Lin's rise atop NBA conversation a matter of NBA business, luck
If Joe Lacob were ever going to have peace of mind, forgetting the inevitable frustrations that come with life as an owner of the Golden State Warriors, this would be the place.
But as the wildly successful venture capitalist walked the sunny links at Pebble Beach on Thursday, he -- like so many others these days -- couldn't stop thinking about Jeremy Lin.
The 23-year-old family friend who grew up playing with Lacob's son, Kirk, in the Bay Area, who led Palo Alto High to a California state title yet still received no scholarship offers, whom Lacob signed as an undrafted free agent out of Harvard and who had become the poster boy for why owners shouldn't make basketball decisions, had turned into a global sensation -- in a Knicks uniform.
"Linsanity," as his growing legion of fans from all over the world are calling it, had been sparked by Lin's unexpectedly exciting play. The driving and dishing of an NBA castoff has led to three straight wins for a Knicks team badly in need of a positive vibe and good point guard play. And Lin, the NBA's first American-born player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent, who was cut by the Warriors and Houston before the Knicks won him off waivers on Dec. 27, has been supplying it in ways that have Lacob rejoicing and regretting all at once.
"I'm incredibly happy for him," Lacob, who was routinely accused of signing Lin as a publicity stunt to appeal to the Asian-American population in his market, said by phone after playing in the first round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. "But we were walking up and down the fairways here today, and I'm saying, 'Son of a b----. We were right.'
"Do I feel vindicated? Yes," Lacob admitted. "Do I feel bad, however, that somehow we didn't manage to keep him? I do. And I'm not blaming anybody in my organization because it was circumstantial."
And not just for the Warriors, either.
Lin -- whom rival teams were convinced was on the verge of being cut for a third time this season just days before a magical three-game stretch in which he's averaged 25.3 points and 8.3 assists -- arrived to this captivating point after a complicated series of events. Had any one of them gone differently, the "Linning" -- as some have said with a hat tip to Charlie Sheen -- would not be the hot topic at every water cooler or Twitter corner of the hoops universe.
The Warriors made the calculated decision cut Lin because of their risky pursuit of Clippers restricted free agent center DeAndre Jordan, a player they felt could fill their void down low. From Lacob on down, the feeling among the Warriors' brass was that notoriously cheap Clippers owner Donald Sterling might let Jordan go if Golden State could offer an annual salary of more than $10 million.
But to create salary-cap room for what would turn out to be a four-year, $43 million offer, they had to cut Lin, use their amnesty clause on veteran guard Charlie Bell and delay the signings of rookies Klay Thompson and Jeremy Tyler. Losing Lin was worth about $300,000 in terms of Jordan's proposed annual rate, a relatively small amount but still an important piece of their plan.
"We knew to get him as a restricted free agent we'd have to load up that contract as much as we possibly could, so short of amnestying Andris Biedrins [the Warriors' underperforming center who is owed a combined $27 million over the next three seasons] -- which I know people criticize us for, but we still stand by that decision -- we wanted to do everything we could and we did," Lacob said. "We went to DeAndre with what most people would say was a contract that overpaid him, recognizing that you had to do that. We had good reason to believe, knowing that [Warriors assistant general manager] Bob Myers was [Jordan's] agent before, that there was a chance that they wouldn't match because, of course, that's Donald Sterling's history."
The Clippers, however, did match the offer on Dec. 13, two days after Lin had been picked up off waivers by Houston, and the next subplot to his surreal tale had begun. The Rockets made their own decision to waive Lin late on the night of Dec. 24 to clear room on the roster for free agent center Samuel Dalembert. General manager Daryl Morey admitted he regretted the move.
"We should have kept [Lin]," Morey wrote on his Twitter account on Thursday. "Did not know he was this good. Anyone who says they knew misleading U."
According to a source close to the situation, Houston's decision was debated heavily and made with great hesitation. While Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic had the point guard duties covered, and Lin was the natural selection to be dropped because he had the team's only non-guaranteed contract, big man Jeff Adrien had a partially guaranteed contract and could have been the roster casualty instead. He was waived on Tuesday to make room for free agent center Greg Smith.
Both the Rockets and Warriors were hopeful that they could sign Lin again if he cleared waivers. Their hope for a reunion was renewed when there were recent rumblings that the Knicks planned to part ways with Lin. But Lin would turn Madison Square Garden into his personal playground soon thereafter, as another set of events led Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni to turn his way.
