After being freed from the shackles of Los Angeles Lakers basketball, and drama, Jeremy Lin entered the 2015 free agent market at somewhere around the second tier of available players. As the opening days of the signing period passed, many wondered if a team like the Chicago Bulls would reach out to the ex-Laker, but it ended up being the Charlotte Hornets who won the signature of Lin.
Lin came to Charlotte on a two-year deal, the second a player option. After raking in a salary of over $8 million per year, the amount that Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey used to pry him free from the New York Knicks, while playing for the Rockets and then Lakers, Lin signed a modest contract with the Hornets. His deal paid him $2.1 million for the 2015-16 season. The second year of the deal, which is a player option year, would pay Lin $2.2 million for the upcoming 2016-17 season.
While the Knicks balked at the seemingly gaudy amount that Morey was willing to front for Lin, his comparatively modest contract with the Hornets was a huge win for both sides. Lin had a great opportunity to prove himself by demonstrating his ability to thrive in a small market, playing the role of leader off the bench.
2015-16 wasn't the best season of Lin's career, for that you would have to go back to his "Linsanity" days in New York. However, the numbers looked to be similar or better to his work for the Rockets and Lakers. Overall, Lin improved his per 36 scoring numbers while his rebound, assist and steal numbers trailed off and his shooting percentages also dipped.
Incredibly, despite his number looking slightly regressed in many areas during this past season, he contributed some big moments at big times. He was able to close some big games and also helped the Hornets to one of their signature wins of the season, pouring in 29 points to lead Charlotte to a home court victory over the Western Conference monolith that is the San Antonio Spurs - a game that required a huge comeback led by Lin.
The deal Lin signed allowed for the point/shooting guard to opt out if things went well. To say that Lin earned himself a pay raise might be an understatement. The combination of the rising salary cap, which is rumored to balloon all the way to the neighborhood of $92 million this offseason, and Lin's vital role as the conduit for the bench unit to run head coach Steve Clifford's offense pretty much guarantees that Lin will opt out of his deal and seek something long term.
At 27 years of age, the NBA veteran has played six seasons of pro ball and is entering the prime earning window of his career. The conditions will not align so well for Lin ever again in the NBA.
The question for the Hornets and their fans: Does Lin want to stay with the Hornets?
First, Lin will have to consider his on-court opportunities.
Charlotte was good for Lin. He played 26.3 minutes per game last season, which was a slight increase over his year with the Lakers and exactly half of one minute short of his career average. Lin used that time to impact the game while not putting any excessive wear and tear on his body. If you watched Lin this season, you would have noticed that he spent a lot of time getting hammered on drives, banged up on screens and generally getting after it on hustle plays. Every minute of rest he gets is essential to helping him stay healthy and play with the type of energy that the team relies on.
It wasn't just about those backup minutes either. Lin is a capable fill-in over the short term if the team is running shallow at point or shooting guard since he is capable of playing both positions. If Kemba Walker isn't available, Lin can guide your team through a week of play without the number one option at point. If Walker is healthy, Lin can either back him up or seamlessly slide in at the two next to him. That interchangeable skill helps Lin to increase his own value and gets him more playing time than if he were strictly limited to playing just one of those roles.
Lin's place on the court in Charlotte was also right for the player. He played an important role on one of the best regular seasons that the Hornets (or Bobcats) ever had and the team made a great run into the playoffs, closing out the season with some of the best basketball in the entire league. It was no coincidence that the entire team from Nicolas Batum and Walker down through Troy Daniels and Lin all played some of the best basketball of their careers - together. They surged into the playoffs and pushed a higher-seeded Miami Heat team to the very brink after a late-season run that was on par with the play of both the Spurs and Golden State Warriors.
The stat line for Lin, as mentioned earlier was better, and worse, in 2015-16 than in his previous years. He averaged 16.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.0 steals per 36 minutes last season. The points mark was his best since his first year for the Knicks and his rebound mark was the best of his career, edging the 4.3 he averaged in 29 games as a rookie with Golden State. The assist and steal numbers were down compared to prior years for Lin, but the assist numbers were the only thing that seemed to take a significant hit in his traditional state line.
