Thursday, February 18, 2016

Part 2: The Jeremy Lin Saga Continues...JLin Strikes Back as a Hornet

We take a break from our political coverage to check in on Jeremy Lin, the second installment on his remarkable saga.  The first was published exactly one year ago.  It was titled “The Strange and Badly Misunderstood Career of Jeremy Lin” and it sought to explain the many twists and turns Lin’s career had taken from his Linsanity days until that time, when Lin was in the midst of a lost year with the Lakers.  Lin’s image had tumbled markedly from his days with the Knicks, and the article posited that that was more a consequence of unique circumstances than a reflection of his play.

Thus the story picks up from a year ago, covering his waning days with the Lakers to his current time with the Hornets.  Remarkably, the twists and turns have continued; if anything they have accelerated, though it is clear that Lin has thrived in his new surroundings.  But the truth of what Lin is and could be remains mysterious and controversial, the subject of much passionate discussion, pitting “LOF’s” (so-called "Lin Only Fans" who pick up and follow him wherever he goes) versus those who think Lin is overrated, the Tim Tebow of the NBA.  And just to spice up the long-term prospects of the saga, Lin has a player option this summer and could easily move on from Charlotte. 

The Lakers Post All-Star Break

Things had hit a low point for Jeremy Lin by the 2015 All-Star break.  He was still on the Laker bench, no longer behind journeyman Ronnie Price, who had ignominiously replaced him in the starting lineup in a November shake-up, but instead Jordan Clarkson, a promising rookie who had been handed the point guard job.  The lowly Lakers had a fairly obvious goal – to lose as many games as possible in their quest for a top lottery pick who could change their miserable fortunes.  Kobe Bryant, by the All-Star break of 2015, was out for the season with a rotator cuff injury.  The lineup that Lakers’ much-vilified coach, Byron Scott, started on the last game before the break featured Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre, Tarik Black, Clarkson and Wayne Ellington.  Combined, that quintet that was averaging fewer than 30 points per game, only a few points more than the Portland star they were facing, LeMarcus Aldridge.  Lin played a mere 21 minutes, went 0-6 from the floor and scored 2 points.  He was three weeks removed from his first “DNP – Coach’s Decision,” and farther from Linsanity than ever.  And with free agency looming, his stock was at its low.

But Lin has never quit, and the renaissance began with that first game after the All-Star break, against the Nets, no less, the same opponent against which he had launched Linsanity three years before, almost to the date.  The Lakers were down by 19 at the start of the 4th quarter, but Lin led them back with 11 quick points, pulling to within 7 before the magic ran out.  The next game he struck again, as he scored 9 points in less than a minute-and-a-half in the fourth quarter and added 4 more in overtime to lead the Lakers to a rare win, over the Celtics, scoring a total of 25. 

A solid stretch ensued, and one month later, Lin dazzled for 29 in a win against the Sixers, and was finally promoted, somewhat improbably, back to the starting line-up, playing alongside Clarkson as a point guard.  Finally handed the keys, Lin responded with three terrific games, averaging 19 points and 6 assists per game on 45% shooting from the field, 42% of three-pointers, 94% of free-throws and 6 assists and 4 rebounds.  In other words, almost exactly the same numbers he has put up whenever he has started at point guard and controlled the ball.

And then, almost on cue, he got hurt.  He sat for three games, hobbled his way through four more, and then sat for good for the last five games of the season.  Once again, flashes of brilliance, but no extended opportunity to rekindle Linsanity.

Disappointing, sure.  The whole Laker experience, under Byron Scott, a ‘90’s style coach in a 21st century league, was insane from beginning to end.  But at least that miserable chapter was over.

The Offseason Decision

Lin had done enough in that second half surge to get his name back in the conversation.  He had averaged 13.6 ppg/4.6 apg/3.2 rpg after the All-Star Break, and garnered favorable comments from opposing coaches of teams he had victimized, including Boston’s Brad Stevens.  Surely the off-season would yield a starting opportunity.

Thus began the free agency dance.  The Lin rumors abounded.  Lin might head to the Sixers, who badly needed a point guard to go with their many big man lottery pics.  A return visit to the Knicks, perhaps, also in need of a starter?  Perhaps the Bulls, as insurance for the oft-injured Derrick Rose, sure to be a productive venue for Lin.  Maybe back to Houston, where Lin could settle back into his 30-minute per night rotation with James Harden and Patrick Beverly, which, after the Laker experience, looked positive.

