Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hey Donald! Please Ban Us, Too!

Steve's take on the Trump administration's ban on The New York Times and CNN...

There is a new item at the top of my bucket list this morning. I was too young to get on Nixon’s enemies list, and I don’t know how many more mentally unstable narcissist Presidents I will get to write about in my lifetime.  This is my chance, and I’m not going to throw away my shot.  President Trump, please immediately ban BornToRunTheNumbers.com from all future Sean Spicer press briefings!

This week witnessed Donald Trump ratchet up his administration’s war against the news media by pointedly banning (perhaps, more accurately, Bannoning) reporters from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, CNN, and several liberally-leaning websites from attending Sean Spicer’s daily press briefings. This news appeared timed to delight the Donald Trump’s legions at CPAC, the annual convention of Ann Coulter-geist and Ted Cruz missiles.

Hey, Bannon! We wanna be banned, too!

There’s more than ego at stake here. It is totally unfair for Donald Trump to single out these huge media organizations for a public relations bonanza. What better way than making Trump’s “enemies list” is there to revitalize the fortunes of the sagging newspaper industry and an aging cable network that is surviving on ads for plaque psoriasis treatments and the AARP? We want some of that action!

Ah, if we could only get Trump to say how awful we are!  I will even write the tweet for him:

@RealDonaldTrump
“BornToRunTheNumbers – fake news! Tom – so wrong! Wendy – paid protesters! Steve -- NOT FUNNY!  BornToRunTheNumbers now banned from future press conferences.  #So sad!”

Yes… exactly 140 characters!

No doubt people over at CNN are dancing in their cubicles, ecstatic that they have been officially grouped with The New York Times as the pre-eminent purveyors of what Trump lustily castigates as fake news. I suspect that for serious journalists, being ordered to not attend a Sean Spicer briefing is a bit like ordering a ten year old to not to attend waltz lessons. But for CNN, which of late only witnesses ratings spikes when Malaysian airliners stray from their flight path, this is a coup.

And coup does indeed seem to be the direction that Bannon and Trump are headed. Constitutional democracy? Free and independent press? Freedom from persecution based on religion? Boy, that stuff is so 1776!

Banning major news services from Spicer’s utterly banal press conference is neither illegal nor unconstitutional.  It is, however, a sinister display of loathing for the role that a free press plays in our democracy.  It is an emphatic statement that this White House intends to respect only those news organizations that believe Trump’s assertions are imbued with the infallibility usually accorded only to the Pope when he is speaking ex cathedra. Perhaps it would be appropriate to refer to Spicer’s future sessions with the news media as “Alternative Press Conferences.”

It is also clear signal that Steve Bannon is deadly serious in waging a holy war against dissent.

The nascent Trump presidency is creating so many simultaneous shit-storms that no single one is getting the urgent attention it deserves. The Russian hacking scandal is at the top of the list because there is a potentially impeachable offense lurking in that cesspool. The de facto Muslim ban is on the back burner while Trump licks his wounds and reloads. There are the sweeping changes in long standing U.S.  foreign policy that are conveyed through the pungent passing of early morning tweets, only to be contradicted in the next news cycle by Trump’s own emissaries. Two Chinas, but no two-state solution; we’re seizing Iraqi oil – not!

And yet the single item that feels most like the eerie echo of fascist dictators past is this administration’s open war on the free press.

If there is one thing that every citizen in the United States should be terrified by, it is that Donald Trump senses that our free and independent press is at one of its most vulnerable moments in our nation’s history.

A confluence of forces has brought this about. The rise of cable television splintered viewing audiences into slivers, radically eroding the type of impact that a Walter Cronkite held in a simpler media era of three television networks.  Cable also enabled the creation of 24 hour news channels, which saw crass economic opportunity in appealing to specific audience segments. Where ABC, NBC, and CBS operated under broadcast licenses issued by the Federal Communications Commission, no such restriction pertained to emerging cable channels. Fox News grew in leaps and bounds by offering a version of the news that was curated to please the beliefs of conservative viewers. Flavored news flourished in realizing that packaging news in order to please the viewer was more profitable than challenging the audience with objective reporting.

But it was the rise of the internet that inflicted the deepest wounds in the Fourth estate. The internet exponentially expanded the number of “flavored” news outlets, each operating on the nascent internet economics of offering free readership and hoping to “monetize eyeballs.” The traditional newspaper industry was brought to its knees by the radically lightened cost structure of internet rivals.

But the internet’s most lethal blow to the notion of a “free and independent press” was the rise of social media. With the proliferation of shared links and Twitter feeds, information flew freely to readers without having passed through any organization which held itself to a standard of verification. Some would argue that Richard Nixon was brought down because Ben Bradlee would not run a Woodward and Bernstein story until it had been verified by two sources. Today, the test of verification appears to be “I read it on the internet.” At least, that was the rationale frequently offered by then-candidate Donald Trump.

