Thursday, February 12, 2015
The Strange and Badly Misunderstood Career of Jeremy Lin
Far removed from the bright lights of Manhattan where Jeremy Lin lit up the world just three short years ago, his epic story continues in near obscurity. Lin, briefly the hottest global brand of them all, now toils for the Los Angeles Lakers, buried on the bench of an awful team, playing out his gargantuan contract under terrible circumstances, awaiting the next chapter of his remarkable and unique career. He is a polarizing figure, defended by his legions of fans, and vilified by his vociferous detractors. And because of that, the assessment of his actual contributions is more emotionally driven than fact-based, and thus badly misunderstood.
Linsanity was indeed a global phenomenon, as Lin took an undermanned and under-talented Knick team, at the time missing injured stars Carmelo Anthony and A’mare Stoudemire, instantly to unbeatable status, winning 8 of 9 games as soon as Lin entered the lineup. They had won a mere 8 out of 21 prior to that point, despite the presence of those stars. Lin was a sensation, scoring more points in his first five NBA starts – 136 – than anyone in over 30 years (Michael Jordan, by comparison, scored “only” 116). On that fateful night of February 4, 2012, Lin came off the bench to lead the Knicks to a 99-92 win, scoring 25 points with 7 assists. Named a starter, he proceeded to score 28, 23, 38, 20, 27, 10, 26, 28, 21 and 17 before the Miami Heat slowed him down by devoting practically their entire defense to stopping him. In the midst of this run he landed on more magazine covers than any given U.S. President or supermodel, including two straight cover appearances on Sports Illustrated. He was an overwhelming story, the near second coming of Beatlemania itself, filled with unlikely angles, including his Asian-American roots, his collegiate career at that noted hoops hotbed, Harvard University, his D-League pedigree, and the “average human” clincher: I’m-sleeping-on-Landry-Fields’-couch-and-just-about-to-get-cut-again-therefore-on-the-brink-of-never-being-heard-from-again.
And yet, even the period known as “Linsanity” is widely misunderstood. Most of Lin’s detractors in the blogosphere are dismissive of Lin’s “two weeks” or “9 games” of glory. It is certainly true that Lin’s 9-game stretch represented the peak of Linsanity, and that the Knicks' fortunes cooled thereafter. Many think it “ended” with the Heat shutdown in the 12th game of the run.
But the facts are, the Knicks slump coincided with Anthony’s return, right before that Miami game. While Lin’s hands were no longer on the ball as often, as Anthony reclaimed his star’s prerogative for the ball, Lin excelled nonetheless for the remainder of the season. While his production slipped from the 9-game stretch of 26.4 ppg, he compiled a very strong line of 15.0 ppg and 6.8 assists in the following 17 games, until an injury ended his season.
Thus the first of many misunderstandings about Lin. Lin’s play was no fluke. He managed an overall line over his 26-game Knick career in the spotlight – a third of an NBA season – with high productivity, 18.2 ppg, 45% shooting, and 7.7 assists per game. He was still a raw talent, as evidenced by his 3.8 turnovers per game average, but no fluke.
Further evidence of the “no fluke” theory is that the NBA is not like baseball. Baseball has a long history of minor league call-ups who set the world on fire for a few months and then flame out. Remember “Hurricane” Bob Hazle? Kevin Maas? Shane Spencer? But the NBA? Can you name another player who soared like Lin and settled to mediocrity without an injury playing a role? But if Lin was not a fluke, then what explains he lesser production since Linsanity? Why did he not at least settle into what might have been reasonably expected, a solid NBA starter if not a superstar or even an All-Star?
Lin, a free agent in the summer of 2012, then received a generous offer from the Houston Rockets, for $25 million over three years, including $15 million for the final year. The Knicks chose not to match it, with Carmelo Anthony himself leading the offense, as usual, publicly terming the contract “ridiculous.” The Rockets, an also ran in the powerful Western Conference, brought in Lin to be the centerpiece of their offense, and perhaps capitalize on a fan base that adored former Rockets center Yao Ming, the popular Chinese center. Lin’s marketing value was no doubt a part of the Rockets’ economic calculus.
But shortly thereafter, the Rockets had the opportunity to snag James Harden, another potential superstar, and they pounced. Who can blame them…Harden is now a legitimate NBA MVP candidate, with transcendent skills, and even the stoutest Lin fan has to concede Harden was and is the better player, and a coup for the Rockets.
Harden needs the ball. Nominally a shooting guard, he is really more of a combo point/shooting guard, leaning toward the point. Unlike Melo, who received the ball in the forecourt, Harden initiated play as often as Lin, and like Melo was the usual recipient of Lin’s first pass when Lin brought the ball up. In short, Lin quickly found himself in an ever worse situation than with Melo, a point guard in name only.
