In the midst of Linsanity, right in the middle of its magma core, we tried to quantify just what was so goddamned inspiring about it. Obviously, the fact that he was an Asian-American was a primary reason, but it was far, far from the only one. For our money, the biggest reason Knicks fans went so crazy over Lin — Spike Lee, who would know as well as anyone, said it was "as loud as I have ever seen the Garden" — was because his phenomenon was organic. The Jim Dolan era has been marked by its consistent, bloated peddling of horse manure, and even when he brings in players we like (Carmelo — for now, anyway — Stoudemire, so on), you can never escape that nagging sense that, somehow, cheering is letting the bad guy win. Lin came out of nowhere and had none of the Dolan baggage, so when he exploded onto the scene — and let us not forget just how electrifying it really was; it's important, today of all days, to hold on to that — it was transformative in a way the Knicks, under Dolan, aren't supposed to be. It was beautiful in a way because it was so un-Knick-like. The Knicks had been handed the most thrilling, unexpected, glorious sports story in years. And he did the impossible: He made you forget, for a brief while, that these were the Knicks. If Jim Dolan and the Knicks, as is looking increasingly likely, end up not matching Lin's offer sheet with the Rockets, letting Lin leave for nothing, the odds are excellent that you'll never forget that fundamental fact again.
If there were one assumption in this loony NBA free agent season — other than "Jason Kidd obviously isn't stupid enough to get a DWI in the Hamptons" — it was that no matter what offer sheet anyone signed Jeremy Lin to, the Knicks would match it. (ESPN's Marc Stein famously quoted a Knicks source saying the team would "match any offer up to $1 billion," and as recently as Thursday coach Mike Woodson was talking about how much he was looking forward to Lin and Kidd playing together.) Then, Saturday evening, it all imploded. Word broke — there were various reporters who had various scoops at various times, all running together so much that we're just gonna say it was broken "by Twitter" — that the Knicks had traded Jared Jeffries, Dan Gadzuric, and their Greek draft pick whose name we're not going to try to spell here, and someone named "Georgios Prentezis" to the Portland Trail Blazers for Raymond Felton and Kurt Thomas, two former Knicks. At face value, it's not a terrible trade; Thomas is better than Jeffries, and you can never have enough point guard depth, even if that point guard has, in the words of the Kids in the Hall, considerable navel depth. But that's not what the trade signified. The trade signified that the Knicks — shockingly, jaw-droppingly — would not be matching Lin's contract, later confirmed by ESPN and the Post. Like that, out of nowhere, Linsanity was over.
It's not official: As is typical of the rampant goofiness of this whole process, the Knicks either have until tomorrow night or Wednesday night (depending on just how successful the Knicks were in trying to avoid the Rockets' contract servers on Saturday; seriously) to match the Rockets' offer. And it's possible that fan outrage — and there has been a ton of it, even if it hasn't been universal — forces the Knicks to change their minds. But it sure didn't look like that yesterday, when two prominent Knicks (the two best pals on the Knicks, don't forget) spoke out against Lin and the Rockets' contract. J.R. Smith, who isn't being given as much credit as he probably should for signing such a reasonable contract with the Knicks, was most out front with it, noting that teammates would have an issue with Lin's contract, saying, "I think some guys take it personal, because they've been doing it longer and haven't received any reward for it yet. I think it's a tough subject to touch on for a lot of guys." That was bad enough, but not nearly as instant-legend a quote as Carmelo Anthony's, from Team USA practice: "It's not up to me. It's up to the organization to say that they want to match that ridiculous contract."
And so: It is decided. Lin is leaving. It is actually coming to this.
Let's try to unpack it all. First off, it is certainly worth mentioning that the contract is a little ridiculous. Lin will make $14.8 million in the third season of his contract, which is more than Tyson Chandler and not all that less than LeBron James. That's crazy for a guy who has played about half a season, without question, allowing guys like Smith and Anthony to play the "they shouldn't be giving a guy with that little experience that much money" card, the same way veterans always do with rookies, the same way that guy down the street is always hollering at the kids in his yard. This, of course, is all completely besides the point. Yes, Lin shouldn't be given that much money, and yes, the way contracts are being structured in this first-off-season-after-the-lockout period is senseless and counterintuitive. (Though it's worth noting that the players association, the people Smith and Anthony were touting as fighting a life-or-death battle this off-season, fought for the poison pill contracts like Lin's and his Bird rights, both of which got us here.) None of that is even remotely close to what matters here.
