Ruling may free the Knicks to build around Jeremy Lin, or replace him

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Lin in Washington. (nba.com)
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The news broken by Howard Beck of The New York Times Monday night—that the N.B.A. players' union will bring a case before an arbitrator that could allow the Knicks to easily retain both Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak—has enormous ramifications for New York's offseason.

The N.B.A. collective bargaining agreement is endlessly complicated, but what you need to know is this: Teams have far greater leeway in keeping their own players they've acquired either via the draft or via trade. The union wants those rights, which include the ability to offer players far more money without using salary-cap exceptions, to apply to players acquired via waivers. The Knicks, of course, grabbed both Lin and Novak through waivers this year.

The discussion in some quarters has been that if the union is successful, New York can not only sign Lin and Novak, but another point guard to start ahead of Lin. But it's not clear that would be the best use of their salary flexibility.

Consider that Iman Shumpert, who would be the team's starting shooting guard, might not return until December or January as he recovers from his torn ACL. J.R. Smith, Shumpert's backup, appears ready to test the free agent market. The salary slots freed up if the union prevails—a $5 million exception that would have gone to Lin, and a $2 million exception that probably wouldn't have been enough to keep Novak—would need to be utilized to either keep Smith, or bring in his replacement.

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Choices abound, whether it means DeShawn Stevenson, a defensive stalwart who could give New York a Shumpert-like performance out of the second unit, Ray Allen, who might want to join a contending New York team to play a Novak role in the starting lineup, or even Nick Young, the athletic shooting guard who could provide an offensive spark and athleticism for less money than Smith will receive.

The Knicks can also upgrade their search for a backup to Tyson Chandler at center. Could a Marcus Camby be persuaded to come in for one of the exceptions and give the second unit a huge added dimension? Might Nazr Mohammed be ready to do the same thing, with his current team, Oklahoma City, utterly cash-strapped? The point is, options would exist beyond merely bringing back Jared Jeffries and hoping his knee holds up. and the more capable Chandler's backup is, the fresher Chandler can be for the playoffs.

Now compare that to doing something like bringing in Andre Miller, a lesser player than Lin, to occupy the starting point guard position while praying for good luck at other areas of need. That's something the Knicks would only do if they still had doubts about Jeremy Lin as a player, and those doubts should have been disspelled by now. Only his durability is unproven at this point, and New York ought to bring in a low-cost, quality backup at the point guard position. But that shouldn't cost them most or all of their exception, and an answer might be found in the draft instead. The Knicks pick 48th, and someone like Iona's Scott Machado would be perfectly able to come in and give the Knicks 10-15 minutes per game next year.

So keep that in mind as this case goes forward, with a resolution both expected and necessary prior to the start of free agency on July 1: a union victory should free the Knicks to build around Jeremy Lin, not on top of him.