And then it became clear.  Lin would be reunited in Dallas with close friend Chandler Parsons in a juicy starting point guard role, leading a club oozing with talent, featuring soon-to-be-signed Clipper star DeAndre Jordan.  Dallas had the money, a fine coach in Rick Carlisle, and a need at point guard, coming off an epically disastrously stint with a disengaged Rajon Rondo.  Lin fans could barely await the announcement.

But the road twisted fatefully yet again, as Jordan astonishingly backed out of his oral agreement with Mark Cuban, setting off a frenzy of late night babysitting by Jordan’s Clipper teammates while Cuban tried to get at him to pull him into the fold.  But it all fell apart, Jordan remained a Clipper, and, with the Maverick’s appearing to implode, the Lin signing never happened.

Lin ultimately signed with the Charlotte Hornets, a sub-.500 team that had not been featured in any of the postseason Lin conversation.  Charlotte had invested $80 million in their starting point guard, Kemba Walker, and traded for Nic Batum to play the shooting guard slot (perhaps more as a playmaker than a shooter), and signed Walker’s old UConn teammate Jeremy Lamb to backup Batum.  Dependable scorer (if not defender) Al Jefferson was the incumbent center, ace defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist would play small forward, and veteran Marvin Williams at power forward. 

It seemed an odd choice for Lin, but Lin liked what he heard from straight-shooting Hornets Coach Steve Clifford, who appeared to understand Lin’s game and promised pick and rolls galore, if not massive playing time.

The deal certainly came with downsides.  The contract itself, for $4 million over two years, with a player option for the second year, was a comedown from his three-year $25 million deal with Houston.  Apart from that, it was well below his true market value, at least as measured by “peers” such as Cory Joseph, who averaged 6 points per game for his 4-year NBA career but parlayed that into a 4-year deal with Toronto worth $30 million.  Lin clearly wanted a “rehabilitation” year with a contract that gave him free agency again in 2016, but this time, presumably, coming off a rebound year.

Charlotte

If Lin’s strange saga is best measured by the number of twists and turns, he is, amazingly, setting a personal record for them in Charlotte.  And that’s saying something.

Lin’s time with the Knicks could be divided into three segments:  benchwarmer, the Linsanity era and the post-Linsanity period (after Melo returned). In Houston, over two years, he really had only two segments, Lin as a starter and Lin as a sub.  Lin’s time with the Lakers unfolded in six parts, the first of which, Lin backing up Steve Nash, never happened as Nash was injured and never returned (and subsequently retired).  After that preseason twist came the rest, all shrouded in melodrama, with Kobe shouting and Scott standing, arms folded, his face locked in a perpetual grimace:  Lin starts, Lin behind Price, Lin behind Clarkson, Lin starts (and stars) again and Lin gets injured.

But even by these standards, Charlotte has been the tops, a virtual Lombard Street of curves, as Lin’s role shifted time and again.  There is Lin as the backup point guard, Lin as the backup combo guard, Lin as the starting SG (when Batum was out), Lin as the backup shooting guard (with Kemba, Batum and Brian Roberts taking the point) and finally, for one glorious game, Lin, in his natural role as starting point guard (when Kemba was hurt).  All this in the first half of the season alone, and more twists await as the Hornets, at the All Star break just days ago, traded for Courtney Lee, further crowding the PG, SG and SF positions with five capable players (Walker, Batum, Lin, Lee and Lamb).

But despite these many roles – and in many ways because of them – Lin has thrived in Charlotte.  He has succeeded in each role, switching from one to the next with such capability as to become Charlotte’s third most valuable player, behind Walker and the oft-injured Batum.  His defense, always solid but underrated, has been singled out by Clifford for its excellence.  He is the leader of “Bench Force 1,” the Hornets superlative second unit that performed so well together before injuries decimated the squad. 

Lin himself has played through pain, missing only three games, but battling an injured ankle that has clearly limited him in so many other games.  He has had the usual burst of Linsanity, often in the 4th quarter and/or overtime to lead the team back from near losses to crucial wins.  But he had also had a number of forgettable performance as well, when injuries or strong games from others have limited him to less than 20 minutes per game, not enough time for him to rev up for one of his patented “Linsanity” runs. 

And therein lies the frustration – on the part of Lin fans -- with this transition season.  Lin, as the clear back-up to Walker (who is having his best year, no doubt in part to the lessened pressure on him, given the new array of offensive weapons, including Lin), has no real chance in this role to do what he does best, that is, play consistent minutes at point guard.  According to basketball-reference.com, Lin is playing two-thirds of his minutes at shooting guard, and much of that time seems spent standing in a corner, waiting for Walker and Batum to explore their own options, before occasionally yielding to Lin.