The arguments against the Knicks matching the contract are all emotional ones. Lin doesn't have the experience to earn that much. These contracts are crazy. Lin should know his place and not just try to max out his earnings. (Pretty sure this is the last time you'll ever hear Anthony and Smith tell a player he should try to make less money.) None of this has anything to do with the fundamental fact: The Knicks lose absolutely nothing by matching Lin's contract. Oh, sure, Jim Dolan will have to pay more luxury tax in three years, unless of course the Knicks trade Lin in that third year, something that, even if Lin falls apart before then, will still be extremely valuable (and likely) when it comes to matching salaries in a trade. We find it touching that Anthony and Smith (and the small number of fans who are suddenly turning against Lin) are so concerned about Dolan's wallet all of a sudden. The only good thing about Jim Dolan was that he was willing to pay the luxury tax, that he was willing to spend (however unwisely) over-the-top amounts on his team. Of all the times for him to suddenly start tightening the belt, this is when he does it? With Jeremy Lin?
If the Knicks want to keep Jeremy Lin, all they have to do is be willing to pay him more than he is worth; that's to say, to do with him what they're doing with essentially every other player on the team. (With the possible exception of Smith and Iman Shumpert.) They don't have to give up a player. They don't have to give up a draft pick. They don't even have to cut anybody. They just have to sign the offer sheet. Many have said that Lin would earn back the money he'd be paid through merchandising and other off-court revenue streams within the first year, and even while that sounds right to us, we make no claim to be any sort of sports-marketing expert. But the Knicks should match Lin even if he never sells another jersey. If the Knicks truly have a three-year plan, championship or bust, this deal with Lin fits into that exactly. He's the only player on the Knicks other than Shumpert — whom we still aren't convinced the Knicks won't try to trade for Grant Hill by the end of this week — who is likely to get better over the next three seasons. (That is, after all, what young players do.) When you toss in the off-court value, signing the offer sheet seems so obvious a move that only a fool wouldn't do it. The Knicks appear to be that fool.
Never mind that every statistical measure shows that Lin is a dramatically better player than Felton or Kidd. We shouldn't have to do that comparison, because the Knicks can just have all of them. We had been planning a piece today praising the Knicks for adding a considerable amount of talent this off-season, truly impressive for a team with so little cap room. They were handed some legitimate good fortune with the Bird rights ruling for Lin and Steve Novak, and they ran with it, making the team deeper, albeit older. And then they do this. If the Knicks truly don't match Lin — and every report says they're not going to — the Garden will not be empty. Knicks fans will always be around. The team will still be good next year, though they'll be worse the year after that, and the year after that may be Isiah-level brutal. But you can't help but wonder, at some fundamental level, if something about the dynamic between franchise and fan base will be forever changed. The guy who inspired the Garden to its highest levels, the guy who elevated the Knicks into a global story overnight, the guy who briefly made you forget about JT and the Straight Shot ... the Knicks would be letting him go in large part out of spite. (And have no doubt: The Rockets would be ecstatic to have him.) Know, too, that if Carmelo Anthony doesn't win a championship with the Knicks immediately, his "ridiculous contract" comments will never, ever be forgotten; he'll be known as the guy who ran a coach out of town, ran the hugely popular point guard out of town, and couldn't fit his game with any of his other high-priced teammates. (The teammates he felt deserved to be highly paid, anyway.)
This little blip of Knicks excitement the last two years after a decade of Isiah pain felt like the dawn of a new era, a reward for fans who stuck through the decade in the wilderness. But this doesn't feel like a new era. This feels like the same old Knicks, but worse: Uglier, more tone-deaf, more isolated, more Nixonian. The Knicks are about to let their most popular player go, for nothing. They will be losing a budding star and a global icon. Yet even with that ... it feels like they're losing so much more.