First, veteran point guard Chauncey Billups was amnestied out of necessity to sign free agent center Tyson Chandler after the lockout, thereby creating the point guard void that had a lot to do with New York's 8-15 start. Then rookie guard Iman Shumpert was injured in the Dec. 25 opener and Lin was added two days later to supply depth at the point behind Toney Douglas and Mike Bibby. Finally, veteran addition Baron Davis -- whose debut as a Knicks savior of sorts was eagerly anticipated -- was expected to return from a back injury in late January or early this month but suffered a setback, and the desperate need for improved point guard play remained.
As Morey tweeted, no one -- not even the Knicks -- can pretend they saw this coming. Nor can anyone claim to know Lin's long-term outlook, whether he'll keep this pace en route to numerous All-Star selections or become a quality backup for years to come.
Yet while the Lin file remains relatively thin and the sample size small, numerous NBA talent evaluators said his size (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) athleticism, work ethic, ability to get to the rim and defensive smarts are the type of skills that should serve him well in a long career. Kings coach Keith Smart, the former Golden State coach who played Acie Law as his backup point guard over Lin last season while with the Warriors, said he was confident all along that Lin would eventually become a productive player.
"Oh, yeah, because he had a skill already," Smart said Thursday. "He had an aggressive skill on both offense and defense -- offensively getting into the paint and getting to the basket; defensively he would get himself into place for a steal or a rebound, and he didn't back down from guys.
"The things he didn't understand was going to the rim in traffic. How far did he go when the long guys are waiting for you there? On the pick-and-roll, when do you make that pass? The skill game wasn't there yet, but the little things that you knew would transfer pretty quickly -- an incredible work ethic, the way he approached the game from the film studies and from listening to coaches -- and you put those to what he already had, and it was just a matter of time with him figuring out the game."
Still, Smart played him only sparingly. Lin's appearances, greeted with roars from the Oracle Arena crowd, often came when the game's outcome was already decided. The publicity, which included a press conference of his own when it was announced that Lin would be playing for the team he grew up rooting for, would far outweigh the performances.
Lin's best work, though, took place when no one was watching. Whether it was with the Warriors or during three assignments with the team's former Development League team in Reno, Nev., he impressed with his tireless approach.
"They talk about a Kobe [Bryant], who will come in and work on one move for an hour," Smart said. "This young man would do the same thing. This young man would work on the pick-and-roll and getting to the paint for a floater, and just work on that one move. Or he's going to work on the catch in the corner, hard drive to the middle, and then look to the pass with a pass fake, but don't pass it -- shoot it. He would do those things. He's regimented in his preparation."
Said Warriors general manager Larry Riley: "He's one of those kids who believes that if I do the right things, and I work on my game and I study the game and then apply what I've learned and improve my shooting, then I believe I can play."
Lin was lauded for his work in the D-League last season, then turned heads in his one stint with the Knicks team in Erie, Pa., this year when he had a triple-double on Jan. 20.
"[Going to the D-League] wasn't something he wanted to do, but he said, 'If that's what you want me to do, that's what I'll do,' and he did," Riley said. "Every time we sent him down, he became a better player."
Despite an offseason spent shooting hundreds of three-pointers on most days in the Bay Area, his shot is still suspect. Thus far, his play seems to be a case of his strengths getting even better more than it is a case of shoring up weaknesses en route to proving he belongs in the NBA.
One league executive who is high on Lin's game compared him to 76ers guard Lou Williams, saying, "If you like a guy who's a good athlete and can get to the rim, and does, over and over -- either by rejecting the screen or by turning the corner on pick-and-rolls -- then it won't take you long to warm to him." He isn't the perfect fit for D'Antoni's system that some have made him out to be, though. The style perfected by Steve Nash during their time together in Phoenix was geared more toward penetrating and finding shooters all over the perimeter rather than finishing on his own like Lin prefers to do.
But he's clearly more of a player than most ever imagined he would be -- even those who saw something special in him from the start.
"I was criticized, and we were criticized, a lot last year for not having a quote-unquote, backup point guard, on the roster," said Lacob, who hired current coach Mark Jackson rather than re-sign Smart in the offseason. "Jeremy Lin was the backup point guard, and then we brought in Acie Law and [Smart] didn't play Jeremy but played Acie Law, which I thought was not great. That was something he and I disagreed on.
"Jeremy was a kid that we really liked. I'm not going to sit here and say I thought he'd have 28 [points] and eight [assists] every night, but I certainly thought he could play."