And most unfortunate of all, what he may be doing is inadvertently cementing his status of a terrific back-up, a capable point guard (you often hear him described as the “best backup point guard in the league”) and versatile super sub -- but not a starter. 

What is truly remarkable about Lin’s career – especially since he is routinely disparaged for being “inconsistent” -- is how incredibly consistent his statistics are for his career.  This “rebound” season in Charlotte, in which he is routinely lauded (and touted as a top five “Sixth Man of the Year” candidate) is nearly identical to his “disastrous” year with the Lakers.  Check it out:

Season
G
Min
FG%
3FG%
FT%
REB
ASS
ST
TO
PTS
2014-15 Lakers
74
25.8
42%
37%
80%
2.6
4.6
1.1
2.2
11.2
2015-16 Hornets
50
26.9
42%
33%
80%
3.3
3.3
0.7
1.9
12.1

Not to mention the fact that his “Per 36 Game” statistics are amazingly similar year after year, even as his minutes vary…and they have not really varied that much, bouncing between 25 and 32 minutes per game. 

Per 36 Minutes
Games
Min
FG%
3FG%
FT%
REB
ASS
ST
TO
PTS
29
9.8
39%
20%
76%
4.3
5.3
4.2
2.3
9.6
35
26.9
45%
32%
80%
4.1
8.3
2.1
4.8
19.6
82
32.2
44%
34%
79%
3.4
6.8
1.8
3.2
14.9
71
28.9
45%
36%
82%
3.3
5.2
1.2
3.1
15.6
74
25.8
42%
37%
80%
3.7
6.4
1.5
3.1
15.7
50
26.9
42%
33%
80%
4.4
4.4
0.9
2.5
16.2
TOTAL
3441
26.9
44%
35%
80%
3.7
6.1
1.6
3.2
15.7

What is clear is that this time in Charlotte has been extremely beneficial to his career reboot.  He is clearly seen as a major cog in the team’s turnaround performance this year.  He has had a number of spectacular late game heroics, the stuff of EPSN highlight reels.  He has had four remarkable games that inspired the inevitable “Linsanity” headlines in the NBA write-ups:  a 35/4/4 effort versus Toronto on December 17, a 26/4/4 line versus the Clippers on January 4, a 26/5/5 in a win against the Knicks on January 23, a phenomenal 50-minute overtime win versus Sacramento two nights later, with a gaudy 20/11/7 line and the stunning 24/8/5 in the upset win against the Cavs on February 3. 

His stats may be similar but the “eye test” tells a different story.  Lin plays a game that enhances the team’s efforts.  His ability to get to the hoop is well known, and with this style he breaks down a defense far more effectively than the guy who can hit the 20-footer.  He opens up the court, draws fouls, finds open teammates, wreaks havoc and can finish, and all of that makes the Hornets sting when Lin is driving the offense. 

Clearly Clifford likes to have him in down the stretch, even when he has underperformed in the early part of the game.  In a recent game against Washington, Lin had scored two points all game when Clifford reinserted him with less than three minutes to go and the Hornets were down by a point.  Lin quickly hit a driving layup and a three-point bomb and gave the Hornets a lead they never relinquished.  These moments, and they come frequently, have started to define him.  “He likes to take the big shot,” Clifford said after one game.  Those of us who watched Lin drain a game-winning three pointer over Jose Calderon four years ago, in the midst of Linsanity, could only smile.

What is Jeremy Lin?

Thus the question continues to have no conclusive answer.  Is Jeremy Lin simply an outstanding and versatile back-up combo guard?  Or is his ceiling still that of a Top 20 starting NBA point guard (in this Golden Age of Point Guards)?

The evidence is pretty solid that if you play Lin in the back-up super sub role, with occasional starts and a fluidly defined court role, and manage to get him 28-30 minutes a night, he will give you 13/5.  That’s pretty darn good – Manu Ginobili has done 14/4 for his career, and Manu is a candidate for the Hall of Fame.  If Lin, who is 27 and at the entryway to his prime, did that for 5 full seasons and then hung around for a bit longer, he could reach 10,000 career points, which has been done by only about 500 NBA players ever.

But what about that elusive upside?

Jeremy Lin has played 28 games in his career with the following characteristics:  starting at point guard as the primary ball handler (that is, no Melo, Harden, Kobe or Kemba).  He had 8 such games with the Knicks (at the height of Linsanity) and 10 more with Houston (when Harden was injured).  For the Lakers he had 9 such games, although this is a little squirrely since Jordan Clarkson held or shared the point duties with him in many of these games.  But I throw them all in for consistency’s sake.  And then the one game this year when Kemba sat out and Lin led the Hornets to an upset win over Cleveland with a superb game.

