The Once and Future Lin

Jeremy Lin returns to the city he once ruled, but the road to glory won't be an easy one.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s getting bigger, rapidly approaching. It’s so close; you can almost reach out and touch it. Unfortunately for the Brooklyn Nets, that light is not the ethereal glow of basketball redemption, or deliverance to the playoffs, but is instead more likely an oncoming train, barreling ahead, its sole intent destroying any hope that one of the NBA’s most tortured fanbases may have developed, and its destination is the Barclays Center. 

While the similarly inept New York Knicks have made several high-risk, (moderately) high-reward roster moves, the Nets’ offseason has been decidedly less glamorous. Though not for lack of trying, the Nets failed spectacularly in the quest to build a serviceable (or at least not-completely-atrocious) basketball team. It’s a simple fact that Brooklyn is not an attractive destination for free agents, nor do the Nets have the resources to build a serviceable team through trades or the draft. New General Manager Sean Marks wasn’t left much to work with to be fair; the pieces available to him more closely resembled duct tape and chewed bubble gum rather than NBA caliber players. But he tried his best, and if it weren’t for some bad luck would have pieced together a reasonable, if not overly exciting or competitive team. As it stands however the Nets are not very good, and aren’t like to be very good for a very, very long time.

But despite it all, Jeremy Lin made the bold, reckless, possibly career defining decision to return to the city that once worshipped him.

For 2 weeks, Jeremy Lin didn’t defy expectations, he defined them. Every game brought a new wonder that left America dazzled and awestruck and amazed and completely, profoundly confused. Pundits, players, and the populace alike struggled to explain the Lin sensation, to make sense of how an Asian American kid who went to Harvard was apparently the best basketball player on the planet. Since departing New York for more well-paying pastures, Jeremy Lin has had a career as varied and unique as his many hairstyles. He battled mediocrity in Houston. He tangled with the bench in Los Angeles. And in Charlotte… wait he was in Charlotte? 

But much like a serial killer returning to the scene of the crime, Lin is back. If Brooklyn’s fanbase hadn’t been beaten into submission by years of mediocrity, bad trades, and ridicule and abuse at the hands of the Boston Celtics, expectations might be high. But they have, and they aren’t. Still, Lin is an exciting player coming to a team desperately in need of some excitement. Memories of Linsanity should spark some interest in the casual fan, if only for the first few games of the season, but if Lin and the Nets can capitalize on that window with some good performances, they can do wonders to galvanize (or at least jolt back to life) a fanbase that’s currently overcome with apathy.

 But to the more dedicated Nets fan (if there even is such a thing at this point) the addition of Lin changes little. A marginally above average point guard won’t move the needle from bad to good, and the Nets certainly won’t be making the playoffs this year, or any year in the near future, Lin or not. But the lack of a first round draft pick leaves the Nets in an interesting position. Instead of tanking for a lottery pick and the chance at a future superstar, the Nets are free to explore and experiment different options and directions, without the pressure of winning or losing games. Lin isn’t exactly a “high risk high reward” player, but he brings enough potential to the table that he could be an attractive piece to either trade, or with which attract free agents in the future. At this point it’s still unclear if Lin can be the heart and soul of a winning team, or if a winning core can be built around him. Lin certainly has the heart, and the soul, but if he has the talent remains to be seen. He’s shown flashes; sure, during peak Linsanity he averaged 25 or so points a game. But that was one of the most incredible stretches in basketball history, asking Lin to replicate that over the course of a season would be slightly more than unreasonable, especially considering Lin hasn’t averaged more than 13.4ppg since leaving New York.

In fact, Lin only managed to cross the 20 point threshold nine times total during his 2015-2016 campaign, scoring a mammoth 35 against the Toronto Raptors on December 17th for his season high.

But Lin didn’t come back to New York to relive the glory days, and he didn’t come back for the money. [The offer the Nets made to Lin was actually at the low end of his pay range, and given the cap rise and the massive contracts given out to other players of his caliber or below (ie Mozgov money), Lin could have asked for, and gotten a lot more]. Lin came back because he wanted to write a new chapter. A new era in his career, one where he can prove, once and for all that he can lead a team, and lead a good one. To finally, definitively show that his career isn’t built on a fluke, and that he as a player is more than a two-week stretch of games. It’s the same goal he had in Houston, and that he brought with him to Los Angeles. At each stop the expectations where high, and so were the disappointments. It can be argued that the cause of Lin’s struggles were “fit” or “system” or “a bad coach who hated him.” But eventually Lin had to take responsibility for his own play, and either get paid and respected like a below average player, or play like a good one. And that’s exactly what he did by going to Charlotte. Accepting a more limited role, and a more limited salary, gave Lin the opportunity to focus on basketball, and try to re-attain the level that he had (so briefly) achieved with the Knicks.

Unfortunately, he did not reach it.

But he did manage to once again prove himself to be a more than useful basketball player at the NBA level, one who given the right circumstances could probably be a regular starter, though not on a playoff bound team… or a good team… or an average team.

And so the Brooklyn Nets entered Jeremy Lin’s life. 

At worst the Nets are the worst team in the league, a situation they’re not wholly unfamiliar with, and come season end will attempt to attract free agents with the one asset they are rich in - cap space.

Once 2019 rolls around and the Nets finally own one of their draft picks again, the core of the team (with or without Lin) could look decent enough so as the Nets resemble a professional basketball team once again. New general manager Sean Marks has made his ability as a GM apparent, and in stark contrast to Billy King, has made (or at least attempted to make) smart moves that not only benefit the team immediately, but also help the team’s future. If Marks can endure the basketball purgatory the Nets are condemned to for the next three seasons, he may come out the other side a stronger man, and one with a good basketball team at that.

But for now Lin and the Nets will toil in mediocrity, knowing what they do doesn’t really matter in the end, safe in the knowledge that every shot they make is essentially completely pointless. At the end of the day they will go home with an L in the loss column, a fat paycheck, and an empty soul, yearning for the fulfillment that a better team (or at least one with a draft pick) would grant them. And who says athletes are so different from the rest of us?

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