Today, Trump and Bannon see the opportunity to exploit the weakened state of Fourth Estate for their own purposes. With direct access to 35 million Twitter followers, Trump is waging character assassination on those independent news services that he perceives to be the biggest threat to his presidency.

We here at BTRTN are mere butterfly wings in the thin oxygen of the outer blogosphere, hoping that perhaps our earnest but barely measurable flapping may somehow be causal and additive; that we, in concert with thousands of other voices, can help create a hurricane of protest.

But when our government leaders need to be challenged – be it on a matter of constitutional authority, the use of military power, or the enforcement of law – it takes media organizations with mass, clout, and raw audience to effectively mount that challenge on a timely basis.

Walter Cronkite went to battle against Lyndon Johnson armed with ten million loyal viewers. Ben Bradlee commanded the full battalions of the Washington Post to fall behind two young reporters on a righteous mission. It was when Look Magazine and network television cameras shed daylight on the atrocities facing the civil rights activists in places like Alabama and Mississippi that Washington recognized that the enforcement of civil rights cannot be ceded to states…not in 1964 about African-Americans, any more than it can be ceded to states today on issues of the rights of transgender citizens.

And now, when a powerful Fourth Estate is need more urgently than ever, it is under direct assault from our own government.

If Walter Cronkite had made his famous damning critique of LBJ’s Vietnam policy in today’s media environment, the only people who would have seen it would be the people who were already against the war.  Fox News would have lambasted Cronkite for biased reporting and reassured their audience that victory in Vietnam was imminent. The President would have tweeted CRONKITE = FAKE NEWS to thirty five million unquestioning faithful. The majority of news reporting on Vietnam would have been controlled, in shocking measure, by the very people who were making government policy. And we would have been stuck in the mud of the Mekong Delta for a decade longer, with thousands more young Americans asked to die for a mistake.

When the President of the United States attempts to silence critics, you can call that propaganda, you can call that de facto censorship, and or, in this case, you can call it a collision between the Fourth Estate and the Fourth Reich. It is a clear and present danger to democracy.

The final irony here is that websites like Breitbart News exist because our Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. So Breitbart can rise to power by heaving bullshit into the willing ears of fellow travelers, and then, having gained astonishing power, can now attempt to use that power to shut down other competing voices.

What can we all do about this? Yes, there are the town halls, the petitions, the letter campaigns to Congressional representatives. They are all vital. But they are not truly addressing the carnage being wrought by this administration in this particular front… the lifeblood of a free press.

There is one simple thing we can all do: pay for our news.

Subscribe to The New York Times. Turn CNN on and leave it on all day. Get a digital subscription to The Washington Post.  Pay for your news, so your news organizations can pay top-notch, principled, relentless professionals to bring us the truth. As Deep Throat said, if you want to find the truth, you have to follow the money.

Give the real front-line soldiers in our battle the oxygen, the munitions, and the weaponry they need to fight against a tyrant who has signaled his intent to destroy them.

Fund The New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN. In the world of media, audience equals advertising, and advertising equals revenue, and revenue equals oxygen.

Invest in the truth. The payback will be priceless.

And, yeah, be sure to tell your Republican friends about a nasty and horrible little website called BornToRunTheNumbers.com that is spreading terrible stories filled with fake news about Donald Trump.  Go ahead, Donald, Bannon us, too.  

Make our day.

The issue is the survival of a free press, and we’ll keep flapping these butterfly wings as fast as we can.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Part 3: The Epic Journey of Jeremy Lin Continues: Hamstrung

We take a break from our political coverage to check in on Jeremy Lin, with this third annual installment on his remarkable saga. The first was published exactly two years ago.  It was titled "The Strange and Badly Misunderstood Career of Jeremy Lin" and explain the many twists and turns Lin's career had taken from his Linsanity days until that time, February, 2015, when Lin was in the midst of a lost year with the Lakers.

The second, published a year ago, was titled "The Jeremy Lin Saga Continues...JLin Strikes Back as a Hornet," a hopeful chapter that covered the second half of his Laker madness -- when he came out strong from the All-Star break, sustained solid play for the balance of the year and, quite remarkably, ultimately returned to Byron Scott’s starting lineup – through his signing and strong early performance as a role player with the Charlotte Hornets. 

The central thesis of these articles is that while Lin’s play and reputation have never regained the heights of his Knick days, this was more a consequence of circumstances than his level of play.  That Linsanity player still exists, and emerges every dozen games or so, but he has never been given a consistent chance to prove that he is a legitimate NBA starting point guard, with the keys to the offense firmly in his hands. 

