Commentary

Knicks' fate in Lin's hands now

New York will match Houston's offer, and its title hopes rest on his shoulders

Updated: July 5, 2012, 11:53 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

The New York Knicks will match the Houston Rockets' offer to Jeremy Lin, if only because they might lose half their fan base to Brooklyn if they don't. So the mystery is not whether Lin will suit up for another team over the next three or four years.

The mystery is whether he'll be a good enough point guard over that time to win the Knicks their long, lost ring.

Jason Kidd will be 42 at the start of the playoffs in 2015, the final season of his new deal with New York. So he won't be a significant player in a title push for a franchise that hasn't claimed one since Secretariat won the Triple Crown. In fact, the Kidd signing only made sense if there was a Jeremy Lin signing trailing it on the break.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Lin
Howard Smith/US PresswireJeremy Lin is expected to be back with the Knicks, despite agreeing to an offer from the Rockets.

And so the Knicks will match Houston's reported four-year offer sheet at $28.8 million, gulping down that third-year poison pill along the way. They should feel a bit lucky they don't have to cover a bigger tab. As of late Thursday afternoon, Lin was hoping for a better payday than the one he got, though at the same time worrying the back-and-forth over money might compel the Rockets to pull their bid.

He did hire the heavy-hitting Jim Tanner of the heavy-hitting Williams and Connolly agency for a reason. Maybe Lin thought he could squeeze an extra five mil or so out of Houston, the team that gift-wrapped him to the Knicks in the first place. Or maybe he thought Mark Cuban, the owner who gave Lin his first summer invite, the owner who swung and missed on Deron Williams and Steve Nash and Kidd, might jump in headfirst and inflate the number the Knicks will be forced to match.

It doesn't matter now that Houston held firm, or that Cuban decided to pursue Ramon Sessions instead. What matters is Lin's ability, or lack thereof, to elevate the Knicks into true championship contention, because everyone at the Garden already knows what they're getting out of Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Amare Stoudemire.

Big-time offense from Melo. Big-time defense from Chandler. Smaller-time contributions from a declining Stoudemire. That probably won't cut it against Boston, never mind Miami.

Lin is the difference maker either way. If he's the real thing, a second-tier star in the NBA, the Knicks have a shot at ending a championship drought running up on 40 years.

If he's not, the Knicks might as well take up tennis.

"The Knicks and (Mike Woodson) like Lin, and like him a lot, even if they're not sure if they love him yet," said one league source familiar with the Knicks' thinking. "They still have to view him as an unproven commodity. Everyone knows the Knicks are going to match Houston, but at what price do you bring back an unproven commodity when you already know a guy like Raymond Felton can be a solid starter in this league?"

No, Raymond Felton the sequel was never an acceptable alternative, not when a healthy 23-year-old Lin is already a better player than the 28-year-old ex-Knick. Back in the spring, when the debate still raged over Lin's legitimacy as a long-term keeper at the point, I asked the granddaddy of them all, Bob Cousy, for an assessment. Cousy said Lin will "definitely find a niche in the realm of good-to-great point guards in this league."

Yeah, that was good enough for me.

"My greatest asset was peripheral vision," Cousy continued, "and it seems Jeremy has that, too. ... Lin sees the floor extremely well and has good size for a point guard. He seems smart, not just because he went to Harvard, but in the way he plays. ... It's hard to criticize without being there, but point guards who can run the show in the NBA are in such demand."

Even if he became a global celebrity in seven seconds or less, Lin isn't merely a creation of Mike D'Antoni's system. He has already shown a willingness to work on his weaknesses and a desire to be great. Lin has told people that he has no doubt he can be a high-level player in the league, and that he plans on being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

If nothing else, it will be fun watching Lin go head-to-head with the point guard of the Brooklyn Nets, Williams, who allowed Linsanity to explode on his watch on a fateful night in the Garden in February.

Of course, the Knicks could've thrown four years and $24.5 million at their man out of the gate, but chose to let the market dictate their eventual terms of engagement. If that stance didn't anger Lin, it did make him wonder if the Knicks thought more of his off-court appeal than his on-court game.

Lin was confused by the Knicks' radio silence, according to a source. From afar Lin watched the Knicks chase after Nash like schoolgirls chase after Justin Bieber, and he watched them land Kidd on the rebound. He was hearing some noise about Felton, who also looked like another Nash under D'Antoni before returning to form in Denver and Portland.

Alone with his thoughts, Lin had to be asking himself a lot of questions. Were the Knicks recruiting Nash as the full-time, no-questions-asked starter? Do they think Kidd still has enough in his legs to pose a Tebow-like threat to the first-stringer? Do they believe somehow, some way, they're going to end up with Chris Paul this time next year?

Whatever. Lin gets the ball for now, and the Knicks can figure out what to do in the summer of 2014, when the combined salaries of Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler, and Lin threaten to imprison them in luxury tax hell.

Lin has to go 35-plus minutes a night, too. Kidd averaged nearly 19 points and nine assists in leading the Nets to their second straight trip to the Finals, back when watching him run a 3-on-1 was no less exciting than watching Magic Johnson do the same.

But thanks to the vile forces of gravity and time, Kidd has come all the way down to 6.2 points and 5.5 assists. He's a backup, a steady hand, an aging quarterback better off with a clipboard -- not the season -- in his hands.

"The Knicks basically need Jeremy Lin to become their Eli Manning," the league source said. "I think he's got a chance to be that kind of player. Let's put it this way: I'd feel a lot better about giving Jeremy Lin $30 million that I would about giving Landry Fields $20 million."

Fields is Toronto's problem now. The Knicks? They won't have a problem if Kidd is limited to old man's minutes because Jeremy Lin is too good to take off the floor.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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