Here are the numbers for those 28 games:  20 ppg/4 rpg/7 apg on 46% shooting, including an astonishing 44% from three-point land.  (And yes, those 4.4 turnovers.)  Is it unreasonable to assume that Lin would put up similar stats if given his own team?


Games
Min
FG%
3FG%
FT%
REB
ASS
ST
TO
PTS
Knicks w/o Melo
8
39.3
51%
38%
71%
3.6
9.5
2.3
6.5
25.0
Houston w/o Harden
10
37.0
49%
50%
85%
3.4
6.4
1.0
4.0
20.9
Lakers w/o Kobe
9
27.6
35%
36%
83%
3.1
4.4
0.9
2.3
11.8
Hornets w/o Kemba
1
32.0
54%
50%
73%
5.0
8.0
0.0
5.0
24.0
TOTAL
28
35.7
46%
44%
79%
3.6
7.0
1.3
4.4
20.0

Another thing to note is that his teams went 15-13 in these 28 games (including a forgettable 1-8 with the awful Lakers).  In the rest of those games, when Lin was not starting, his teams were 168-169.  So, despite not having their superstar player, and forced to start Jeremy Lin instead, his teams not only did not suffer but actually improved their won-loss records!

“A small sample” say the critics.  Well, technically, this is not really a sample.  It is the entire universe of games that fit the situation I described:  Lin starts as a true point guard.  It is indeed a small number of games, but not an immaterial one. 

Here are another tantalizing set of stats.  They are the 11 games Lin has started this year, mostly as a replacement for SG Nic Batum.  Even out of position, with Walker playing the point, Lin excelled, averaging 18 ppg/5 apg/4 rpg, stats that are comparable to those of the elite shooting guards in the league.


Games
Min
FG%
3FG%
FT%
REB
ASS
ST
TO
PTS
As Hornets starter
11
35.2
46%
42%
82%
4.0
4.7
0.2
2.5
17.8

And yes, in those 11 games, missing a guy (Batum) who will likely get a max contract next year, Charlotte went 7-4, a marked improvement over the rest of the Hornets’ games, when they gave gone 20-23.  As the Linsaniacs say, Win with Lin.  It’s not about the individual stats, it’s about the W’s.

A year ago I concluded that in any system, Lin could be relied on, as a starting point guard, to be at least a 15/8 player.  This would put him in the top half of NBA point guards.  Given his actual performance as a starter, that seems conservative. 

Where to Now, Jeremy Lin?

Jeremy Lin has a choice on his hands this summer.  He has a player option, which he will surely exercise, to maximize his opportunities and, of course, up his salary.  Lin’s value far exceeds $2 million, especially in a year when the salary cap will rise substantially.

Lin has to decide, first and foremost, if he wants to go for a starting point guard position, of which there may be few available, or whether to settle into the Ginobili super sub role.  There is no dishonor in the latter, and the opportunities there may be many.  He then has to decide whether to sign a multi-year contract that would lock him in during the prime years of his career, or another short-term deal if nothing fantastic emerges.

The most tantalizing starting point guard opportunities out there continue to be with the Knicks and the 76ers.  Returning to the birth of Linsanity certainly has its appeal, and Lin has always tormented his former team.  The Knicks are weak at the point, with the aging Jose Calderon and the Lin wannabee Langston Galloway.  But James Dolan will likely never sign Lin, and Phil Jackson, while inscrutable, has never praised Lin overtly.  This dream (for this former lifelong Knicks fan) may never come to pass.

The 76ers now have Mike D’Antoni as a top assistant, and, of course, it was D’Antoni who unleashed Linsanity to begin with, back in his days as head coach of the Knicks.  He has long coveted a Lin reunion, and could exert his influence thusly.  But he has a hierarchy to deal with, and the 76er brass has said many fine things about incumbent point guard Ish Smith, who returned to the team in a midseason deal with New Orleans.  Smith has put up good numbers as a starter, averaging 15 ppg/8 apg since his return to Philly, but his shooting (39%/26%) leaves much to be desired (and those numbers are consistent with his career norms).  Lin would be a good fit with the stockpiled Sixers’ big men, and a clear upgrade over Smith, but whether he wants to wade into another mega-losing situation is another matter.

Where else could he start? 

In part that depends on other free agents.  Deron Williams of Dallas, Rajon Rondo of Sacramento and Mike Conley of Memphis are all free agents this summer, and their movements could either close openings on other teams or open them on the teams they leave.  All are having fine years and so it more likely that they will stay than go.

