By now, you've probably heard the rumor about the Toronto Raptors having an interest in pursuing New York's Jeremy Lin this summer. You've heard his agent put doubt in the minds of Knicks fans about Lin's inevitable return to Madison Square Garden. You've heard that 'sources' have confirmed Toronto's interest in the breakout guard and no doubt by now you've formed an opinion of Lin's fit in Toronto's future. All things being equal, though, I don't personally understand the interest.
That isn't a sleight to Lin. While I remained a skeptic for much of his 25-game pre-injury run this season as a starter with the Knicks, he clearly demonstrated that he has a future in the NBA and may well have a very good one if he keeps improving. However, there are several other factors at work here that make me question the advisability of going after Lin in free agency this summer, but no factor looms larger than Toronto's own free agent guard, Jerryd Bayless.
First, some stats. Here are Lin's numbers as a starter this year for the Knicks:
25 games, 18.2 ppg, 7.7 apg, 4.7 TOpg, 3.7 rpg, .445 FG%, .343 3PFG%
Now, here are the numbers Bayless posted as a starter in his two years with Toronto:
25 games, 18.0 ppg, 6.1 apg, 2.6 TOpg, 3.3 rpg, .460 FG%, .383 3PFG%
Not a lot of separation between the two in their small sample sizes. Lin has the edge as a playmaker, but it's not an oversized one, and it's mitigated considerably by the turnover disparity. Bayless has the edge in terms of his percentages, especially as a consistent three-point shooter, and he's also a far better defensive player than Lin is. However all things considered, were it not for the media attention Lin got this season, these two restricted free agents would probably be attracting pretty similar attention this summer.
For Toronto, though, that isn't the whole story. In order for the Raptors to make an offer to Lin (who, in the first two years of any deal, can only earn $5 million per year), they'd have to eat into their hard-earned raw cap space. They'd also likely have to backload the deal, meaning years three and four would be considerably more expensive than years one and two, in an attempt to prevent the Knicks from matching Toronto's offer. So what you have here is a situation where not only do the Raptors reduce their flexibility this summer for a backup point guard (because at this point, that's still what Lin is) but they also risk vastly overpaying him down the road if he doesn't improve markedly in several key areas. That's not to say that he won't improve in those areas, but they'd be wasting an awful lot of coin if he doesn't.
Since Bayless is Toronto's own free agent, though, things are much easier dealing with him. Firstly, because of his Larry Bird rights, the Raptors can spend all of their free agent cap space on other free agents (or use it to absorb salary in trades) and then go over the cap to re-sign Bayless. Secondly, because Bayless is Toronto's restricted free agent, they don't have to worry about anyone matching an offer sheet for him. They control his fate in free agency and can more easily get him for fair market value (no backloading his contract here). So while both players look comparable on the court, in terms of Toronto's free agency picture, Bayless would be a far better asset to secure.
Now, all of this is being discussed without any consideration for whether or not signing either is a good idea. Both Bryan Colangelo and Dwane Casey are on record as saying how much they adored starter Jose Calderon this season and it is highly likely that he'll return to his post a season from now. If the Raptors manage to luck out and get Steve Nash in free agency, then that's one thing, but neither Lin nor Bayless is unseating Calderon in the 2012-13 season.
And looking at the Raptors depth chart, it's hard to justify a hot and heavy pursuit of either player. The Raptors are in desperate need of a starting small forward, they need outside shooting all up and down the roster and Casey will tell anyone who listens that he needs veterans to help steer his young charges in the right direction. In fact, getting a 23-year-old backup scoring guard is pretty far down the list of needs for the Raptors this offseason. That's not to say that backup point guard is an irrelevant position, but if they are desperate for one, then wouldn't using their draft pick on Weber State's Damian Lillard achieve the same ends without the outsized investment it would take to secure Lin or Bayless?
Truth be told, I wasn't even going to write this piece. When I first heard the Lin rumors, I was ready to dismiss them outright given the above reservations. However, reading the constant stream of Lin rumors immediately brought to mind another set of rumors for a free agent that made no sense to me for Toronto: Hedo Turkoglu. When I'd first heard the Turkoglu rumors, I wrote them off, too. His fit was so questionable I figured that any reported interest that the Raptors had in him must have been invented by his agent to drive up his price tag. Obviously, I misread the situation and the interest was real and Colangelo was ready and eager to bet the farm on Turkoglu. He got him and it remains to this day one of the blackest marks on Colangelo's record with the Raptors. Might it be happening again?
Enough lines of interest fit (a 'name' free agent, international appeal, a player that generates more attention than wins) that I couldn't shake the sense of déjà vu when Lin's name started popping up linked to Toronto, but that doesn't mean Colangelo is eager to repeat history with an offer. It would take a lot to shake Lin loose from New York and Lin's agent may simply be angling for as good a deal as he can get from the Knicks with little-to-no leverage by planting (and perpetuating) this story. Plus, with their comparable games, going hard and heavy after Lin while Bayless is still technically in the team's bloodstream would make next to no sense, unless the Raptors see something dramatic in Lin that I do not.
Suffice it say that the rumors of Toronto's impending pursuit of Lin leave me more than a little skeptical, with my only hesitation coming from Colangleo's past infatuation with Turkoglu. Some team, most likely New York, may bet big and win on Lin in the coming years, but the Raptors have enough gambles to deal with already under contract to start canvassing the league for someone else's. If the Raptors want to keep Bayless, fine, but going after Lin makes no sense to me.