Lost in all of the hoopla of Linsanity, the fallout afterwards and the New York Knicks' recent resurgence, is the fact that Jeremy Lin will be a free agent this summer and keeping him long-term won't be as easy as it seems.
Lin isn't the bench warmer he was last year, but he's not the star he was earlier this season either. The key to his new deal will be how much other teams think he's worth. Statistically, he has now settled as a solid starter, but someone probably better served coming off of the bench.
As a player, the closest comparison to Lin is probably J.J. Barea. Both are spark plugs who can lead an offense and create havoc for stretches, but probably isn't the type of player you want running your team for 40 minutes. In a down free-agent market last summer, Barea got the mid-level exception.
Luckily for the Knicks, they'll be able to keep Lin next year because of the Gilbert Arenas rule. This means that no team can offer Lin a contract worth more than the average NBA salary, in other words the mid-level exception. Because of that, it is highly unlikely that Lin will leave after this season.
Notice the italics on the word "this" because things get a lot trickier after that. Assuming Lin signs a one-year deal for the mid-level exception (which would seem to be his most logical move), he will hit the market once again in 2013 as an unrestricted free agent. When this happens, he will be allowed to sign anywhere, and because he will have spent only a year and a half with the Knicks, he will not be granted full bird rights.
On the surface, the Knicks would still seem to have a chance to re-sign Lin to a long-term mid-level deal, but it seems likely that he'll command a bigger contract. Why would an average starter command more money? Because he's worth more money to his employer as a marketing tool than just a basketball player.
Let's say you're the Indiana Pacers or the Toronto Raptors. Doesn't it make sense to pay Lin more than he's worth as a player because of the money he'd bring back on the business end? With Yao Ming out of the league, Lin is now the most popular player in China. In other words, to about 15 percent of the world he's bigger than LeBron James.
Lin won't be bereft of options. In response to the free agencies of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, it is likely that many teams will carve out cap space to make a run at one of the two All-Stars. When they inevitably fail (ask Nets fans about the summer of 2010), they'll have to splurge on lesser players. Lin seems to be the logical consolation prize.
You know who one of those teams is likely to be? The Brooklyn (insert team name here). Deron Williams is likely to leave this summer, and considering their lackluster management under Mikhail Prokhorov and their lowly status as a team, they are unlikely to bring in Paul or Howard.
What's the next best thing for them? Stealing Lin from the Knicks.
The soon-to-be former New Jersey Nets have been trying to convert Knicks fans for the past few years. What better way (at least in their minds) than to sign one of their most popular players?
It wouldn't actually work, because Knicks fans are too fiercely loyal to the franchise, but considering they paid Travis Outlaw $35 million, I'd bet they don't know that. If Lin reaches unrestricted free agency, expect the Nets to make him a mammoth offer.
There is another problem the Knicks face in retaining Lin: the luxury tax. Under the former CBA, the luxury tax was paid at a dollar-to-dollar rate once the threshold was passed. This allowed teams like the Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks to far exceed the tax line because the ramifications weren't devastating. But under the current agreement, the luxury tax can reach a price of $3.25 for every dollar over the tax.
For a normal team, retaining Lin wouldn't put them in danger of reaching that salary zone, but the Knicks are an exception. They have almost their entire salary cap locked in on Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony.
Because of the maneuvering they used to get Chandler, the Knicks no longer have an amnesty clause to get them out of a bad contract. In other words, retaining Lin would essentially put the Knicks in salary cap hell with only four players under roster.
Finding a way to keep Lin at his market value would likely cost the Knicks Landry Fields, J.R. Smith and pretty much every other role player on the roster. They would have to be comfortable knowing that their four-man core for the next few years would be Lin, Anthony, Chandler and Stoudemire.
All of this comes back to a very simple question: What is Lin really worth. Supposing Barea is a mid-level player, Lin should be worth a decent amount more.
Lin currently has a PER (player efficiency rating) of 19.91 compared to Barea's 14.68. Even taking into account the inflation from the initial burst of Linsanity, he's probably settled into the area of 16.5 or 17.
If this is true, Lin is worth approximately 15 percent more as a player alone than Barea. But Lin is only in his second year in the league and will only be 24 when he hits unrestricted free agency. Teams value players by potential almost as much as production, so that would earn him even more money.
Finally, we have to look at the financial aspect of his contract. Whoever signs Lin immediately becomes one of the most popular teams in China. He creates marketing opportunities few others can match. To a team desperate for revenue, that cannot be overstated.
The bottom line when all of this is put together, is that Lin is probably worth around $10 million per year. This sounds insane, but by using the model current teams use to sign free agents, it's entirely feasible and perhaps even conservative.
Remember, Hedo Turkoglu makes more than that, and he signed his contract at age 30. Ben Gordon makes even more than that, and he doesn't even have a defined position.
The bottom line is that based on trends in player contracts recently, Lin is almost definitely going to be offered eight figures. At that price, the Knicks will likely have to kiss Lin goodbye.
Their best hope at retaining him would be convincing him to sign a long-term, mid-level contract this summer. They could make a case to him that Linsanity has come and gone, and by not locking himself in long-term he's risking letting his stock plummet and his marketability die.
Considering he is the only Chinese player of note currently in the NBA, this likely isn't the case, but convincing him of this may be the Knicks' best chance at keeping him long-term.