The story – Part III -- picks up from a year ago, covering the remainder of his Hornets tour, through the signing with the Nets and his maddening, injury-laced time with them.  The twists and turns of his remarkable saga have, if at all possible, intensified with the Nets, and thus he still remains the controversial enigma that sparks the full gamut of emotions from NBA fans.

 

The Hornets Post All-Star Break

Whatever becomes of Jeremy Lin’s career from this point forward, his single year stint in Charlotte will be viewed as an important inflection point.  Having found both Houston and, in particular, Los Angeles nearly intolerable environments – terrible coaches, a constantly shifting role, dominant stars usurping his nominal role as point guard – Charlotte was a godsend.

Lin had signed a below-market deal with Charlotte, and had no chance to dislodge franchise-face Kemba Walker as the starting point guard.  Charlotte was a small-market team on the rise, in a friendly city.  They had a terrific coach, Steve Clifford, who actually coached – that is, he had coherent, team-oriented systems, instilled a terrific culture, was defense-oriented and, most importantly, he developed his players.  While Lin would have no chance to find his ceiling with Walker ahead of him, he would have a defined role in which to rebuild his confidence.  As chronicled in last year’s article, Lin thrived early on in Charlotte – it was clear that through his adversity in Houston and Los Angeles, he had matured as a player, broadened his skill set as both a point guard and a shooting guard, did whatever was asked, and more.

Playing time might possibly have been an issue in Charlotte.  Apart from Walker, the Hornets had newly-acquired Nicolas Batum at the two, and Batum was a budding star also capable of superb playmaking.  Jeremy Lamb was looking to unlock his potential in the backup shooting guard role.  Thus this would be a four-guard rotation, unlike Houston where Lin received roughly 30 minutes per game whether he started alongside James Harden or subbed in as the third guard behind Patrick Beverly.

But Lin also got a break, perhaps his first since Linsanity.  Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a defensive genius in the three spot, went down with an injured shoulder in preseason, and ultimately played in only seven games all year.  This loss resulted in the 6’8” Batum splitting his time between the two and the three, opening up solid minutes for Lin.  He used those minutes well, spearheading the “Bench Force One” second unit of Charlotte, which quickly became one of the best in the NBA. 

And so we pick up Lin’s saga after the All-Star break, during which the rising Hornets made a sensational trade, dumping two marginal players, Brian Roberts and the puzzling starter-by-default P.J. Hairston to pick-up veteran guard Courtney Lee, an unselfish, energetic defender who could knock down the open three.  Lee became the starting shooting guard, Batum swung to the three full-time, and Lin faced playing time pressure once again.

And indeed, Lin went through an indifferent stretch after the All-Star break.  For the next 15 games, Lin struggled for playing time, averaging a mere 22 minutes.  He shot poorly, 31% from the floor and 26% from the three-point line. But the Hornets, with Lee clearly a huge upgrade over Hairston, thrived, going 12-3.  It certainly looked like the narrative would be that Lin would play out the string and face the prospect of solid off-season free agent interest in him as a role player, but not necessarily having shown enough to warrant starter interest.

And then it all changed.  The turnaround began with a solid game against Denver, in which Lin regained his shooting touch and went for 16 points in 24 minutes.   But the head-turner came the next game against the perennial stand-out San Antonio Spurs.

The Spurs utterly dominated the game at the outset.  Lin had entered the game at the 4-minute mark in the first quarter, when the Spurs were already up 22-6, and they ran the lead up to 30-7 early in the second period.  The game had blowout written all over it. 

But if ever a game had a clear turning point, it came at the 11-minute mark, when Lin hit a spectacular 27-foot bomb from the top of the key as he was flattened by David West.  Sure, the four-pointer only cut the lead to 19, but the Spurs’ momentum was stopped in its tracks. Lin scored 8 more in the quarter, including three driving layups (two reverses) and a floater at the half, plus a perfect three-quarter court bomb to Frank Kaminsky for a lay-up.  By the half the Spurs lead was still 15, but the Hornets had hung tough.

If Lin’s second quarter was excellent, the second half was pure Linsanity.  The Hornets had done well in cutting the lead to a mere five by the time Lin re-entered the game with three minutes to go in the third quarter.  Lin proceed to score 15 points in those last 15 minutes, a stunning array of 3-pointers, floaters and fadeaways, the last putting the Hornets ahead for good at 89-88 with 48 seconds to go.  Lin hit two free throws to finish the Spurs off in what was clearly the best comeback of the year in the NBA.  Lin had 29 points on 11-18 shooting, 4-4 from the three, 3-3 from the foul line, plus seven rebounds, two assists and a steal, all in just 31 minutes…and inspiring another round of “Linsanity Returns” headlines on the highlight shows. 

