Commentary

How the Knicks can keep Jeremy Lin

Lin unlikely to slip through New York Knicks' hands in free agency this NBA offseason

Updated: February 17, 2012, 2:36 PM ET
By Larry Coon | Special to ESPN.com

Jeremy LinNed Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesUnless the Knicks splurge elsewhere, Jeremy Lin will likely lead the Knicks offense again next season.

As we all start to wonder whether to declare Linglish the national language, the big question on the minds of Knicks fans has quickly turned from "Is this guy for real?" to "How do we keep this guy?"

Jeremy Lin's rise from undrafted afterthought to the floor leader on one of the league's most popular franchises has happened in the blink of an eye. So it's unlikely the Knicks ever considered the second-year point guard in their long-term plans.

You can bet they're considering it now.

But the rest of the league also has their sights set on Lin -- to figure out how to stop him this season, and to perhaps try to sign him this summer.

For once, there's good news in Gotham.

Players who weren't first-round draft picks are subject to restricted free agency for their first three years in the NBA. If a team tries to snatch Lin away this summer, the Knicks will have the opportunity to snatch him back by matching that team's offer.

But having the opportunity is not the same thing as having the means. While restricted free agency gives the Knicks the right to keep their own player, they're on their own when it comes to finding the cap room. The Knicks do not have Lin's full Bird rights -- the mechanism that allows teams essentially to ignore the salary cap when re-signing their own players. It takes three years for full Bird rights to ramp up, and Lin's clock reset back to zero when New York claimed him on waivers.

Instead, the Knicks will have the one-year version of Bird rights, which only allows them to pay 120 percent of the minimum salary. That won't be good enough, as other teams' offers are sure to exceed that amount. To give Lin more money they will have to dip into their $5 million mid-level exception -- a good-news, bad-news proposition.

The good news is that they can use their mid-level to give Lin more money or match a larger offer. The bad news is that they won't be able to use their mid-level to bring in another player this summer.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin, Landry Fields
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireWill the Knicks have to say goodbye to Landry Fields if they decide to re-sign Jeremy Lin this summer?

But what if another team makes Lin an offer that exceeds the mid-level exception? Fortunately, the Knicks are protected here as well.

Teams are limited in the amounts they can offer to restricted free agents with fewer than three years in the league. This rule is called the "Gilbert Arenas provision," named after the point guard following Arenas' move from Golden State to Washington in 2003. Even though Arenas was a restricted free agent and the Warriors had the opportunity to keep him, the team did not have the means under the salary cap to match the offer sheet he received from the Wizards. At the time, Arenas had played two seasons in the league, and like the Knicks currently, could offer only the mid-level exception.

The Arenas provision was added to the rulebook in 2005, restricting the offers that teams can make to restricted free agents with one or two years in the league. Under the Arenas provision, the first-year salary in an offer sheet can't exceed the mid-level exception, which ensures that the Knicks will have the means to match any offer that Lin may receive.

If Lin re-signs for only one year, the Knicks may be in trouble. He still will be a restricted free agent, and the Knicks will hold the two-year version of his Bird rights, which is known as Early-Bird rights. But as a three-year player Lin no longer will be subject to the Arenas provision, meaning other teams will be able to offer any amount up to the maximum salary -- which the Knicks may not have the means to match. The Knicks can avoid this situation by refusing to negotiate a one-year deal. And since any offer sheet Lin signs with another team must be for at least three years, it's still likely that the Knicks can lock him up for the foreseeable future -- as long as they manage their cap well.

It's still possible for the Knicks to blow their opportunity. For example, if they use their mid-level exception on another player, they will no longer have enough to match a large offer for Lin. Also, if their total payroll exceeds the tax level by more than $4 million they will only have the smaller $3.09 million taxpayer version of the mid-level exception, and will not be able to match a higher offer. The Knicks are currently $10 million below the tax line, so this isn't a likely scenario. But it's something they need to keep in mind.

Landry Fields is also in a similar situation. A second-round pick in 2010, Fields will be a restricted free agent with two years in the league, and it's possible that another team will submit an offer starting at the mid-level in an attempt to lure him away. If they use their mid-level exception to keep Lin in the fold, do they have to waive goodbye to Fields?

Again, fortune is smiling on the Knicks. Lin's Bird clock reset when the Knicks claimed him on waivers, but Fields did not go through a similar process. Since Fields will have been with the Knicks for two seasons, they will hold his Early-Bird rights this summer. As a result, they will be able to use their Early-Bird rights to match any offer another team could present to Fields under the Arenas provision.

So as far as Lin and Fields are concerned, the Knicks are safe. They won't be able to go out and sign a new player with their mid-level exception, so any plans to lure a free agent like Steve Nash to New York are now moot. But the Knicks will be able to keep Lin and Fields safely in the fold. This Linconceivable story can continue its run on Broadway.

So now it's time to go out and Lin one for the Gipper.

Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ. Follow him on Twitter.

Larry Coon is the author of the NBA Salary Cap FAQ.