Jeremy Lin took the NBA world by storm in late January and February of this past season. Then he took the NBA world by storm with the contentious restricted free agency that saw him leave The Big Apple for Clutch City (awful memories of 1994 just came rushing back into The Empire State). The debate on whether the Knicks should match the extremely back-loaded contract Daryl Morey and the Rockets gave him raged within the Knicks fan base.
The story of Lin’s free agency became a question of what Lin was worth to a team both for his on-court prowess (albeit in a small sample size) and the off-court marketing bonanza he helped inspire. Lin was the story of the season for the way he rocked the big stage at Madison Square Garden and then further for the way China adopted him as the heir to Yao Ming in that emerging basketball market. It is no coincidence that Lin’s jersey became one of the top five sellers last year.
Lin’s stats do not seem to warrant a $25 million deal over three years — certainly not the near-max $15 million he will make in that third year. Lin had that stretch of six straight games and nine of 11 games in February and March scoring at least 20 points. This after getting cut twice before that very season and famously living on his brother’s couch. I think he can buy his own couch now.
Lin took advantage of his opportunity. Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire were out with injuries and Mike D’Antoni gave Lin the ball. And he took over, electrifying the Garden and making the Knicks matter in a way they had not before. They were a national story in a good way.
It was tough for James Dolan to let go of that, but the economics did not make sense.
The question is will the economics and the basketball make sense for Lin in Houston. That question is not entirely clear.
From a basketball standpoint, it already seems that coach Kevin McHale will give Lin the ball and let him run the team like he did in that magical stretch for the Knicks. Houston’s roster is still a work in progress after the team amnestied Luis Scola, traded away Kyle Lowry and lost Goran Dragic to free agency. Then there are the ever-present Dwight Howard rumors. The Bulls are not expected to match the Rockets’ offer sheet for Omer Asik, giving the Rockets a new center and some new players to work with
This will be a young roster that lacks a dynamic player. The exact environment Lin came into and succeeded with in New York.
The question, of course, is whether Lin can play at that high level with everyone knowing what he is going to do (and with the proper time to prepare during a normal season) and the pressure of signing a big contract to go along with it.
That is not easy to live up to.
Lin also has the marketing aspect that he is working to duplicate. Reportedly Lin wanted to stay in New York both for basketball and marketing reasons.
Undoubtedly, having the spotlight of the Big Apple on him helped Lin’s story take off nationally. China fell in love with this Chinese/Taiwanese-American in a way that has not really been seen since Yao Ming was the national hero. The NBA’s broadcast partners in China rushed to fill their schedule with Knicks games because people could not get enough of Lin.
Going to a team with the familiarity of the Rockets should help Lin maintain a lot of his popularity and marketing, in China at least. Yao Ming is already a national hero and he still has a decently close relationship with the Houston organization. To be sure, Houston will leverage the relationship with Yao and Lin to increase the team’s already surprisingly strong presence in China. The Rockets were one of the first teams to secure permanent sponsorships with Chinese corporations.
Obviously, Houston is not New York. Things will be different for Lin.
If he plays at the high level he played at last year, it is tough to say whether he would get the same attention. Certainly Lin was thankful for the way the New York fans embraced him. And by that third year in his three-year deal, he will be extremely thankful for that attention only New York seems able to provide.
The story will not be the same for Lin. The attention will not be as close and the national television appearances may be limited in the United States, at least.
Perhaps though, Lin-sanity will live on if he truly blossoms into a superstar.