Lin continued to be more than solid down the stretch.  For the last 13 games, including Denver and San Antonio, Lin found his game, averaging 28 minutes, 14 points and a stellar shooting slash line of 45%/45%/80%, plus four rebounds and three assists.  He scored 21 against Brooklyn the next night, and later torched both Boston and Toronto.  And it was noticed.

The Hornets were clearly a team on the rise, earning the 6th slot in the NBA East, and actually tied at 48-34 with the three teams ahead of them.  One of those teams, the Miami Heat, would be the Hornets’ first-round opponent in the playoffs. 

The first two games were a disaster for the Hornets, first getting crushed by 32 and then losing by12 in Miami, with Lin contributing little as the entire team underperformed.  But Lin responded when the stakes were highest, with two exceptional games in Charlotte, leading the team with 18 in game three, the clear sparkplug in the comeback win, and playing sidekick to Kemba Walker in game four, with 21 to Walker’s 34 in a tight game where Charlotte prevailed 89-85.  Game five, another close win, featured another solid, if unspectacular Lin performance, with 11 points, 6 rebounds and 7 assists in 34 minutes.

But the Heat took the last two, with Lin limited by fouls in game six.  Game seven saw him reduced inexplicably to 19 minutes, despite fine offensive output (4-8 from the floor), and Hornet fans were left wondering why Coach Clifford never turned to Linsanity in a game where Kemba Walker was simply awful, shooting 3-16 in 36 minutes on the brightest stage of his career.

The season in Charlotte rehabilitated Lin’s reputation, and the playoffs showcased his game and solidified the personal turnaround that the season represented.  He had excelled in his role, was a crucial cog in a rising team, improved his defense – never as bad as his detractors would have it, but better under Clifford – to the point where Clifford relied on it.  And Lin flat out carried the team on multiple occasions (most remarkably and notably in the Cleveland and San Antonio games) in true Linsanity fashion.

This was one of those amazing cases where the eye test told the story.  Because you could not find it in the statistics.  Compare his stats with the Lakers and the Hornets.

Team
MIN
FG%
3P%
FT%
REB
AST
STL
BLK
TOV
PTS
25.8
0.424
0.369
0.795
2.6
4.6
1.1
0.4
2.2
11.2
26.3
0.412
0.336
0.815
3.2
3.0
0.7
0.5
1.9
11.7

How could one year be viewed as a disaster and the other a rebirth?  One could argue that his Lakers’ line is a bit better than what he complied in Charlotte, with marginally better shooting stats and more assists (the latter, though, doubtless reflecting Lin playing far more shooting guard than point guard with Charlotte).  Obviously, Lin was a similar player, but the Byron Scott/Kobe Bryant histrionics, the benching of Lin in favor of the journeyman Ronnie Price, the DNP, the tanking, the utter dysfunction of the Lakers organization – all took their toll on Lin’s reputation, which was already sliding due to the Houston experience.  But Lin, clearly, was largely the same player in each stop, with the exception of being a stronger defender under Clifford’s tutelage.

With low-key Charlotte -- and a lower salary, a substitute role, a more stable team on the rise and a far better coach -- Lin’s contributions were viewed as exceeding expectations, for the first time since Linsanity.

But however favorable the Charlotte experience, that chapter once again failed to answer the overriding question of Jeremy Lin’s strange career – what was he really capable of?  Had he proven in Charlotte that he was indeed capable of stellar play as a starting NBA point guard, if given the chance, or merely reinforced the notion that his best fit was as a role player, an ideal sixth man?

After six NBA seasons with five teams, he continued to be a 12 point/4 assist player in 27 minutes per game – extremely solid, and for a sixth man, quite exceptional.  But those stats translate to 16/6 on a per-36 basis – which would put him (based on 2015/16 stats) solidly in with the Goran Dragic, Darren Collison, Deron Williams and even Derrick Rose, just outside the Top Ten among point guards.  Lin fans were more convinced than ever that if he ever got that chance, he would achieve that or even better, and thus validate the Linsanity label once and for all.

The Offseason Decision

Unlike the year before, Lin’s performance with Charlotte, especially down the stretch and in the playoffs, ensured that he would be in demand as a free agent, and he knew it.  He exercised his player option for a second season (there was no way he was going to play again for $2 million a year) and waited for July 1, presumably confident that he would be busy at midnight and not have to scramble for a deal as in 2016.

