By Ben Golliver
The Jeremy Lin free agency saga that played out during Summer League seems like it happens years ago and on another planet, considering the twists and turns of both the Knicks and Rockets over the last five months.
Who could forget Knicks fans launching a last-minute petition in an attempt to convince the Knicks to match the Rockets' three-year offer sheet? How great was it that Knicks GM Glen Grunwald was hiding out in his hotel, refusing to formally accept the offer sheet from a courier because he was upset that the terms changed? How strange was it that the entire Knicks' organization was essentially under a gag order as the clock ticked down on the matching deadline? How surreal was it that Knicks executives and Rockets executives were sitting in the same gym, across the court from each other, when the deadline finally passed, making Lin officially a member of the Rockets? How perfect was it when Raymond Felton, recently traded from the Blazers, showed up courtside vowing to have a bounceback season and fully accepting the pressure of replacing Lin?
That was an unforgettable week and, at the time, it was unfathomable. The Knicks had reportedly decided to match any offer to Lin up to $1 billion, and then they passed on $25.1 million over three years, opting to ride three veterans: Felton, Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni. There were so many questions and so much rage. Why not just pay him? Why let him walk for nothing? Couldn't they sign him now and trade him later? Of all the Knicks stars in recent years, why was the biggest fan favorite seemingly the only one not cashing in? Most importantly, what exactly were the Knicks thinking and why weren't they making their thought process clear in some manner?
A Knicks source stressed to SI.com Monday that the organization's summer decision-making resulted from what the team felt was a wide open Eastern Conference race in which they could make a serious push.
"We thought with Chicago treading water due to the [Derrick] Rose injury, and Boston aging, that getting to the Eastern finals was within our reach," the source said. "Then, with a leap of faith, we looked at whether you want to go through Miami with Jeremy or with Felton and Kidd. That's the guts of the decision. Obviously it's going well so far. We like the results of how it's played out. ... We thought we had a chance at the Finals so we went for it."
While there were some uneasy thoughts internally in the immediate aftermath of the decision, there's certainly no looking back now. The Knicks sit atop the East at 18-5, boasting the No. 2 offensive efficiency in the league and having beaten the Heat soundly twice, while Felton is averaging 16.3 points and 6.8 assists. Meanwhile, the Rockets are below-.500, Lin is averaging 12.0 points and 6.6 assists per game, shooting just 39.5 percent from the field and some, including The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney are wondering whether Lin can succeed alongside James Harden.
The New York Post reports that Lin isn't exactly thrilled with his play or relishing his return to Madison Square Garden.
Asked to assess his season, Lin said: “Terrible. I think I’m not doing close to what I’m capable of doing and it’s a matter of figuring out how to get myself to play more like myself within the system with the change of scenery. I’ll be my harshest critic but I’ll go ahead and say it: I’m doing terrible.’’
“I’m definitely ready to get it over with just because I think in some sense there will be some closure,’’ Lin said. “This will probably be the first return back to MSG and there will never be another first return. So we’re going to go out there and play and have some fun and enjoy it and move on.’’
Reflecting back on last summer, it's easy to see where the confusion and frustration came from. The Knicks haven't won a playoff series since 2000, have made a series of contract mistakes over the past decade and have a notoriously impulsive owner in James Dolan who hasn't inspired confidence from his fan base. Lin, having avoided the postseason scrutiny by way of a knee injury, was still generally conceived of in full "Linsanity" form. Knicks management and ownership, though, had already moved on in one key respect, extending the contract of Mike Woodson, who took over the head coaching reigns upon Mike D'Antoni's resignation. Woodson's preference for veterans is well-known; while both Felton and Kidd carried risks (conditioning and age, respectively) they are established players, just like New York's other offseason additions or retentions (J.R. Smith, Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace). The Knicks weighed the potential rewards of superstar play from Lin against the more certain outcomes offered by the alternatives. The results to date most likely have surpassed even their own high expectations. They deserve credit for envisioning the potential of a Lin-less Knicks, though, especially when such a team was unimaginable for everyone else when the moves went official in July.