HOUSTON — Jeremy Lin loves New York. He wanted to stay.
Even so, it was more important to him to be on the court as a starting point guard, and he’s convinced the Houston Rockets will put him there.
“They made a very compelling pitch in terms of what I could bring to the team and for the city,” Lin said in a statement released through the team Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the Knicks decided not to match Houston’s bold three-year, $25 million offer sheet. “I am also impressed with (Houston owner Leslie) Alexander and the management’s commitment to improving the team.”
The Rockets put out the statement not long after SI.com reported that Lin had acknowledged in an interview that “Honestly, I preferred New York. But my main goal in free agency was to go to a team that had plans for me and wanted me. I wanted to have fun playing basketball.”
Fun is what the 23-year-old undrafted guard was all about last season.
Coming out of nowhere — well, Harvard, by way of Golden State and then Houston — Lin got to New York when the Knicks claimed him off waivers in December. He was briefly demoted to the developmental league, recalled, and got his chance to play when coach Mike D’Antoni put him in with the Knicks floundering at 8-15.
He scored 25 points in a 99-92 win over New Jersey Nets and “Linsanity” was born. Soon New York was in playoff contention and Lin was having drinks named after him.
Lin said Wednesday that he “loved this past year with the Knicks and truly appreciate the opportunity that New York gave me,” even though the team decided to let him go.
“The way the fans fully embraced me and our team was something I’ll always cherish forever,” he said. “It was an extraordinary and unforgettable time that was easily the best year of my life.”
And now it’s on to Houston, which made its move and got its man.
Why did the Rockets go for him? Because it made basketball sense and marketing sense.
The Rockets not only filled a position of need, but also snagged a player who may re-establish the franchise in Asia, where the team enjoyed massive popularity during Yao Ming’s career.
Lin is American-born, but of Chinese and Taiwanese descent, and his timing is perfect to capitalize on the NBA’s explosive growth in China. He’ll wear No. 7 for the Rockets, a change from the No. 17 he wore with the Knicks. The team began taking pre-orders for Lin jerseys online on Wednesday.
Yao was widely credited with breaking open the Chinese market for the NBA, but his retirement last summer hasn’t slowed the game’s growth or popularity.
Television ratings for live NBA games on CCTV5, the national network in China, were up 21 percent in 2011-12 from the previous season, the league said. The NBA had about 16 million followers on social media when Yao retired, and that number spiked to 49 million last season, the league said.
Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, says the Rockets will be able to build on Lin’s marketability.
“There is still a lot of interest in the Rockets in China, even without Yao,” Ganis said. “This is clearly an effort to get a good player, but also capitalize on the in-roads that the team has already made with Chinese sponsors and the fans there.”
Reaction among fans closer to home was muted. While Lin’s arrival was the talk of sports radio in Houston and generated a healthy dose of chatter on Twitter, the marquee at the Toyota Center mentioned only season-ticket packages for the Rockets, along with an Aerosmith concert and a WWE Smackdown.
On the basketball front, general manager Daryl Morey still has work to do.
The next major priority for Houston is finding a big man. Dwight Howard is still available, but that may be long shot. The Rockets expect to sign Bulls center Omer Asik to a three-year, $25 million offer sheet that’s similar to Lin’s deal.
Beyond that, Morey must replenish a roster that’s been gutted over the past two weeks. The Rockets traded Chase Budinger and Samuel Dalembert as they collected draft picks for a package aimed at enticing Orlando to send them Howard, a six-time All-Star.
Houston ended up keeping all three first-round draft picks, selecting Connecticut guard Jeremy Lamb, Iowa State forward Royce White and Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, who all remain unsigned.
The Rockets lost unrestricted free agent Goran Dragic to Phoenix, began their pursuit of Lin and traded Kyle Lowry to Toronto. They withdrew their qualifying offer to guard Courtney Lee, completed a sign-and-trade that sent center Marcus Camby to New York and used the amnesty clause to waive forward Luis Scola.
Houston has only won one playoff series since 1997 and missed the postseason entirely the last three seasons. Whether Lin becomes a cornerstone to a championship-contending team is anyone’s guess — he’s only started 25 games in his young career.
But just adding Lin has made the Rockets more intriguing than they’ve been in a while. It’s up to Morey to turn them into a contender again.