Lin adapted well to these circumstances. He worked hard on his three-point shot and turned himself into a combo guard, much like Harden himself. But in Lin’s second season, Rockets’ Coach Kevin McHale recognized that a better lineup would have Lin off the bench leading the second unit, while defensive star Patrick Beverly, a modest offensive threat at best who did not need the ball, would be a better fit as a backcourt partner for Harden.
Lin’s two years in Houston thus became another period of misunderstanding. Lin’s detractors routinely point to his Houston years as a “failure,” how Lin “lost his job” to Beverly, hardly a star, and failed to reignite Linsanity when “given the opportunity.” This ignores the circumstance of Lin being paired with another of the league’s leading “usage” players, Harden, and the impossibility of any point guard to achieve a major stat line with that arrangement.
But Lin was actually quite a good player in Houston. He received healthy minutes (30 per game) in a three-guard rotation with Harden and Beverly over the two years, and often ended the games even when he no longer started them. His stats in this setup were extremely solid. For the two years combined he averaged 13.0 ppg and 5.2 assists (even while not playing a pure point), shooting 44% and a more than respectable (and far better than Linsanity days) 35% from the three-point line. On a per-36 minute basis, this translates to 16 ppg and 6 assists. His slashing style to the hoop continued, and he was the league’s second best “closer” to the hoop, trailing only LeBron James.
And, when called upon, he led the team. James Harden was forced to miss 8 games over the two years, and Lin was thrust into the starting role. And even on a team with legitimate offensive threats Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons, Lin averaged 20 points per game with 6 assists in those 8 starts – in short, he demonstrated once again that Linsanity was no fluke and, given the chance, he could put up numbers worthy of All-Star consideration. And he even carried the load at times when Harden was in the lineup…at times he would simply take over a game and score in bunches. In his two years in Houston he had 20+ points 26 times and cleared 30 in three of those games, including a 38-point outburst versus the venerated Spurs. And of course he did not “lose” his job, his coach simply recognized the reality of the pairings, and adjusted accordingly.
But the Rockets, while a very good team, could not crack the elite of the West, and in the off-season the front office concocted a brash plan to land another superstar to replicate the Miami Heat-inspired blueprint of three superstars on one team – Harden, Howard and the target, Chris Bosh. Lin was traded to Los Angeles with a first-round pick (a required sweetener given that the Lakers would have to take on the final year of Lin’s contract, the whole $15 million), to free up the cap space for that play, and the Rockers went after Bosh. (And failed. Bosh returned to the Heat.)
Lin landed in L.A. with the expectation of sharing time with the oft-injured, aging Steve Nash, with the likelihood that Nash, while nominally the starter, might be hard-pressed to make it on the floor for even 20 minutes a game. The rest would be Lin’s. Kobe Bryant, while a star of even higher magnitude than Melo and Harden, a true legend, was returning from serious injury and would surely be looking to offload a portion of his offensive workload on Lin. So concerns among Lin’s fans that Kobe would simply be another usage-sucking gunner, a la Melo and Harden, were deflected.
And, as it happens, Nash was injured in preseason and Lin became the starter. (Nash, it turns out, has yet to play this season and his career is likely over.) But Bryant was another story. Under the plan developed by new Lakers’ Coach Byron Scott, Bryant averaged 37 minutes a game at the outset, a curious stratagem for a 37-year old coming off Achilles heel surgery. And far from off-loading a portion of his offense, Bryant actually upped his usage, averaging 23 shots per game. And he was terrible, shooting a career low (by far) 37%.
This situation was far worse than the ones with Harden or Melo. It was a nightmare for Lin. And the nightmare was compounded by Bryant’s surly personality and Scott’s total inability to re-shape his system to the talent available, his erratic substitution patterns, and his blindness to the most obvious ways to improve team performance. For example, it was clear in preseason that Lin and Ed Davis were effective partners in the pick and roll, but Scott rarely played the two together in the regular season. And his Princeton offense was ill-suited to the young runners (aside from Bryant) who populated the Lakers roster.
And then suddenly, as the Bryant-led Lakers stumbled to a 5-15 record after 20 games, Lin and Carlos Boozer were unceremoniously demoted, their alleged poor defense the culprits. (This is certainly true for Boozer, but all sophisticated NBA stats show that Lin and his replacement, Ronnie Price, are even as defenders, and Lin of course is far superior on the offense.)
Lin’s detractors say that Lin “failed” and once again lost his job to Price, an inferior talent, a journeyman NBA guard who indeed makes Patrick Beverly look like Jerry West. But Lin actually performed well in the starting role. Despite working with a roster of players who shot virtually every time they received the ball – Bryant, Carlos Boozer and Nick Young – Lin averaged 12 ppg on only 9 shots per game, shooting 45% overall, a career high 36% from three-point-land, and 5 assists per game. (On a per-36 minutes basis, this translates to the by now familiar statistics: 14 ppg and 6 assists.)