Lin could be an upgrade in several other places, including Brooklyn (over the injured Jarrett Jack) and Milwaukee (Michael Carter-Williams).  I had put Utah and Orlando on this list, but the latter just acquired Brandon Jennings, who was backing up Reggie Jackson in Detroit, and the former is targeting Ty Lawson, who has fit in miserably in Houston plus has had a few DUI’s, but could respond to a change of scenery.  (Note how Lawson’s flop alongside Harden makes the Lin experience in Houston seem more the rule than the exception.  Indeed, Lin fared far better in Houston than Lawson)

That’s probably it for starting based on roster line-ups right now. 

There are some interesting super sub possibilities with some high quality teams.  The Bulls have a real problem with the oft-injured and far less productive Derrick Rose.  Lin could work into a great three-guard rotation with him and Jimmy Butler, and step in as a quality starter on the many occasions Rose would sit out with injuries.  And San Antonio, if Ginobili retires, could offer Lin the opportunity to slide right into that role, rotating with an aging Tony Parker and Patty Mills.

Denver and the Lakers have chips placed on underachieving youngsters Emmanuel Mudiay and D’Angelo Russell.  But a Lakers return can only come about with a new coach (and that could happen as the drumbeat around Byron Scott grows).  Lin would be a terrific veteran presence at the point position to help the youngsters develop – or to step in if they flop.

Of course, almost any team, theoretically, could be interested in Lin, in the “best back-up combo guard in the league.” 

Will Lin resign himself to a back-up role, perhaps staying in Charlotte where he has apparently been happy?  Will he take advantage of this opportunity and try to land the long-sought starting guard job?  Will he sign for a single year or put down some roots?

The second half of the season is set to begin.  The saga continues.




21 comments:

  1. precise dissection of Jlin's career!!!

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  2. Either "win/loss" or "won/lost" bud. Nonetheless, excellent stuff !!

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  3. This is a fair and thorough analysis of Lin's NBA career. Thank you.

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  4. Very nice article. Thanks for the work.

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  5. When I grow up, I want to be able to write like you, Mr. Gardner!

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  6. Numbers don't lie yet the media and TPTB continues to spews garbage on him. It continue to amaze me how biased, prejudiced and manipulated this industry is. wonder how many under table dealings goes around to overpaid under performers over a meritocracy. It's probably an entire biz on another stratosphere.

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  7. Nice article that led me to your thoughts on the US elections. Impressive and I will definitly come back to see your evaluation on US politics .. and if you throw in some comments about Jeremy Lin and NBA will look forward to read them as well.

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  8. Come to the Bulls!

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  9. Props to this article. Really accurate and precise. Deep analysis! Kudos.

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  10. The Knicks really f*KKn pisses me off!! They will have another shot to get this guy back and WONT!!!

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  11. Great stuff! I'm a NYC Lin fan, and yes, I followed the Rockets for 2 years, and, incredibly, the Lakers for a miserable year. My selfish hope is for Lin to play in Brooklyn 1 year (I'll subscribe). Then land a long-term max contract with the Spurs. I'll move to Texas!

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    Replies
    1. Your wish came true, will you stay put for Jeremy's 3 yr contract with Brooklyn?

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  12. I thoroughly enjoyed this article. I have been a Knick fan since 1969 and when Lin became a Knick, it was the first time since 69 where I saw a spark of hope. It was actually fun to watch and fun to see how the players around him thrived as well. Now, I only follow teams that Lin plays for. The frustrating part for me and I'm sure all Lin fans is why coaches don't see what we see. He's the General out there! Lin makes others around him better! That's an important stat that should be included as a followup to this article. I would lke to see how much better his teammates played because of Lin. I think that stat often gets overlooked. Also, Lin is an extremely unselfish player. He's not taking 29 shots a game like Curry, Koby, or most point guards. I'd love him to just be given a chance with all the support from a coach that understands him! I'd love to see him come to Phoenix, trading Bledsoe and reuniting him with Tyson Chandler. Bring in Novak and whomever Jeremy would want playing next to him. He deserves to run his own team as STARTING PG! Give him a chance to prove himself!

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  13. Great article - fair, objective and underpinned by facts. It is so clear from your analysis that given the opportunity to play his game he is a top tier player in the NBA. Guess what, now he has his chances with the Nets. The best situation since Linsanity to show the world what he is capable of - win (lin) games! I'm excited to see the second coming of Linsanity!

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  14. Wow, I am impressed by Tom. What a fantastic article. Fair assessment, no overblown opinion one way or another, supported by stats. Please write more about NBA in general. Love to read articles like this.

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  15. EXCELLENT article Tom! Very detailed and objective.

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