Jerome James was a career backup. A second-rounder who averaged less than 20 minutes a game. But in his fifth NBA season, he lucked out.
Injuries allowed him to get more playing time in 11 playoff games for the Sonics, when he averaged almost 13 points and seven rebounds. Heading into free agency that year, the 30-year-old James figured to get a modest contract and a chance to start for another team. Isiah Thomas and the Knicks gave him that chance to start, but there was nothing modest about his contract. $30 million for five years, during which time he played in all of 90 games – slightly more than one NBA season.
The Knicks have never been frugal, which is something you have to appreciate as a fan. Unfortunately, they haven’t been prudent, either. Stephon Marbury, Eddy Curry, Steve Francis, Zach Randolph – the list of mistakes from the past decade goes on and on.
Which is why it’s baffling that the franchise has chosen to draw the line now with Jeremy Lin. They broke the bank for a guy who played decently in 11 playoff games, but they won’t do it for a guy who played exceptionally in 26 games last year – and lit up the Garden and New York City in the process.
Granted, there are some complications with Lin’s reported three-year, $25.025 million contract. The biggest concern is his $14.8 million salary in the third season. With the Knicks being over the luxury tax, that final year of Lin’s deal will cost them about $30 million. If they agreed to the contract, the Knicks would have $75 million committed to just four players in 2014-15.
Yes, that’s a lot of cash. And maybe that would be a problem for the Milwaukee Bucks or the Memphis Grizzlies. But it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker for the New York Knicks. Stock in Madison Square Garden has increased in value by over $600 million since Lin became a phenomenon. Plus, the Knicks will be over the salary cap the next three years even without Lin, meaning their personnel moves will be limited either way. Money and roster flexibility are not the issues here.
Some argue that because of Lin’s inexperience, he’s still a relatively unknown commodity. Maybe he’s just a flash in the pan. Maybe last year was just luck. Maybe he’s just not that good.
The problem is that basketball doesn’t really work that way. It’s not like baseball, where a hitter can string together a few bloopers or infield dribblers and all of a sudden be riding a 15-game hitting streak. It’s not like football, where a running back can get stuffed all day but break off an 80-yard touchdown run thanks to a missed tackle and finish with a great overall line.
Lin showed the ability to drive the lane consistently. He showed the ability to run the pick-and-roll. He showed the ability to score in isolation. Sample size has nothing to do with it, because you can’t luck your way into doing what Lin did.
He’s not another Jerome James. James played against two different opponents and benefited from good matchups, so he put up respectable statistics. Lin played against 21 different opponents during his 26-game streak. He failed to put up double-digit points three times – once against the Heat (because they’re the Heat), once against the Trailblazers when he got limited minutes in a blowout win and once in a poor game against the Raptors. He averaged 7.7 assists.
Lin still has to improve his shooting and reduce his turnovers, but that makes him the same as just about every other young point guard ever. Kyrie Irving, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, had similar issues last year (admittedly not as severe as Lin’s).
But what about Raymond Felton? He averaged 17.1 points and 9.0 assists with the Knicks. Perhaps he’s better than Lin, or at the very least, a better investment.
No, he isn’t. And it’s not even close.
Felton benefited a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire and Mike D’Antoni’s offense with the Knicks. Without those two things, he became a bench-warmer on a Portland team that went 28-38 last year. He was one of the worst in the league at running the pick-and-roll last year. He can’t play in isolation, which is a staple of the Mike Woodson offense. He’s fat and terrible at defense.
At age 28, Felton is an average player with a chance to be good if he gets in shape. At age 23, Lin is a good player with a chance to be great if he continues to develop.
There is no question about which one is a better choice for this team.
It’s hard to find any reason for the Knicks not to keep Lin. The cynic in me thinks that he might’ve just done too much. James Dolan’s stock his up, Time Warner came to an agreement with MSG and the Knicks already have legitimate stars in Melo and Amar’e. It’s possible that Dolan has simply gotten everything he ever could have wanted out of Jeremy Lin.
But the fans haven’t. And it’s about time Dolan started paying attention to us.