Point guard has become the glamour position in the NBA.  Those of us who have followed the NBA for 50+ years have seen eras of dominant centers (Wilt, Russell and Jabbar and then later Robinson, Ewing, Olajuwon and O’Neill) and of wondrous position-transcending legends (Jordan, Magic and Bird).  But the modern NBA, with its emphasis on ball movement, spread floors and three-point shooting, both demands and reflects the plethora of stellar point guards who can shoot, penetrate, finish or kick-out, the engines of offensive shows.  Along with LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis, the best players in the league are point guards, starting with the “Fab Four” of reigning MVP Steph Curry, likely 2016/17 MVP Russell Westbrook, his main competition for that honor, James Harden and the veteran Chris Paul, perhaps having his best season until being bitten by the injury bug.

The point guard talent run does not stop there.  Kyrie Irving – knocking on the door of the top echelon with his superb playoff run with the champion Cavs –  the aforementioned Kemba Walker, the pint-sized scoring machine Isiah Thomas, the incredibly athletic John Wall and Damon Lillard, and quiet superstar Mike Conley round out an elite Top Ten.  Based on his last two seasons, late bloomer Kyle Lowry belongs with that group too.  And it continues, with Goran Drajic, Jeff Teague, George Hill, Eric Bledsoe, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison and Reggie Jackson in the next tier of solid talents, all capable of All-Star play.  There are some potential stars on the way up (Dennis Schroder of Atlanta, DeAngelo Russell of the Lakers) and a few veterans squeezing out some final productive years, notably Tony Parker of the Spurs and Deron Williams of Dallas.  (Derrick Rose is only 28 but is clearly already on the other side of the mountain, and a relic at that – a point guard who cannot shoot the three, at 30% for his career and 24% this year, and cannot defend.)  And apart from Russell and Schroder, there are other youngsters like Emmanuel Mudiay and Elfrid Payton getting their shot.

In short, as Lin faced the free agent market, most NBA teams were set at the point.  Only a handful of teams – the Knicks, Nets and Philadelphia – had gaping holes.  And there were only two starting point guards available, Mike Conley, who was almost surely going to resign with Memphis, and Sacramento’s controversial and downward trending Rajon Rondo.  Lin was clearly the next best option, have been the top point guard in the Sixth Man of the Year Voting.

Lin fans are used to a “shadow” off-season dance, of calibrating not only likely Lin options but also those of Mike D’Antoni, the man who unleashed Linsanity as the Knicks’ head coach in 2011-12.  D’Antoni had spent the 2015-16 season as a rather prominent assistant with Philadelphia, in charge of the offense, and one dream was that he would remain with Philly and unleash Lin in a pick-and-roll feast with all those young big men that Philly has acquired in much-maligned “Process”.  But D’Antoni would find himself back in the “starting lineup” again himself, as head coach of, of all team, the Houston Rockets, thus foreclosing the star-crossed Lin reunion (the pair has just missed getting together in La La Land).  D’Antoni promptly installed Harden at the actual (rather than de facto) point guard and ultimately this fueled a Rocket renaissance in 2016/17.  No room for Lin in that set-up.

With D’Antoni no longer a factor in the Lin stakes, all signs pointed to Brooklyn.  The Nets were a truly god-awful franchise, stripped of their immediate future as a consequence of the unfortunate reign of GM Billy King.  In 2013 King, under orders from the Nets’ owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, to build an “instant winner,” traded away years of first-round drafts picks to Boston to secure the services of aging superstars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, plugging the pair into a starting five that also included Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and young Brook Lopez.  It looked great on paper, and might have been great three years before, but that Net team, while respectable, was no playoff threat and built to collapse.  And they did, winning a mere 20 games in 2015-16 after all those starters save Lopez were finally jettisoned…and the Celtics still owning most of the Nets’ future draft picks.

Give Prokhorov credit for reassessing.  Stung by the failure of his hubris, he started over, firing King and heading to San Antonio for his next move, the most successful NBA franchise of this century.  There he found Sean Marks and tabbed him as his GM and Marks in turn hired Kenny Atkinson as his coach.  Together they made a plan to rebuild the Nets the old-fashioned way, through shrewd signings of hungry young veterans, old-for-young trades, player development and a hard-working culture that was christened “Brooklyn Grit.”

And Jeremy Lin was an absolute perfect fit for this plan.  The Nets had no point guard – Jarrett Jack, already in the lower end of the NBA’s point guard stock, was lost for the year to an injury, and Shane Larkin and Donald Sloan were more-suited to end of bench status.  (Remarkably, none of the three are playing in the NBA this year, just one year later.)  Lin fit the desired profile:  hungry, undervalued, a high quality teammate with a great work ethic, and, at this stage of his career, ready to lead a young bunch. 

Plus, who was it on D’Antoni’s staff on those 2011-12 Knicks that worked endlessly with the pre-Linsanity Jeremy Lin, helping him develop and stick when no one was paying any attention at all?  None other than Kenny Atkinson, himself an unknown NBA lifer.  Aside from d’Antoni, and perhaps inclusive of him, no one valued Lin’s potential more than Atkinson, who has seen Linsanity up close, from the bench, and had helped, perhaps more than anyone, enable it.

