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Scott Howard-Cooper

The Knicks, who might have spoken too soon, lost restricted free agent Jeremy Lin to the Rockets.
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Teams, players learning lessons on restricted free agency

Posted Jul 24 2012 8:50AM

Something jumped out when Howard Beck of the New York Times did a detailed Jeremy Lin FAQ to translate salary-cap legalese into English as Lin moved from the Knicks to the Rockets as a restricted free agent.

Addressing the development of letting Lin walk without compensation after Knicks coach Mike Woodson stated Lin would be the starting point guard ahead of Jason Kidd, Beck explained how "At the time Woodson spoke, Lin had an offer from Houston worth $19.5 million over three years, including a third-year balloon payment of $9.3 million. Once it became clear that the Knicks intended to match that offer, Houston bumped the third year to $14.9 million. That extra $5 million triggered an extra $16.25 million in tax penalties."

The translation of the translation, then: The Knicks emphasized how much they valued Lin, the Rockets reacted to that, went back and stuffed more layers of green into the offer sheet, and New York was driven away by the potential eventuality of a luxury-tax pounding for a player who remains largely unproven.

That's right. The Knicks may have greatly hurt their chances to keep Lin by being so insistent to keep Lin.

Houston got Lin and the entire league got a lesson. Don't come out so strongly in favor of your own players when they are restricted free agents. It just officially became bad strategy. Some legacy of Free Agency '12.

Welcome to the summer when teams were moved into a difficult position. Players need to be stroked, fans need to know the front office wants their guys back, players need to be stroked, opponents need to be sent a message that trying to pluck a restricted is a fool's errand and -- oh, yeah -- players need to be stroked. Maybe not Lin in particular, but so many emerging stars around the league desire that public affirmation. Except that wanting their possible point guard of the future to get that message appears to have backfired on the Knicks.

What teams should say from now on:

"Player X is an important part of the team and we look forward to having him under the right circumstances."

Imagine the fallout, though, for a tepid response.

It doesn't sound like the team is all that excited to have him back.

Or, worse:

It doesn't sound like the team is all that excited to have me back.

When the offer sheet is matched, it will seem like the player is returning wounded, not loved. It's a bad perception game.

Statements surrounding an offer sheet can be risky, as the Knicks and Rockets apparently just showed, even if the circuitous path is not 100 percent clear until New York discusses its hotly debated decision. (Worth noting in the meantime is that Woodson does not do shoot-from-the-hip, so it can be assumed his original statement was the truth and not some negotiating ploy or, given the outcome, a wild welcome-home statement that has turned into a miscalculation.)

The danger of comments is not just on teams, either. That's part of restricted free agency this summer as well.

Eric Gordon signed an offer sheet with the Suns and put out a statement with a closing sentence that "Phoenix is just where my heart is now." Big mistake. Gordon and his advisors, including whoever allowed those words to go out, had to know New Orleans would keep him. It was an easy match for the Hornets, and Gordon had put himself in a bad spot with fans back in the Big Easy. Start 2012-13 with the kind of slump that could come any season and the questions will come about his commitment to the organization, the last thing he will need.

There was another, post-match statement from Gordon: "There is always a business element to the NBA when dealing with contracts, but I never lost my appreciation for the New Orleans Hornets. I look forward to going on the court this season to make our team successful."

Nicolas Batum reached a verbal agreement with the Timberwolves and his agent, Bouna Ndiaye, told The Associated Press that Batum really respects the Portland organization and fans, but that "... his heart went to Minneapolis." Big mistake. The Trail Blazers promised all along they would match, they did, and Batum was in a bad spot. The weighty contract -- a reported $46.5 million for four seasons, although Trail Blazers general manager Neil Olshey said the dollar amount was lowered after the NBA disallowed some bonus clauses -- put a new pressure on the small forward to produce at an All-Star level and, just like Gordon, to answer questions with his play about the commitment to the old organization.

Players and agents need to realize the scare-tactic comments very, very rarely ever work, maybe only in cases where a team has just been wounded by an unhappy relationship or bad breakup. Any thought that the Hornets would let Gordon leave was ridiculous. And while the Timberwolves contract had to give the Trail Blazers pause, even if it didn't permanently move Portland off its stated position, Batum's reps had to know there was a good chance the Blazers would match. The comments, in the end, did nothing more than create a need for fence mending that would not have otherwise existed.

What the player/agent should have said at the time of the agreement with the other team: Nothing. Or, if feeling the need to pump up the suitor, "It is exciting to know the Suns/Timberwolves have made this kind of commitment to me. I can see having a lot of success there." To quickly distance yourself from the team that has the ability to match is asking for trouble, just like a lot of other comments surrounding restricted free agency.

Some legacy from Free Agency '12, indeed.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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