goran Dragic for about the same per-year salary that Lin will now get. But they flipped Lowry for a lottery pick from Toronto, an asset that Houston believes is more valuable on the trade market than Lowry. And Dragic’s new deal with Phoenix runs for four seasons, a deal-breaker for the Rockets.
As of now, Lin is the lead guard on a young team stocked with an army of inexperienced forwards and some interesting athletes. None of those forwards has emerged as a consistent NBA-level pick-and-roll partner for Lin, but rookie Donatas Motiejunas has been around the rim consistently at the Las Vegas summer league and another rookie, Royce White, is a fantastic passer on the move. Martin is still around to score off curls, but Lin will have to carry a heavy off-the-dribble load. Things obviously change if Houston can land Howard, a move that would pair Lin with one of the league’s best pick-and-roll big men and a top post-up option, which the Rockets lack.
It wasn’t simple, but Houston now has a 23-year-old point guard on a contract that the team doesn’t hate, plus a lottery pick in Lowry’s place. Like almost everything this team does, this meta point guard transaction is a small victory and not a big one that really moves the dial in terms of on-court potential. Let’s see if the Rockets can turn all of these small victories into something more.