Conley indeed ­re-signed the Memphis, the Knicks traded for Rose, Rondo replaced him in Chicago and Lin signed with Brooklyn after that midnight visit, for $36 million over three years, with a player option for the third year.  As one of the initial free agent signings, the contract received a great deal of play both for the Lin saga as well as what seemed to be its very generous terms.  But within days, the market exploded in enormous signings, none more lucrative than Conley’s richest-ever $154 million deal.  Ultimately, Lin’s contract was viewed as a bargain.

Lin fans and knowledgeable Net fans began dreaming of Lin pick and rolling all night long with Lopez, the lone remaining star and an almost perfect complement to Lin, right on down to the remarkable coincidence of the franchise stars’ portmanteau of a name:  “Brook-Lin.”  The pieces were fitting together.  Lin would be the engine, a perfect showcase for his talents, with a near-guaranteed 30+ minutes, a fitting star foil in Lopez, and a roster full of eager players, many of whom – Bogan Bogdanovic, Sean Kilpatrick and Joe Harris most prominently – could shoot the three, hopefully nearly as well as Lin’s Knick partner, Steve Novak.  Trevor Booker would anchor the defense from the power forward slot, Thaddeus Young was traded for a first round pick that turned into the promising though injury-prone rookie Caris LeVert, and other young talent – notably Rondae Hollis-Jefferson -- would vie for rotation time.  Veterans Grevis Vasquez and Randy Foye were picked up to back up Lin at the point and provide stability to the young Nets, as well as power forward Luis Scola.  As the roster came together, an almost complete makeover, except for Lopez, from 2014-15, ESPN revised its estimate of Net wins upward from 20 to 28. 

They looked to be a team on the rise.

The Nets

Sigh.  What else can one say?

Lin fans are a resilient bunch.  And we are surely being tested yet again.

The season started off extremely well for the Nets and Lin.  The team won two of their first five games, against Indiana and Detroit, two playoff teams as of this writing, and took Boston (another playoff team) and Milwaukee (just out) down to the wire.  Only a blowout to Chicago was indicative of the “old Nets.”

Lin excelled in this opening stretch, which included a near triple-double (21/9/9) in the home opening win versus Indiana.  He averaged 15 ppg and 6 apg on 45% shooting, while playing only 27 minutes per game.  The fewer minutes than anticipated were a function of the blowout loss to the Bulls and his injury in the fifth game versus Detroit, when he played only 15 minutes.  On a per-36 basis, he was averaging 20 ppg and 8 apg, clearly a stellar pace.  And the eye test was convincing as well.  The Nets functioned smoothly with Lin on the court, his confidence was high and the team responded to his leadership. And his defense was strong.

But then he was injured, pulling a left hamstring versus Detroit.  The Nets quickly announced that Lin would sit two weeks and then be evaluated, and the two weeks came and went without a word, ultimately stretching to five.  The Nets responded well initially, splitting the next four games (beating weak Minnesota and Phoenix teams), but then the bottom dropped out, with seven straight losses by an average margin of 19 points per loss.  The Nets won two of the next six before Lin returned, thereby going 4-13 in the 17 games he missed.

Lin returned on December 12, on a 20-minute per game restriction (lasting three games), which Atkinson chose to deploy in the last five minutes of each quarter.  The Nets played competitively against Houston, Orlando and Philadelphia, losing by single digits in games that Lin fans would argue could have been won but for the minutes restriction.  (The Nets also managed to beat the Lakers when Lin sat out with back pain during this stretch.)  A loss to tough Toronto was followed by a cruel quirk in the NBA schedule that saw the Nets face the Cavs and Warriors, NBA finalists last year, on successive nights, and the Nets lost both (although they outplayed the Warriors handily in the first half.)  And then Lin was in the midst of exploding versus Charlotte, with 17 points in 22 minutes, when he injured his left hamstring yet again.

The second Lin stretch was remarkably similar to the first.  Once again he was limited in minutes played by the intentional restrictions, the blowout games and the final injury game, averaging only 24 minutes in those seven games.  But he averaged 13 ppg and 3 asp, shooting a superb 49% from the field an improved 35% from the three.  On a per-36, once again it added up to 20 and 8.

And he has sat since.  About a month into his rehab, the Nets announced that he had reinjured the hamstring yet again, a third time, and would be out another 3-5 weeks.  And just before the All-Star break, they announced that Lin would return on February 24 against Denver.

