The Numbers Merit Taking A Chance On Potential

In February, during the height of the Linsanity phenomenon, I attended a game at Madison Square Garden between the Knicks and the Sacramento Kings.

The tickets cost an arm and a leg. But Jeremy Lin and the Knicks did not disappoint. Lin had just 10 points in 26 minutes of play, but many of his 13 assists were spectacular, a series of flawless alley-oops that sent Tyson Chandler and Landry Fields dunking on the Kings like the guys from Sacramento were the Washington Generals, the Harlem Globetrotters’ perpetually hapless opponents.

What was more remarkable was the action that took place off the court. This was only Lin’s sixth game as the Knicks’ starting point guard — and just his third start at Madison Square Garden. But the concourses were filled with fans in Lin jerseys. And the high-priced seats were full of people carrying well-intentioned (although sometimes racially insensitive) signs in tribute to him.

The Knicks seemed to be doing everything in their power to encourage the trend. At the team stores around the arena, a wall of Lin bling dominated the displays, while gear for the Knicks’ other high-priced stars — Chandler, Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony — was consigned to the sale racks. (Lin jerseys eventually outsold those of all other Knicks — and all other players in the N.B.A. except Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls.) After every Lin bucket or assist, the Knicks public address announcer Michael T. Walczewski paused for emphasis before reciting his name, before the stadium burst into manic applause.

Lin, in other words, was getting the superstar treatment from the Knicks and their fans. Here, after all, was one of the more remarkable sports stories in a generation. In a sport which is not usually forgiving to underdogs, an undrafted point guard out of Harvard was lighting up cash registers and scoreboards, and turning even the most jaded New Yorkers into die-hard fans.

It didn’t hurt that Lin was Taiwanese-American — in a city where there are about 450,000 residents of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. There are more Chinese-Americans in New York than the entire populations of several N.B.A. cities like Miami, Atlanta or Cleveland (about 400,000 each).

To think of the marketing potential in China itself, which has been starved for an N.B.A. superstar since the gradual demise and eventual retirement of the former Houston Rockets star, Yao Ming.

Investors were quick to recognize the marketing bonanza. The market capitalization for the Knicks’ publicly traded parent company, The Madison Square Garden Company, added about $250 million in value in February alone, and has gained roughly $600 million overall since Lin’s first start.

But now that it comes time for the Knicks to actually pay Lin like a superstar, they seem to be balking. Reports in The New York Times and elsewhere suggest that they might not match the offer sheet that Lin signed with the Rockets, which would pay him $25.1 million over three years.

From a pure basketball standpoint, the merits of the deal are uncertain. Lin’s average salary under the contract — about $8.3 million per year — is concomitant with a good (although not necessarily great) level of performance over a sustained basis.

Using a statistic called estimated wins added, developed by ESPN’s John Hollinger, I charted the performance of the N.B.A.’s top 40 point guards over the past five seasons. Mr. Hollinger’s statistic (as its name implies) estimates the number of additional wins that a player is worth to his team, above a marginal-level player that could be picked up for the minimum salary.

Then I converted this number from wins into dollars based on the salaries of all N.B.A. players. On average, N.B.A. teams are paying about $1.63 million per win, which means that a player good enough to produce 10 extra wins for his team is worth about $16.3 million.

If Lin plays like a top-10 point guard, he’d be well worth the contract, even without the marketing bonus. A top-10 point guard is worth about 12 wins per season, according to Mr. Hollinger’s numbers, which is equivalent to about $20 million in market value.

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