The New York Knicks' future hinges on a decision made under a ticking clock; the three-day window for the Knicks to match the Houston Rockets' offer to Jeremy Lin is already underway, and complicating that decision are both New York's increasingly burdened financial outlook and their seemingly impending acquisition of Raymond Felton.
As of this writing, Tony Dutt—Felton's agent, quoted via Nate Taylor of The New York Times—has indicated that he expects Felton to be a Knick by day's end, thus making the Knicks' impending decision on Lin all the more interesting.
This conversation doesn't have to be a strict binary—the possibility remains, after all, for New York to keep Lin and acquire Felton, as odd as that might seem—and yet the circumstances naturally gravitate toward a direct comparison of both point guard.
It's made even easier due to the fact that both players would likely be utilized in similar capacities, but the real kicker is the charged reputation that Lin and Felton each garnered during their respective stints with the Knicks.
I only wish the basis for such argumentation had more balanced substance than it actually does. Lin may have a limited run of NBA basketball, but what we've seen of him has ultimately been rather convincing—largely because what Lin lacks in sample size he makes up for in foundational play. He didn't grab the world's attention because he caught some hot shooting or rode out a fluke, but because the Knicks had the latent potential for strong pick-and-roll play but no ball-handler to really exploit it.
What followed was a brilliant streak of success in all kinds of lineups against all kinds of defenders, a fact that bears out in every type of on-off data currently available.
As Henry Abbott noted on TrueHoop, Lin was New York's greatest net positive last season by way of adjusted plus-minus* (an on-off measure adjusted for factors like teammate quality and caliber of opponent), a fact that's all too easily swept under the rug due to Carmelo Anthony's incredible reputation and Tyson Chandler's tremendous and visible impact.
*For the sake of full disclosure, the standard error for Lin's adjusted plus-minus is worrisome, as it is for most players when we look at a single season or a part of a single season. That said, when this information is taken as a supplement to what we've seen from Lin and just about every other bit of statistical information available, much of the concern subsides.
The takeaway there isn't that Lin is a better player than either Knicks star, but simply an incredibly valuable one to have around; his work off the dribble is the best hope New York has of operating an efficient offense, and that aspect of Lin's game was by far the most consistently tested during his incredible rise.
Every opponent wanted to be the one to end the fairy tale and put Lin in his supposed place, and yet there he was—going to left when everyone said he couldn't, penetrating from the perimeter against various different coverages, and making life easier for New York's most crucial role players.
Those are the aspects of Lin's game that we can put the most confidence in; maybe his shooting will fade a bit and maybe teams will figure out a way to attack him in a particular way on the defensive end, but he very much appears to be a reliable ball-handler and a natural pick-and-roll practitioner. Those are also, not coincidentally, the aspects of the game that put Lin head and shoulders above Felton in terms of his potential to effectively initiate New York's offense.
Felton isn't as bad of a player as the one we saw in Portland last season, but he also isn't as good as the one we saw in his New York golden age the season prior. That's all well and good for a team merely looking to pick up a reasonably effective playmaker, but a team as needy as the Knicks demands much more.
That's where Lin makes so much sense; a ball-handler with superior skills and/or potential to what Felton brings to the table would be a nice get, but one of the most interesting aspects of Lin's appeal is the command he has over the offense.
Clearly Lin isn't established enough to avoid the occasional snide comment from a teammate, but should he play out next season as a Knick, he may be one of the few players who could compel Woodson to take the ball out of Anthony's hands.
That's pretty much essential if the Knicks are going to improve on what was the 17th-ranked offense in the league last season.
Some of New York's troubles came as a result of roster inconsistency, but Anthony's tendency to hold the ball as he jabs and fakes his way through the shot clock isn't conducive to high-functioning offense. He's a very good scorer now and a brilliant one in the right context, and as we've learned over the last several seasons, finding that right context so often requires limiting Anthony's attempts to work in isolation.
That's an uphill battle for any coach given Anthony's style and bent, but with Woodson specifically, moving away from the iso-Anthony trap requires that he go against his very nature. Solo shot creation has long been a heavy staple of Woodson-coached teams, and without Lin around to provide indirect pressure on Woodson, I fear the Knicks may fall victim to some of their well-intentioned but inefficient habits.
That's as important as any differential in production and skill; superior play gives Lin a clear edge over Felton at this stage, but his mere presence affords to Knicks the opportunity to avoid falling into an unfortunately familiar stagnation.