In his second year with the NBA’s Houston Rockets after signing a three-year deal, Jeremy Lin has mostly languished on the bench, a decision that has more to do with coach Kevin McHale’s whims than Lin’s on-court performance. As the ultimate team player, Lin has said little about his diminishing playing time or speculated as to why he’s in the doghouse.
Off the court, Lin remains immensely popular, especially in Asia. A Harvard graduate of Chinese descent and son of Taiwanese immigrants, Lin’s success story has been trumpeted all over Asia, in particular the Chinese sphere – taking the mantle from the retired 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming.
Despite starting less than half of his team’s games, Lin finished fourth among Western Conference guards in NBA’s All-Star balloting, behind only Stephen Curry, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. The NBA won’t say where the online fan votes originated, but there’s little doubt that Lin got most of his support from overseas.
Lin’s commercial appeal also remains untarnished despite his loss of playing time. In January, he signed a new endorsement contract with Adidas (terms were undisclosed). While the German giant trails Nike by a wide margin in global sneaker sales, it’s running neck-and-neck in market share in China. Having Lin as an addition to Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose and Lin’s Houston teammate Dwight Howard, Adidas is banking on making more inroads in China’s burgeoning market.
But what’s holding Lin back as a basketball player is another contract, the one he signed with Houston after unleashing “Linsanity” with the New York Knicks in the 2011-12 season. Leaving New York might just be a move that both parties have come to regret.
When Lin signed Houston’s 3-year, $25 million offer sheet, the Knicks chose not to match it primarily because team owner Jim Dolan wanted to placate star forward Carmelo Anthony, who complained that the contract amount was “ridiculous” and was clearly annoyed that the upstart Lin was more popular than he was with New York’s fans.
But two years later, the Knicks are having their worst season in 25 years and Anthony wants to opt out the last year of his contract to become a free agent this summer. Dolan’s franchise is now devoid of both victories and a fan-favorite star player.
As for Lin, he was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rebuilding Rockets when he signed in the summer of 2012. That changed a few weeks later when Houston acquired all-star guard James Harden, a proven scorer and a noted ball hog. After the Rockets added Howard this past summer, it appeared that Lin would no longer be in the team’s long-term plans.
That quickly became evident as McHale relegated Lin to the bench at the start of the season. Lin has started just 25 of the team’s 64 games this season (through Wednesday), averaging 12.4 points and 4.2 assists per game. His playing time had recently dwindled to less than 20 minutes per game – except on Sunday when he played 34 minutes and scored 26 points in a wild Houston victory over Portland.
The Rockets quietly tried to shop Lin before February’s NBA trade deadline – and even had talks with the Knicks – but found no takers. The main sticking point is that next year, the final one in Lin’s three-year deal, he’s due a balloon payment of $15 million, a “poison pill” many teams are unwilling to swallow.
Nevertheless, look for the Rockets to actively seeking a trade partner this offseason. Lin likely will be moved to a team with salary cap space and a need for a dynamic point guard with room for growth at the age of 25. He would be better suited to a franchise based in a city with a large Asian community so it can best maximize his commercial appeal.
At the height of Linsanity, Lin’s Knicks jersey sales climbed to No. 2 among all NBA players. Even now, with his diminished status, his Rockets jersey remains a top-five seller in China. He simply offers an upside to an NBA team’s bottom line that may be matched by only a handful of superstars.
Whether it’s this offseason or if he plays out his contract in Houston for one more year, Lin’s likely next destination, aside from a return to New York, could be Los Angeles or Boston, two other cities in which his qualities will be greatly enhanced and appreciated.
Lin played his college ball at Harvard and is very popular with the fans of the Celtics, who are rebuilding and looking to move disgruntled point guard Rajon Rondo. The Lakers are also in the midst of a disastrous season and looking to start fresh. With the likely retirement of Steve Nash and a need to replace aging superstar Kobe Bryant, Lin just might be a key piece to re-energize the NBA’s glamour franchise.
Whatever happens, don’t expect to hear any complaining from Lin. In a league full of divas, his graciousness is another part of his appeal.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.