“We should have kept @JLin7.” Those words popped into Twitter timelines on Feb. 9. They came from the keyboard of Daryl Morey, the ’ general manager and one of the league’s leading outside-the-box thinkers. There was more.
“Did not know he was this good,” . “Anyone who says they knew misleading U.”
General managers rarely admit their mistakes (at least, not in real time), and they even more rarely get the chance to rectify them. Morey did both, and shook up two N.B.A. franchises in the process.
Lin became a Rocket late Tuesday night when the balked at matching a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet from Houston. In doing so, the Knicks surrendered one of the most fascinating sports figures of the decade and handed Morey a chance for quick redemption.
On Dec. 24, Morey waived Lin — at the time, an anonymous 23-year-old point guard — in a payroll-clearing move. The Rockets needed room to sign center Samuel Dalembert, and they seemingly did not need Lin, an unproven prospect who, at best, would be third on the depth chart behind Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic, and perhaps even behind Jonny Flynn.
It was the sort of minor transaction that happens in every N.B.A. preseason, the kind that merits a one-line mention in the local newspaper and is quickly forgotten. In this case, Morey had unknowingly provided one of the signature lines in Lin’s now-famous profile, as the undrafted, overlooked, twice-waived kid from Harvard.
The first waiver was executed by the Golden State Warriors, Lin’s hometown team, two weeks earlier. But it was the Rockets’ decision that indirectly sent Lin to New York, setting in motion a chain of events that would save the Knicks’ season and captivate much of the sports world.
Lin’s soon-to-be-legendary streak was just three games old — with averages of 25.3 points and 8.3 assists in victories over the Nets, Utah and Washington — when Morey started answering queries and taunts on Twitter, where he is a semiregular participant.
Fans prodded for signs of regret. Morey demurred at first, acknowledging that Lin was “a very good player,” but that “Linsanity was not happening here this year.” Finally, someone accused Morey of being “defensive” and asked, “Why not just accept the mistake?” So Morey did, breaking with years of tradition and well-worn platitudes by sports executives everywhere.
Five months later, Morey ensured he would not make the same mistake. The Rockets courted Lin harder than any other team, the Knicks included. They made an initial offer of three years and $19 million — the only formal offer Lin received — during the July moratorium, so named because deals can be negotiated but not signed.
When the Knicks publicly declared they would match the deal, Morey bumped the offer to $25 million, with a $14.9 million balloon payment in the third year that was explicitly intended to make the Knicks squirm. As a high-payroll team, the Knicks would have had to pay a staggering luxury tax, as much as $35 million, in that final season.
After months of public and private assurances that they would keep Lin at any cost, the Knicks for the first time wavered. Days later, the Knicks caved and let their most popular player in 10 years walk away.
As hearts broke in New York and Linsanity took root in Texas on Tuesday night, Morey idled outside a Las Vegas fast-food restaurant, shouting his family’s order into the drive-through speaker. Morey, a 39-year-old father of two, had left the Cox Pavilion at U.N.L.V. a short time earlier, after watching the Rockets’ summer league team beat Portland’s, 99-88.
The Rockets’ greater victory had just occurred in New York, but Morey had no time to celebrate. After apologizing for the background ruckus and straightening out French-fry portions, he reflected on the symmetry of the moment.
“Obviously, a player we didn’t want to let go,” Morey said. “Ended up letting him go last year, and we’re excited for him and how he blossomed in New York. And we’re thrilled to have him back in Houston.”