While Lin showed a tendency to get a little out of control when driving to the lane, he would sometimes find himself past a defender, but not able to keep his feet under him as he exploded with tremendous momentum into the paint.
Also, he did have his moments where turnovers in situations like a simple handoff should have been executed but instead materialized as a turnover.
These types of mistakes can happen to any player and while they are concerning, Lin wasn't a particularly egregious offender.
If Lin were to return to Charlotte, his on-court position of backup point guard and occasional first team shooting guard running with Walker with likely be assured. He fit well in both situations, though he has room to improve in both areas. As mentioned earlier, he had a fairly large drop of 2.3 assists per 36 minutes from 2014-15 to 2015-16. He also has never been a particularly great shooter from 3-point range, which isn't an issue if his assist numbers are there. However, the Hornets offense has put a particular emphasis on distance shooting, between Daniels leading players under 500 minutes played and Marvin Williams blowing away his previous career-best mark in 3-pointers made, this team really got all they could out of scoring from deep. Throw in the drafting of big man Frank Kaminsky this year, who has range all the way out to the 3-point line, and it is clear the Hornets want to ring up from deep often.
So, either you need to score from deep or be setting up others. A caveat worth mentioning here: I did not have access to Lin's potential assist numbers and I think Lin playing his first season in both Charlotte and the Eastern Conference after an extended spell in the West could have played a role in his performance.
Overall, Lin was valuable to the Hornets all season long and was a near-perfect fit coming off of the bench.
The second area to consider for Lin's return is off the court. This area is an even better fit for Lin. Charlotte offers the ability to play on the court for a playoff team that is one or two signings away from being a major contender in the East. Off the court, the city is large enough to offer culture without the trappings of the sensational media and general frenzy of a locale like LA or NYC.
The Hornets also did a bobble-head night for Lin that was extremely popular. The team's marketing and public relations departments did a great job with that particular promotion and even got his hair right. And through all of his different hair style's this year, both fans of Lin and Charlotte have enjoyed watching him and seeing what he will do next.
But the match with the team is more than just guesswork by yours truly. In a New York Times article from Andrew Keh that ran in April comes this Lin quote, ""I think I'm just in a different place, mentally, spiritually, where I'm able to enjoy this job more and more." The article also talks about how he took over other off court duties such as leading the team's Bible studies at the request of everybody's favorite big man, Al Jefferson. Those types of bonding are invaluable. The article also notes that the entire team attended the final Bible study of the season. Regardless of your perspective of religion, this was something that the team bonded over and trust Lin to lead.
Lin also had multiple positive quotes to share with Rick Bonnell of The Charlotte Observer. In Bonnell's May 2nd piece on Lin, he is quoted as saying, "I don't like moving every year, I don't like packing and unpacking boxes. So we'll see. But I'm definitely interested in coming back," and, ""This is the most fun I've had in my six years." He also credits his time in Charlotte for helping him improve on the defensive end of the floor.
Further, Lin himself took to reddit to give a particularly in-depth look at his experience and relationship with all of his teammates. It was both a fresh approach in a player taking a popular website and discussion forum and the way in which he shows a connection to his entire team.
The off the court praise for Lin and from Lin seemingly could be endless. While there are areas that he can improve on the court, he has already had a tremendous impact on the Hornets and it appears that the same can be said about Charlotte impacting Lin. This team, this culture, this entire organization and city seem to be a great fit for Lin and his unique talents.
While Charlotte GM Rich Cho has made it perfectly clear that Nicolas Batum will be their number one offseason target, finding potential impact free agents and re-signing Lin and Jefferson aren't fare behind. If the money is right, Lin almost certainly will be back in Charlotte for 2016-17 and beyond. So here's to hoping that Lin and Cho see it the same way we do.