- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Funny thing about the contract that introduced the mighty, famously extravagant New York Knickerbockers to the bottoms of their pockets for the very first time in the James Dolan era:
The three-year offer sheet worth just over $25 million that the Houston Rockets bestowed upon Jeremy Lin wasn't even the most lucrative deal they could have presented to Lin.
If the Rockets wanted to be as aggressive as the rules allowed, they actually could have signed Lin to a four-year offer sheet worth $40 million.
But a deal that rich, they decided, was too aggressive. Too rich to contemplate even in what they saw as the extremely unlikely event that Dolan would let emotion trump reason and let an incredibly valuable asset (as ESPN.com's own Larry Coon and John Hollinger so adroitly explained here and here) just walk.
So they opted for the three-year offer, laced with what is known in the NBA as a "poison pill" in Year 3, and hoped for the best.
The Rockets suddenly feel like they've won two lotteries.
• After a wait of just seven months, they've managed to undo one of the great regrets in franchise history by reacquiring Lin. They've wanted him back pretty much ever since Lin was waived in December when the Rockets needed a roster spot to sign Samuel Dalembert and felt they had no alternative but to ditch their most inexperienced point guard -- whose contract wasn't fully guaranteed -- with Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic on the roster.
• The Rockets brought back Lin on their terms, which is a welcome departure from what happened in December. That, remember, is when NBA commissioner David Stern stepped in -- acting as the league-owned Hornets' lead decision-maker at the time -- to cancel a three-team Chris Paul blockbuster trade that was poised to deliver Pau Gasol to Clutch City ... and also keep Lin in Houston as the No. 2 point guard because Dragic, in that deal, was bound for New Orleans.
Team insiders, though, insist that the Rockets' strategy when it came to the recent change of terms in Lin's official offer sheet was pretty transparent. Amid charges that the unspoken ethics of NBA negotiations were somehow violated when a four-year offer sheet valued at just under $29 million suddenly became the most onerous three-year offer possible under the rules (worth $25.1 million), Houston has scoffed at that suggestion from the start, as well as the notion that gouging the Knicks was ever a serious consideration.
The Rockets' thinking, quite simply, was this: After deciding that they had to bow out of the Dragic bidding when the price got too high and feeling as though they had to trade Lowry to Toronto to acquire the future first-round pick that they've repeatedly offered to Orlando in Dwight Howard trade scenarios, their interest in Lin spiked significantly. They needed a quality point guard badly, whether or not their months-long pursuit of Howard ever comes to fruition. And the Rockets, having watched Linsanity erupt in New York not long after the Knicks claimed him off waivers from Houston, are convinced that he's a far cry from overrated. Even after all the hype.
"We think he's a very good player [and] still surprisingly underrated," Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told TrueHoop TV on Wednesday. "I think there's a feeling that he was a flash in the pan. Obviously we don't agree. I think it's fair to say that it would be hard for anyone to sustain what he did, but he really doesn't have to. He just needs to be the quality player we think he is. I think his intelligence, his work ethic, his character and his underrated athleticism give him a real shot to be a very good player going forward.
"To expect him to sustain what he did, especially that one run, would be unfair to anyone to expect that," Morey continued. "Few have ever attained that level. We don't need that. What we need is a quality point guard that we feel what we're getting. We feel he's a guy we can build around with our other young players that have been playing well and we're excited about. We like the future."
Yet even the Rockets, eager as they were to bring Lin back to town, had their limits. They were only prepared to do a three-year deal, highlighted by the well-chronicled spike from $5.2 million in Year 2 to almost $15 million in Year 3, just in case Dolan -- who sources say made the call based on his dismay with the process as much as anything -- surprised them and let Lin go.
Make no mistake, though. They genuinely are surprised.
The Rockets, deep down, never expected this outcome with Lin.
Like most teams in the NBA, they were sure that the Knicks would match an offer to Lin at virtually any number. Even when the Knicks tried so hard Friday and Saturday to avoid delivery of the Rockets' offer sheet -- requiring the intervention of representatives from the league office and NBA Players Association to get the three-day clock started Saturday night, according to sources close to the process -- Houston officials struggled to imagine any other outcome but the Knicks ultimately matching no matter how the contract was structured.
How pleased they were to be wrong. Again.
"We've always been very high on him," Morey told ESPN.com, after finally letting it sink in that Lin was indeed back on his roster. "We just weren't high enough on him the first time."
Marc Stein examines how the Rockets were able to make up for one of their biggest mistakes.