NEW YORK -- His transformation from an Ivy League longshot into a global overnight sensation was only slightly more amazing than the Knicks’ ability to live and thrive without him.
Jeremy Lin is gone from New York and, save for Monday’s player introductions at the Garden, largely forgotten. The sellout crowd will and should greet him respectfully and enthusiastically when he makes a return to the place where he spread joy and pixie dust last spring. Once the ball goes up, though, a bigger ovation will be for Carmelo Anthony, who often questioned Lin’s value. Or Raymond Felton, the player who replaced Lin. Or Mike Woodson, the coach who reduced Lin’s role. Or almost anyone who steps on the floor for the Knicks against Rockets and tries to chop away at the mystique of the most interesting player of last season.
And if the overhead screen were to show him sitting at courtside, even Knicks owner James Dolan, the person ultimately responsible for running off Lin, might -- might -- get a polite clap or two.
Who knew this was even possible 10 months ago, when Lin grabbed New York’s attention, which isn’t easy to do, and heard and felt Jeter-like love for the way his improbable story and the Knicks’ season played out? Who knew the Knicks would not only be applauded for allowing Lin to take his Disney story elsewhere, but respected for it?
Well, in hindsight, when Lin lifted himself off the sofa and the bench and came to life, it was the best thing to happen to the Knicks, and when he left it was even better for the Knicks. In some ways, the team is smoother and more interesting without him. The Knicks are smarter for leaving Linsanity behind as they begin to take bold and legitimate steps toward a possible championship. As it turns out, the fairy tale, or at least the happily ever after part, comes with an odd twist: The Knicks minus Lin are actually living quite blissfully.
Once you recount the steps directing Lin to the exit, you get a sense of how Lin made it easy for the Knicks to wave goodbye, why he wasn’t worth the total financial cost to the team, and why Dolan of all people wound up the smartest man in the entire process.
Lin averaged 22.5 points and 8.7 assists in a dozen games before the All-Star break and when he shot down Kobe Bryant, the fever was off the charts. The beginning of the end was when Anthony, injured during the height of Linsanity, returned to action. A rift between Anthony and former coach Mike D’Antoni, which wasn’t nasty but real enough, began to splinter the organization. Dolan had too much at stake with Anthony, personally and professionally, to throw his weight in D’Antoni’s direction. It was Dolan who went against his former GM, Donnie Walsh, and pulled the trigger on the Anthony trade the previous spring. D’Antoni didn’t stand a chance. Woodson was elevated to head coach and immediately reflected the owner’s wishes by making Anthony the focal point of the offense. The organization had a suspicion that Lin, while certainly far more useful than the player who was released by two previous teams, was mainly a glorified role player.
When Lin decided to sit out the playoffs after surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee, claiming it was only “85 percent,” it didn’t endear him to Dolan, but that wasn’t the final straw. When Lin accepted an offer sheet from the Rockets last July, it was constructed in a way to “poison” the Knicks and force a hefty luxury tax fee in the third year, when Lin was due $14.9 million and the Knicks faced a $40 million tax hit. Dolan, according to those who know, took that as betrayal and a sign that Lin really didn’t want to stay in New York. The relationship was severed almost as cleanly as the one with D’Antoni, as Dolan gave instructions to move on without Lin.
It seemed like a risky maneuver, an embattled owner who never enjoyed an embrace from New York deciding to run off a player who had become a quintessential New York tale. Furthermore, the Knicks traded for Felton, who was overweight and reviled by fans last year in Portland, and signed Jason Kidd, 39 and slowing down, to handle the point guard duties. But Felton has been the biggest surprise in the NBA, making game-changing plays and showing a willingness to mesh with Anthony. Kidd is looking five years younger some nights as he reinvents himself as a three-point shooter while helping to raise the collective IQ of the Knicks, who currently commit the fewest turnovers in the league and own the second-best offense. Besides, the Knicks will soon get Iman Shumpert back from injury, and he has the ability to play point guard in spurts if necessary. With those three cost-effective players, this was a win-win-win for the Knicks in multiple ways.
The basketball mania in New York is squarely fixated in a different direction this season. Anthony enjoys it, too; this was one of his reasons for wanting to leave Denver for the Knicks. He craves the attention and everything that comes with it, both good and bad. Perhaps it has forced him become a better all-around player. In any case, he’s having an MVP-like season, adding leadership and defense to his ability to score, and the Knicks have pushed their way to the head of the Eastern Conference class.
Would any of this have happened if the Knicks kept Lin, even at a reasonable price? Maybe not. And maybe the player most affected would’ve been Lin, trying to live up to expectations that could’ve had a reverse effect on him and the Knicks. It’s really hard to tell -- and besides, it’s really moot.
At 10-0 the Knicks are off to their best start at home in 20 years, and business without Lin has been just as good with him. He’s enjoying a quieter atmosphere in Houston, where nobody is detailing where he eats and what he had for lunch; Lin never cared for the intrusions he received in New York. His performances this season have been spotty: he’s averaging 11 points and six assists for a middle-of-the-pack team that gets only a fraction of the interest commanded by the Knicks. But he got paid. And the burden of living up to Linsanity was left behind, in many ways for the better.
On the eve of his return to New York, Lin said he “can’t wait to get this over with.” He can relax. It won’t take long. For a few fleeting moments, Linsanity will flare up at the Garden, and then the game will begin. He’ll discover there’s another kind of insanity raging in New York: The Knicks, after a lost decade, and without Lin, might be for real.