In that time, the Nets have nosedived.  It is worth mentioning that the intended back-up point guard, Grevis Vasquez, played only three games before it was clear that his injured ankle was far from ready for NBA action, and the Nets were forced to cut him.  Since then, rookie Isaiah Whitehead and D-League vet Spencer Dinwiddie have largely played the point, with some help from the aging Randy Foye and shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick.  To say the Nets have suffered is a gross understatement.  They have played 26 games since his last game, the Lin-inspired win in Charlotte, and have lost – wait for it – 25 of them.  While their record with Lin is nothing to shout about, at 3-9, a .250 won/loss percentage, without him they are 6-38, or .136. 

And thus the frustration.  Lin finally gets his opportunity, to run his own show, under the coach that understands him best, with complementary teammates, and he has played just 12 out of 56 games to date.  And while he has played well, he has convinced none of his detractors, who point to his inability to stay on the floor as a sign he does not belong there, and dismiss his impressive stats as just another “small base.”  Of course, even if he succeeded, these critics would point out that his stats, even if sustained over time, were inflated because the Nets had few other offensive options.

The stats are good.  Only twelve games of promise, but what promise!  Let’s compare his career stats before Brooklyn with those 12 games in Brooklyn, on both a per-game and per-36 minute basis.

Per Game
MIN
FG%
3P%
FT%
REB
AST
STL
BLK
TOV
PTS
Career
26.8
0.432
0.346
0.803
2.8
4.4
1.2
0.4
2.4
11.7
Brooklyn
25.1
0.469
0.333
0.707
3.3
5.8
1.3
0.5
2.7
13.9
Per-36 Min
MIN
FG%
3P%
FT%
REB
AST
STL
BLK
TOV
PTS
Career
26.7
0.432
0.346
0.803
3.7
5.9
1.6
0.5
3.2
15.7
Brooklyn
36.0
0.469
0.333
0.707
4.7
8.3
1.9
0.7
3.8
20.0

Despite playing fewer minutes per game, Lin has scored more and shot better (overall), and upped his totals across the board.  As mentioned, his per-36 stats approached All Star levels at 20/8.

How else do you measure progress?  Lin’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 20.0 would rank 14th among starting NBA point guards (if he was eligible).  The PER, which is strictly a measure of offensive prowess, seems to pass the smell test:  the top five guards are Russell Westbrook, Isiah Thomas, James Harden, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry.  Can’t really argue with that, or with the rest of the rankings, for that matter. Everyone seems to be ranked more or less where they “should” be.

PLAYER EFFICIENCY RATING NBA STARTING POINT GUARDS
RANK
PLAYER
1
Westbrook
29.5
2
Thomas
27.7
3
Harden
27.7
4
Paul
27.3
5
Curry
24.0
6
Wall
23.1
7
Lowry
23.0
8
Lillard
22.2
9
Conley
22.1
10
Irving
21.7
11
Bledsoe
21.5
12
Walker
20.8
13
Hill
20.2
14
Lin
20.0
15
Teague
19.7
16
Dragic
19.4
17
Holiday
18.6
18
Schroder
16.6
19
Rose
16.4
20
Jackson
15.8
21
Payton
15.5
22
Williams
15.4
23
Russell
15.3
24
Collison
15.2
25
Rubio
15.2
26
Parker
13.9
27
McConnell
13.4
28
Rondo
11.4
29
Mudiay
10.3
30
Delladova
10.1

Of course, many people would see Lin as the outlier on the list.  His career PER is 15, and the 20.0 is based, of course, on only the 12 games.  “Let’s see where he ends up”, they would say.  And Lin fans would accept that challenge.

Of course, Lin fans would take it further.  Lin has played most of his games while still getting back into playing shape, with the stop and start of reduced minutes, with still-brand-new teammates and no semblance of a set rotation. If anything, his chances of playing better are higher than playing worse.

In addition, many Lin fans decry Atkinson’s particular choice of offense.  For, much to the surprise of just about everyone, Atkinson has chosen to go with the “motion” offense, with the pick-and-roll as a secondary option rather than the focus. This choice is consistent with the Marks/Atkinson plan to focus on “player development,” because, with its emphasis on the spreading of opportunities, the motion offense does give Atkinson an opportunity to see what his has with the rest of the team. I’m certain he would argue that he needs Hollis-Jefferson, Lavert, Kilpatrick and others to develop and he wants to accelerate that progress. And the motion offense more often puts the ball in their hands.  But there is little doubt that if the Nets were playing to win flat-out, they would have installed a pick-and-roll-first offense, and both Lin and Lopez would have benefited and excelled even more than in the motion.

But as it is, even with the limitations Lin has faced, his play to date is exactly what we would have predicted:  based on PER, he is ranked outside the Top Ten, in line with Dragic and Teague, and certainly justifying his starter role.

