Jeremy Lin May Not Return to the Knicks

In this version, Linsanity is a franchise willfully extinguishing the joy. It’s a fearful, frantic fan base raging against another indignity, after a decade full of them.

If you had suggested five months ago that the Knicks would let Jeremy Lin — their most popular player in a decade — simply walk away, you would have been called worse than insane.

Yet it appears the Knicks will. Or they might. As ever, their intentions are not altogether clear.

And there is more speculation than tangible fact.

Multiple news outlets, citing anonymous sources, reported over the weekend that the Knicks intended to let Lin leave for Houston, by declining to match a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet from the . The reason is money.

The Rockets’ offer includes a third-year balloon payment of $14.98 million. Under the N.B.A.’s new luxury-tax system, which punishes teams that wildly exceed a determined threshold, that salary could cost the Knicks an additional $35 million to $45 million in tax payments.

Although the Knicks were carefree with their payroll over the last decade, even Madison Square Garden has a limit. This contract might be it.

A person with knowledge of the Knicks’ deliberations said it was “more likely than not” that the team would decline to match the offer. The same person cautioned, however, that “it’s not definitive.”

Lin played brilliantly for most of February. He electrified the Garden and saved the Knicks’ season. He is a global marketing machine. But $60 million is an extraordinary amount, even in N.B.A. terms, to spend for a player who has started only 25 games.

Knicks officials have been typically silent, and they are under no obligation to tell anyone anything until Tuesday night — the deadline for matching Houston’s offer. It is unlikely there will be any clarity until then. (It is a well-established tradition for N.B.A. teams to wait until the last minute in these matters.)

The Knicks’ intentions appeared to be telegraphed Saturday night, when they unofficially reached a deal to acquire Raymond Felton, a veteran point guard, from Portland. Although Felton could simply be an insurance policy — a hedge against Jason Kidd’s age (39) and Lin’s inexperience — the move was widely interpreted as the first step in cutting ties with Lin.

Lin himself told associates that he believed Felton was acquired to replace him. Yet even Lin is not sure what the Knicks will do, those associates said. He has been told nothing directly by team officials. And no one in the Knicks’ hierarchy is talking, leaving fans to speculate and fret.

“I’m going for a walk. Perhaps off a cliff. I don’t know, we’ll see,” Jim Cavan, a Knicks fan and blogger, wrote on his Twitter account Sunday morning.

Comments like those were common as distraught fans grappled with the news. calling for the Knicks to keep Lin was already circulating. It had more than 2,000 signees by midnight Sunday.

The decision was never supposed to be this complicated or stressful. Lin is a restricted free agent, which allows the Knicks to match any offer. He has early Bird rights, which give the Knicks greater flexibility to pay him without regard to the salary cap.

And because of an obscure cap provision, no rival was allowed to offer Lin more than a $5 million starting salary. That provision, commonly known as the Gilbert Arenas rule, was created to ensure that teams could re-sign a breakout star like Lin without fear of being outbid by a team with cap room.

The well-intentioned rule is having unexpected consequences. The Rockets cannot outbid the Knicks, but because they are under the cap, they are permitted to give Lin a balloon payment — a so-called poison pill — in the third year of his deal. Houston originally set that figure at $9.3 million and then increased it to $14.98 million, close to the maximum allowed.

For cap purposes, Lin’s three-year salary would count as an average for Houston, or $8.4 million a year. But the Knicks would be charged the full amount in 2014-15, costing them $50 million to $60 million in a combination of salary and luxury taxes, rival executives said.

That said, Lin would arguably be undervalued in the first two years — at $5 million and $5.4 million — and the Knicks would have time to either rework their payroll or, as a last resort, to trade Lin by the third year, when his expiring contract would become a commodity. Those are considerations the Knicks are still weighing.

Lin’s salary would be the Knicks’ third highest in 2014-15, behind those of and Amar’e Stoudemire. He would make slightly more than Tyson Chandler, the reigning defensive player of the year.

Even for N.B.A. players, who are used to seeing outlandish contracts fly every July, the offer to Lin appeared staggering. Anthony, speaking to reporters covering the United States Olympic team, said as much Sunday.

“It’s not up to me,” he said. “It’s up to the organization to say that they want to match that ridiculous contract.”

The salary may indeed be ridiculous. But to a legion of Knicks fans, in New York and well beyond, the idea of letting Lin leave is pure Linsanity, and not the good kind.

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