From the moment that Jeremy Lin began his extraordinary streak, Knicks fans have had two nagging thoughts: Can he keep it up? And can we keep him?
Lin has answered the first question convincingly, stringing together four fantastic performances over seven days. The answer to the second question is an unqualified yes.
Lin will be a restricted free agent this summer, meaning that the Knicks can match any offer he receives without respect to the salary cap. So if the Knicks want to keep him in July, they have every means to do so.
The Knicks also own Lin’s “early-Bird” rights, which means they can offer him a starting salary up to the league average, about $5 million. If a team with cap room exceeds that figure, the restricted free agency rules allow the Knicks to match.
After going undrafted in 2010, Lin signed a two-year deal with the Golden State Warriors. The second year conveyed the early-Bird rights and the restricted free agent status. Those rights would have disappeared had Lin become a free agent after the Warriors waived him in early December. But the Houston Rockets claimed Lin off of waivers, thus inheriting the early-Bird and restricted free agency status. The benefits transferred to the Knicks when they claimed Lin off waivers on Dec. 27, after Houston cut him.
Lin was in danger of being waived again, by the Knicks, before he started his streak on Feb. 3. He had done little to establish himself by that point, although he showed a few glimmers in games against Houston and Boston.
But a crucial decision point was approaching: whether to keep Lin and guarantee his $788,000 contract for the season, or release him. Teams had until Feb. 7 to cut players with nonguaranteed deals, and the Knicks officials considered waiving Lin.
“His expiration date was coming up,” Coach Mike D’Antoni said in an interview earlier this week. “We had to evaluate to see if there was something there or not.”
The guarantee deadline “kind of prompted us” to give Lin more playing time, he said.
Lin was shaky in that Boston game, leaving D’Antoni feeling ambivalent. But he decided to give him another shot the next night against the Nets. Lin responded with the best game of his career, with 25 points and seven assists off the bench in a victory over the Nets. Two nights later, he got his first start and set the bar even higher, with 28 points and 8 assists.
Suddenly, there was no decision to make. Lin will be a Knick for the rest of this season, and almost certainly beyond.