A Linconvenient Truth

Making sense of the latest chapter in Jeremy Lin’s unlikely journey: being an overt salary dump.

Unless you’ve been huffing handfuls of seagull poop on the Jersey shore this past week, you know the NBA was rattled by some pretty huge news—two things, specifically.

The first was this video, created by someone named Tag McNamara. This will now be the name of my next-born child. Son or daughter.

LeBron, you totally redeemed yourself.

Thirty seconds of perfection. This and Old Spice commercials—that’s the list.

The second thing was the Houston Rockets literally giving Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers. Swaddled him in a muslin sheet of merino cotton and diamond dust and dropped him off at the Staples Center doorstep.

Instead of in games, now Lin will have the chance to blow past Steve Nash in practice. (AP)

OK, so it’s a bit more complicated than that: The Lakers now have to absorb Lin’s $15 million salary, the “poison pill” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey built into Lin’s offer sheet in order to dissuade the New York Knicks from matching three years ago (it worked).

Here’s the funny part: To convince the Lakers—a team with a Polynesian nation state’s worth of cap space at the time—to take on Lin’s contract (whose cap hold is only $8 million, by the way), the Rockets had to … wait for it … INCLUDE TWO DRAFT PICKS! A second and a first!

Because you can’t just give three assets away literally for nothing, the Lakers volleyed back the rights to prospect Sergei Lishchuk, who is 32 years old and has spent the last 10 years playing in Russia.

Ten years! He’s not ever coming over! He was the compensation!

Welcome to the new NBA, where a player who three short years ago single-handedly brought the New York Knicks from the brink of balls-out collapse and into the postseason, winning over the city’s hearts and minds with every charming jumper and dervish drive—who could’ve run for and won the presidency in two Southeast Asian countries—is handed on a platinum platter to a franchise where the nacho-stand napkin dispensers are filled with thousand-dollar bills.

To be clear, the Lakers are not losing money on this transaction. Not a sewer-pipe penny. To the contrary, they’re banking on the region’s enormous Chinese/Taiwanese-American population to close the cash gap with jerseys and bobbleheads and those toasters that leave a big black blob where Lin’s face is supposed to be. The Busses will be fine. They have a dirt latrine at Bohemian Grove more expensive than this.

As for Lin, you have to wonder what pain, if any, burrows in the brain. Dumb doubt has dogged Lin ever since his high school days in Palo Alto, where not even the Pac-12 school in his own back yard would give him the time of day. At Harvard, Lin’s increasingly stellar play was met with the kind of Ivy League laugh-offs you’d expect: Smart but not athletic, tenacious without talent, a kid who could make a really nice coach one day. Maybe he could play in Turkey or Spain.

Even after turning John Wall into a bucket of squirrel offal at the 2010 Las Vegas Summer League, Lin’s dream was far from guaranteed. He’d eventually wind up with the Warriors, playing sparingly (though efficiently) before being given the polite pink slip. Morey and the Rockets quickly claimed Lin off the wire, only to turn around and waive him again on December 24. Yes, Christmas Eve. The Rockets waived Jeremy Lin—a devout Evangelical Christian with a penchant for Twitter psalms and parables—on Christmas Eve.

In desperate need of point-guard depth, New York swooped Lin up three days later, quickly re-assigning him to the D-League. On January 20, he recorded a triple-double. Even after the inevitable call-up, Lin was one Baron Davis elbow infection (!!!) away from calling it quits for good.

And then … MADNESS. Over the next few fortnights, the Knicks became a literal proving grounds for the latent game and righteous rage in this 6-foor-3 point guard/mage. The galactic flash screamed across our TV screens, fueled by the awkward high-arcing jumpers and desperate rimward drives of a kid for whom the stage was written in scripture.

Carmelo Anthony (foreground, left) and J.R. Smith (background) maybe/sorta helped push Lin out of the Garden. (AP)
Then again, maybe it was more like ‘Melo dragged Lin out of the Garden. (AP)

What followed soon after was either a business betrayal or a coup in the service of some caustic chemistry, depending on whom you ask. For the Knicks, Lin weaseling his way to a better tender from the Rockets—complete with poison pill—was an unforgiveable offense. For Lin, the renouncement flew in the face of how the front office told him to meet the market: You set it, we’ll match it.

Two years in Texas—rotation-productive, yes, but with steadily sliding returns—and here we are, the sunken star now a salary-cap black hole. The Rockets, desperate to cleave open enough space to land LeBron or ‘Melo, gave Lin one last harsh goodbye. From Christmas Eve to Christmas in July.

Lin will play heavy minutes for the Lakers, mostly because the Lakers are terrible. Kendall Marshall is a backup at best and Steve Nash is one John Wall charge away from combusting in a cloud of human smoke. Of the three, Lin is by far the most viable option to run a professional NBA offense. Even if it means watching Kobe Bryant loft baseline turnarounds off the side of the backboard.

Lin’s story isn’t cyclical so much as a spiral, recurring cycles of ecstasy and pain winding up along an axis of fortune and fame. He’s made it farther—and made more money—than he probably ever thought possible. For that, he can hold his head high and heart alight. Just forgive our thought of what his journey’s wrought: the all-too American tale of adversity-turned-opportunity, opportunity-turned-success, and success-turned-$15-million-toy, to be paraded and played with once before landing in the bargain bin.