What is clear is that even with the herky-jerky start, he is playing with greater consistency.  One way to measure this is to use basketball-reference.com’s “Game Score.”  The website notes that Game Score was created by John Hollinger to give a rough measure of a player's productivity for a single game.  Of the 12 games Lin has played so far, three-quarters of them were “scored” above 10 and none below 5, the best of his career in each category.  Those games where Lin gets off to a slow start and never clicks, or spends most of his time standing in a corner as the fifth option, appear to be history.  Being a starter has given him the confidence to slow down and play his game, not worried that his initial performance will dictate his ensuing minutes.

Game Score
2011/12
2012/13
2013/14
2014/15
2015/16
2016/17
20+
19%
7%
4%
7%
4%
8%
10-19.9
54%
41%
39%
40%
32%
67%
5 - 9.9
8%
32%
24%
27%
29%
25%
<5
19%
20%
32%
25%
35%
0%
  
This series of articles has, as its central thesis, that Lin, if given the chance, would prove himself to be a solid NBA starting point guard – not a superstar, as perhaps a few believe, but certainly not simply a role player/substitute, as many more appear to believe.  I have argued that Lin is probably a 15/6 player (with upside, in the right system, to 18/8) as a starter, and that would put him in the upper half of NBA starting guards.

But when you look at the body of his work thus far in his career, and compare it – unadjusted in any way – with the players that are currently in that “top half” category, it is clear that he is already a comparable player.  It is hard to separate this group of eight players – the next tier after the Elite 11 – on the basis of their current career stats.  And all of them, with the exception of Jackson and Lin, have started at least 60% of their games, some far more.  And, unlike Lin, when they have started, they have usually been the unquestioned point guard.  Certainly at times they have had to share the ball (Dragic and Bledsoe come to mind), but they have all played more pure point than Lin.  They have not had to deal with some of the biggest usage-suckers on the NBA, no Melo, no Harden and no Kobe.

Career
Age
% Starts
MIN
FG%
3P%
FT%
REB
AST
STL
BLK
TOV
PTS
Holiday
27
85%
32.2
0.442
0.371
0.789
3.6
6.2
1.5
0.4
2.7
14.3
Dragic
30
62%
27.4
0.472
0.363
0.753
2.9
4.8
1.0
0.2
2.3
13.1
Bledsoe
27
60%
26.9
0.446
0.333
0.799
3.8
4.5
1.4
0.5
2.7
13.0
Collison
29
66%
29.6
0.469
0.379
0.852
2.6
4.8
1.1
0.1
2.1
12.7
Teague
28
77%
26.7
0.448
0.354
0.840
2.3
5.4
1.2
0.3
2.2
12.5
Jackson
26
49%
24.5
0.432
0.320
0.858
3.1
4.3
0.7
0.1
1.9
12.2
Lin
28
50%
26.7
0.433
0.345
0.800
2.8
4.4
1.2
0.4
2.4
11.8
Hill
30
61%
28.9
0.452
0.378
0.801
3.2
3.3
0.9
0.3
1.3
11.6
  
And if you put these stats on more equal footing, on a per-36 minute basis, they tighten even further.  Lin and Holiday, just to pick a pair, become indistinguishable.

And the upside?  I point to the set of games I identified last year – the games Lin started and “had the ball” – that is, games when Lin started and Melo, Harden and Kemba were injured and did not play, and to them I have added the 12 Brooklyn games in (even though he did not start in several of them solely due to the minutes restriction).  They point to a level of performance that would move Lin up the list were he to achieve and sustain that level as a starter in Brooklyn.  There are now 40 such games in his career, and Lin is an 18 ppg, 6.5 apg player with excellent shooting percentages.


G
MIN
FG%
3FG%
FT%
REB
ASS
ST
TO
PTS
TOTAL
40
32
46%
40%
77%
3.5
6.5
1.3
3.8
17.7

And so we await the second “half” of the season, which is actually only 26 games for the Nets.  The Nets are clearly a better team with Lin.  They must show progress with his return, to give free agents something to consider in the offseason.  The Nets must attract a few more useful parts, and they have the salary cap space to do it.  They cannot rely on the draft, although over this All Star break they managed to turn Bogan Bogdanovic into a late first round pick in the next draft.  The last third of a season awaits them, beginning with a killer 8-game road trip (circus time at the Barclay Center) but then a final 18 game stretch which features 12 opponents who are currently under .500.  There is an opportunity to finish strong and turn a few heads.

And so another chapter lies ahead in the strange and unusual career of Jeremy Lin.  Will he consistently excel, earning his place with the group above – and rising within it?  Or will he shrink in the role?

That chapter begins tonight.

********************************************

Here are links to the earlier parts of the sage:

Part I:  The Strange and Badly Misunderstood Career of Jeremy Lin

Part II:  The Jeremy Lin Saga Continues...JLin Strikes Back as a Hornet