Bryant was then injured again, worn down by the pounding, and after a brief break tried to come back and play on a more occasional basis. While he played he demonstrated far more propensity to pass, but his on-again/off-again status further disrupted the Lakers. Price received 30 minutes a game for a stat line that barely exceeded the infamous “trillion,” the term used for a player who fails to record any stats at all for his playing time.
Lin became the leader of the second unit, and after a few sour games, found his niche. Lin, told to be a playmaker (rather than the score-first point guard that he is), would dutifully set up Boozer and Young on the second team. Boozer continued to shoot every time he touched the ball, shooting over 50%, and Young did the same, with the opposite results (he is shooting a Bryant-like 37%). Lin continued to deliver a reasonable stat line under the circumstances.
The Lakers are a terrible team, and finally Scott and company threw in the towel and started “tanking” in earnest. The Lakers own a first round draft pick that they can only keep and use if they finish among the worst five teams in the league. The Lakers’ perverse incentive thus caused all sorts of inversions, not the least of which is their second unit is actually far stronger than the first unit. The fabled Los Angeles Lakers are starting – wait for it – rookie Jordan Clarkson (who mercifully replaced Price), Wayne Ellington, Robert Sacre, Ryan Kelly and Tarik Black. These are the 7th, 9th, 10th, 12th and 13th leading scorers on the Lakers, and collectively they average 31.3 points per game, or less than Bryant did in two of his best seasons. Considering the Lakers are missing Nash and rookie Julius Randle, and you can see that most of these players, based on scoring alone, might not have even been on the Lakers second unit on a full-strength roster.
Starting the second-team – Lin, Young, Boozer, Ed Davis and Wes Johnson -- and playing them 32 minutes per game apiece would only increase the Lakers’ chances to win, and thus undermine the odds of securing that badly needed draft pick.
Lin continues to play well in this impossible role. Capped at 20 minutes per game, he continues to score productively – 9.2 points a game, and dish impressively – 4.2 assists per game. Project those totals to 36 minutes and you get – of course -- 15 ppg and 7 assists. And that is for a lousy team, playing for a lousy coach, in a lost season.
And yet the buzz continues…Lin is “overrated…a failure…not a starter…shouldn’t even be in the league.” It is perverse thinking and simply not justified by the stats. Byron Scott claims Lin is “inconsistent” but he is no more inconsistent than most NBA players, who routinely light it up one night and disappear the next. Only the true superstars produce almost every night, and Lin is not that.
But Lin is a solid NBA player. While reasonable people can agree it is difficult to judge just what he is and can be, it is hardly a stretch, and backed up by ample evidence at this point, to say that as a starter he would average in the 15 ppg range with 7-8 assists, depending on the system and his teammates. Clearly in a running environment, with a good pick and roll center and some three-point shooters on the wings, Lin could do even better. Stick him in a plodding offense with fewer possessions and an “Iso” offense and he will be less productive. But 15/7 seems to be the norm around which he will vary, given 32-36 minutes. That would make him about 15th in scoring among point guards and top ten in assists. Perhaps not a top ten NBA point guard or an All-Star, but easily in next ten, certainly among the best 30 point guards in the league. And if the system really works for him, and he regains his confidence, he could get up to, say, 18 and 9.
Lin will almost certainly not be traded by the February 19th deadline. Any team that picked him up would have to pay him the pro-rated portion of his $15 million contract, about $6 million for the balance of the year. There are not many teams with playoff hopes that do not already have a capable point guard. Someone would have to have a crying need for a back-up point…and then be able to afford the $6 million to fill that role on a rental.
But Lin will, of course, be a free agent this summer. This is a golden era of NBA point guards and so his options will be limited. He may choose to sign an inexpensive one-year deal with a team that will give him a shot at being a starter and see what he can do, or be a quality back-up in a system that favors him. Let him rebuild his reputation in a good environment and then go from there. His saga has been so visible and prolonged that people forget he is only 26 years old, heading into his prime.
His path thus far has been unique, remarkably so. Other guards of his age, such as Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry and Reggie Jackson, have been nurtured in good systems and gradually have matured into quality players. Lin’s “development” has been virtually non-existent. Yet he thrived the most when he was simply handed the keys to the car and told to go for it.
A team like Dallas seems ideal to me. Rajon Rondo has not worked out and will likely leave this summer to explore free agency. Tyson Chandler, his old pick and roll buddy with the Knicks, roams the middle, and Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons (another former teammate) are formidable on the wings. And Monta Ellis would eat up the three-point opportunities Lin would create. Lin might score less on a team with that kind of firepower, but he could still excel, and be the missing piece to the Mavs title aspirations.
In any event, Lin’s strange career, full of the highest of highs, the lowest of lows, incredible polarization and misunderstanding, is crying for another act, a redemptive cycle. We shall see.