- Ian O'Connor, ESPN Senior Writer
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PHILADELPHIA -- The demotion of Jeremy Lin to sixth man of the Houston Rockets emboldened the doubters and haters of Gotham to declare his firing by the New York Knicks -- and that's what it was, a firing -- a rare show of prudence by a franchise that leads the league in anything but.
Yet 16 months after James Dolan confiscated his playbook and keys to the gym, Lin still represents a move that's even dumber than the sight and sound of any NBA owner guaranteeing a mid-November victory over the Atlanta Hawks, of all teams.
He was still 23 when the Knicks declined to match his three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet with Houston and let him walk without receiving any compensation in return. Twenty three. Gone. For nothing.
Starting in place of the injured James Harden on Wednesday night, two nights after he scored 31 off the bench against Toronto, Lin finished with an old-fashioned Linsanity line of 34 points and 12 assists in an overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, sinking enough 3-pointers (nine) to neutralize his turnovers (eight).
"Obviously, I've been trying to get better with it," Lin said of his shooting touch, "and want to get better at it." He was downcast at his locker, blaming himself for not making more plays when it mattered most. He didn't want to talk much about his new and improved game because, you know, a loss is a loss.
On to the big city, the place where it all started. When Lin returns Thursday to the Garden, where he hit Raymond Felton and the Knicks for 22 points and eight assists last December to beat them for a second straight time, he will do so wishing that his former crowd would pay more attention to Dwight Howard, the new franchise center.
"I'm hoping I'll be a subplot," Lin said.
A subplot? No, that isn't possible, and not only because his frantic run of Linsanity was once billed by the Garden as the greatest show on earth, no juggling clowns or trapeze acts required.
Lin symbolizes Dolan's temper-driven and tone-deaf brand of mismanagement, and the problems with a Knicks roster long on ill-fitting parts and short on the youth and upside that define the 6-foot-3 Rockets guard. Lin is shooting 54 percent from the floor and a staggering 51 percent from 3-point range, numbers that put the entire Knicks roster to shame.
"When he plays with confidence," Howard said, "he's amazing."
And when he doesn't, he's not.
Lin remains a developing talent trying to figure out his place in the league. In a short but dizzying period of time, he went from thrice-fired scrub to global phenomenon, from Knicks outcast to freshly signed Rockets savior, from complementary first-string part (after Harden's acquisition) to an instant offense option off the pine (after Howard's acquisition and Patrick Beverley's promotion).
It's been a lot for him to handle. Lin has admitted that he was obsessed last season with trying to duplicate Linsanity in Houston, a failure that left him confronting sleepless nights and a joyless journey from practice to practice, game to game.
"I think for a while," said his coach, Kevin McHale, "he wanted to know if he was actually Jeremy Lin from Harvard or if he was Linsanity, and that's … really hard for young kids."
Especially if he's unsure if his coach truly believes in him. As much as McHale tried to sell Lin's move to the second string as a mutual agreement reached after conversations with all parties and point guards involved, a source close to the situation said Lin felt blindsided by the loss of his job.
"It was a blow to Jeremy, a big blow," the source said, "because he definitely wanted to start. But he rebounded pretty quickly and realized this would allow him some time away from Harden and more freedom with the ball."
After Hakeem Olajuwon raved about Lin over the summer and called his potential tandem with Howard "very deadly" during workouts in Aspen, Colo., people close to the point guard wondered why McHale didn't make it clear publicly that Lin wasn't so much beat out by Beverley, a meat-and-potatoes grinder, as he was liberated from Harden's ball-dominating ways.
In the end, it's on Lin to learn how to survive and thrive in a system built around two prominent figures who weren't Rockets when the Knicks let him go.
"I didn't sign with Houston expecting that we would have Dwight and James today," Lin said. "That was just something that happened. … In the beginning of last year, we saw some huge struggles with me and James. Not just me and James, but everybody just trying to mesh together.
"This year, it's not like we don't have any of those issues. There still are chemistry problems. Not problems, but there are still things that we're still trying to get better at."
If he'd stayed in New York, Lin would've had to navigate his way through a similar, if shorter, adjustment period with a healthy Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks should've bet their money on that partnership working out.
If Lin was a magician under Mike D'Antoni, pulling magazine covers out of his hat, he was hardly a bust under D'Antoni's replacement. Lin was 6-1 with Woodson, scored 19, 18 and 18 points in consecutive games, and averaged 13.3 points and 5.4 assists in 28 minutes before his sore knee gave out.
In fact, Woodson promised that Lin would be his future starter and that the Knicks would "absolutely" match Houston's reported first offer of four years and $28.8 million. That pledge doomed the Lin-Knicks marriage. Houston upgraded its offer over three years and included a poison-pill wage of nearly $15 million in 2014-'15, when the Knicks' big-bucks commitments to Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire, and Tyson Chandler would leave them locked in luxury-tax hell.
Dolan threw another one of his tantrums over Lin's alleged disloyalty, and the owner who was supposed to give his fan base one advantage (and only one) -- his willingness to spend, spend, spend, even on the most suspect of players -- suddenly decided to close down the bank.
Of course, if Dolan really wanted to keep Lin, he could've signed him for four years and $24 million at the start of free agency. He could've kept Lin and Felton. He could've paid the reasonable $5 million salaries in Years 1 and 2 of the Houston deal, and then traded one of his expiring contracts (even Lin's) to a team looking for a near-future salary dump. Or, in the unlikely case that Lin flopped, Dolan could've cut the point guard before Year 3 and used the stretch-provision clause in the labor agreement to spread the salary-cap hit over three seasons.
"It never made sense what the Knicks did there," said an Eastern Conference executive who monitored the Lin transaction. "The league set up the restricted free-agent system to protect teams, and you never want to lose an asset for nothing when you have the right to match.
"Lin's wasn't a $60 million contract; it was a reasonable number even with the poison pill. It just seemed that egos got in the way there."
The Knicks deny that, of course, and it doesn't really matter anymore. They turned their team over to Felton, four years older than Lin, and to Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, a lot older than that.
Glen Grunwald, the GM who executed this plan? He got fired by Dolan because his Ice Age roster crumbled down the stretch.
Now the Knicks have only one young player of any promise, Iman Shumpert, who might be the next Knick on the next train out of town. Anyone really think Jeremy Lin, 25, couldn't help this team as a starter or reserve?
"I don't know if Lin will ever be a top-five point guard in the league," said the Eastern Conference executive, "but I could see him on the next level, from six to 10. And that's not a bad thing."
Not even close.
"I think he's playing fantastic for us," McHale said.
In his first full season as a starter, without the benefit of a training camp with Harden, Lin overcame his burdens in a new market by making all 82 starts and delivering a season that was virtually the statistical equal of Felton's.
He's playing at a higher level now, averaging 18.1 points per game. His perimeter stroke is vastly improved, and so is his willingness to attack the basket without fear.
"It might sound crazy," Lin said, "but I still think it's early for me. I still think it's early in my development phase."
Which is precisely why Jim Dolan's Knicks were damn fools to let him walk for nothing.