Are Knicks going Lin-$ane?

BY Sam Gardner • July 13, 2012

From the moment Jeremy Lin descended on Manhattan this spring and ignited "Linsanity," it seemed a foregone conclusion the New York Knicks’ sensational new point guard would be back in the Big Apple this fall.

The only question was how much it would cost Knicks owner James Dolan to keep the 23-year-old free agent on the payroll.

Now that the moratorium on NBA player signings has lifted, the answer is in — and the number is staggering.

The Harvard grad and pop-culture phenomenon reportedly has signed an offer sheet with the Houston Rockets for three years and $25 million, with the third year worth $15 million. The Knicks have three days to match it or lose Lin.

New York had indicated it would match, but that was before Saturday's reports that the team reached a sign-and-trade deal with Portland for point guard Raymond Felton. Having already signed Jason Kidd to a three-year contract, the addition of Felton would seem to make Lin expendable.

For the Knicks, the question becomes, is a guy who played all of 35 games (25 starts) last year before suffering a season-ending meniscus tear in his left knee worth all that green?

Certainly, Lin is worth more than the $788,000 he made last year, when he averaged 25.0 points, 50.9 percent shooting, 9.2 assists and 3.8 rebounds during an 8-1 stretch over his first nine games as a full-timer.

But $25 million? That's completely absurd.

And that’s to say nothing of the luxury-tax hit he’d represent when the free-spending Knicks get blasted by the new “super tax” starting in 2013-14.

The most common defense of Lin’s contract is that it's as much about his off-the-court value as it is a reward for his on-court prowess.

To a point, that's right.

During his nearly two-month run as the king of New York, Lin put countless fans in the Madison Square Garden seats — and quickly coaxed them out, putting them on their feet with his heroics.

Lin also sold jerseys as fast as stores could keep them in stock and sparked untold interest in the city for the long-irrelevant Knicks.

And, as the first Taiwanese-American to play in the NBA, Lin gave an entire culture — one that’s very prevalent in New York City — a player to be proud of and a new team to cheer for.

There certainly is a mountain of money to be made from a domestic and global marketing standpoint with regard to Lin.

But in the end, the interest in Lin — and his real value — will be tied to his performance. If his numbers tail off and the Knicks continue to disappoint, memories of "Linsanity" will quickly fade.

The problem is that Lin's whole M.O. last season was being a plucky underdog, and that’s why people came to love him. His overcoming-insurmountable-odds storyline worked perfectly and afforded him the opportunity to be fallible.

He doesn’t have that luxury next season.

Those days of Lin's being a feel-good story are over. With a big payday comes elevated expectations. What’s going to happen when Lin — a guy who already was playing beyond his means — can’t live up to them, especially in a city as fickle as New York?

However enamored they are with Lin for the moment, Knicks fans also are smarter than the average basketball aficionado, and if they haven’t already come to the realization that Lin has reached his peak, they soon will. They already saw warning signs last season that Lin was too good to be true.

His first dose of reality came against Miami in the final game before the February All-Star break, when the Heat held Lin to eight points on a season-worst 1-of-11 shooting, with eight turnovers to just three assists.

In fact, turnovers were a constant point of contention for Lin, who averaged a league-high 4.5 after becoming a full-time player and committed six or more in 12 games.

In his final 15 games, starting with that loss in Miami, Lin saw his shooting percentage drop by 11 points and his scoring decrease by 10 points.

Certainly, the return of injured Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire contributed to the hit to Lin’s output, but they’re not wholly responsible. Teams started to figure out Lin as the season wore on, and as the element of surprise faded, he became far less effective.

On top of that, Lin still is a below-average defender, still has played only a handful of meaningful NBA games and still can’t go to his left with the ball.

What's more, Mike D'Antoni is no longer his coach. If the Knicks match, Lin would be in a system that no longer fits him under Mike Woodson.

Oh, and by the way, we still haven’t seen him play since he underwent season-ending knee surgery in March.

So forgive me if I’m not exactly gung-ho about giving Lin $25 million, no matter how many jerseys he sells.

Re-signing Lin would be a huge gamble for the Knicks. Rather than match the offer, it might be wiser to let Houston be the one to overpay.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner

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