What does Jeremy Lin's injury mean for the Brooklyn Nets guard and his team?
For the second night in a row, we saw a starter suffer a season-ending injury in his team's season opener. Although Lin's ruptured patella tendon wasn't quite as graphic as Gordon Hayward's fractured tibia and dislocated ankle, it was equally clear that Lin knew right away that something had gone terribly wrong when he landed awkwardly on a layup in the fourth quarter of the Nets' loss to the Indiana Pacers.
An MRI on Thursday confirmed what Brooklyn surely already suspected: Lin ruptured his patella tendon, ending his 2017-18 campaign before it had a chance to begin. How will the Nets replace Lin, and what does this mean for his future? Let's take a look.
Brooklyn's options to replace Lin
Nets coach Kenny Atkinson came into the season intending to use Lin and D'Angelo Russell, both scoring-minded point guards who can shoot the 3, as a backup tandem. During the one game they got to play together, that combination worked offensively just as Atkinson had hoped.
Making his Brooklyn debut, Russell scored a team-high 30 points on 12-of-22 shooting, making four 3-pointers and handing out five assists. Lin had 18 points and four assists, going a perfect 7-of-7 at the foul line.
The Nets were a different team last season with Lin healthy, going 13-20 in the 33 games he started, a 32-win pace over a full season. Without Lin, who missed 46 games primarily because of a pair of hamstring injuries, Brooklyn went 7-39 -- a 12-win pace.
Fortunately, the Nets are now much deeper at guard than they were a year ago. Russell can take over point guard duties, handled primarily by rookie Isaiah Whitehead when Lin was injured last season. Whitehead, whose 3.6 wins below replacement level were the league's second-worst mark, wasn't active for Wednesday night's game.
Atkinson can choose between Allen Crabbe and Caris LeVert, who both came off the bench Wednesday, to slide in next to Russell at shooting guard. While both players saw plenty of action off the bench (27 minutes for Crabbe, 28 for LeVert), they're capable of handling more -- Crabbe averaged 28.5 minutes per game last season on a playoff-bound Portland Trail Blazers team and has hoped for a bigger role since being dealt to Brooklyn this offseason.
Besides Whitehead, the Nets have guards Joe Harris and Sean Kilpatrick to sop up some of Lin's minutes that don't go to Crabbe, LeVert and backup point guard Spencer Dinwiddie. Like Whitehead, Harris and Kilpatrick found themselves in reduced roles because of Brooklyn's offseason additions. Neither got off the bench Wednesday after Kilpatrick was third on the team in minutes (1,754) in 2016-17, while Harris played 1,138 minutes and started 11 times.
As ESPN's Bobby Marks points out, the Nets can't yet apply for a disabled player exception for Lin because they are about $3 million under the salary cap. Brooklyn could get the exception if the team adds salary to get over the cap by the Jan. 15 deadline to apply. However, adding a player -- via another team's salary dump -- would force the Nets to cut someone. Dinwiddie, currently in the rotation, is Brooklyn's only player whose salary is not fully guaranteed. So that may make a trade less palatable.
Because of the Nets' improved guard depth, losing Lin isn't likely to make as big a difference in their record as last season. Surprisingly, their projection using ESPN's real plus-minus drops by less than a win from the 31 wins they averaged before the season.
Even with a healthy Lin, Brooklyn was unlikely to be a playoff contender this season. So perhaps the biggest potential near-term impact of his injury is on the Nets' first-round pick, dealt by the Boston Celtics to the Cleveland Cavaliers as part of the return for Kyrie Irving. Lin's injury makes the Cavaliers somewhat more likely to get a top-three pick instead of one in the middle of the lottery.
A patella rupture, whether partial or full, is relatively rare in the NBA. According to my research, Lin is the first player to suffer a full patella rupture since 2010-11, when Caron Butler's season ended on New Year's Day. The Dallas Mavericks went on to win the championship without Butler, who returned to play 63 of a possible 66 games postlockout at more or less his pre-injury level of performance the next season for the LA Clippers.
The previous season, both Kelenna Azubuike of the Golden State Warriors and Joel Przybilla of the Trail Blazers suffered ruptured patellas. Przybilla returned more than 11 months later, and at age 31 he was never the same player as before the injury. Azubuike had it worse, needing a second surgery because the first one was done incorrectly and not returning to the court for more than two years. He played only briefly in the NBA thereafter.
Even if Lin's rehab goes well, uncertainty over his health and the market for free agents mean he's now much more likely to pick up a $12.5 million player option for 2018-19 and take his chances proving his value on the court next season. That would have important ramifications for Brooklyn. The Nets could clear enough space to make a max offer to a restricted free agent next summer if Lin opts out -- the likely scenario had he stayed healthy -- but projects to have less than $13 million in cap space with him on the books.
Because he's 29, Lin's next contract will probably be his last big one that pays him like a starter or key reserve. So it's crucial he maximizes his value by deciding whether to hit free agency next summer or wait until 2019.