Swing State Pres

Friday, June 19, 2020

BTRTN: Part 6: The Jeremy Lin Saga Continues: Agony and Ecstasy, Pride and Prejudice

We depart from political coverage and renew our annual series on the extraordinary career of global basketball icon Jeremy Lin.  Lin’s story took yet another remarkable turn this year, as, with no NBA options, he became the face of the China Basketball Association.  The CBA became the first major entity to suspend its season due to COVID-19 and now will be among the first professional leagues to resume play – beginning tomorrow.  Lin’s role in all of this has gone well beyond “basketball player,” as you will read.

The first in this series, "The Strange and Badly Misunderstood Career of Jeremy Lin" was published five years ago and examined the many twists and turns Lin's career had taken from his Linsanity days with the Knicks until that time, February, 2015, when Lin was in the midst of a lost year with the Lakers.  Subsequent articles, published each year in February since, have tracked Lin’s renaissance with the Hornets, the promise and the pain of his time with the Nets, and last year’s comeback with the Hawks.  We have delayed the publishing date this year so that we could encompass all of the events leading up to the “re-start,” and we pick up the story from where the last one left off, with Lin at the cusp of his Raptor stint in February, 2019.
The links to the other articles in this series are provided at the end of this installment.  If you like the series, please share the articles with others on social media.

THE RAPTORS

Former Raptor Jeremy Lin signs with Beijing Shougang Ducks ...I happened to be in Toronto on February 13, 2019 – the night of Jeremy Lin’s debut as a Raptor -- and, delighted at my fortunate circumstance, I bought a ticket and wandered over to nearby Scotiabank Center.  It is hard to recapture the sense of opportunity in the air, both for the Raptors and for Lin.  The Raptors clearly were a team poised for a deep run in the playoffs, and Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri and GM Bobby Webster has just made the Big Move, securing Marc Gasol from Memphis for the stretch run.  Gasol would be the final piece in Ujiri’s go-for-broke-in-2019 strategy, the culmination of a roster overhaul that began with the stunning trade for Kawhi Leonard (with only a year left on his contract and a known predilection for this LA home) for franchise favorite DeMar DeRozan.  The overhaul also included the firing of NBA Coach of the Year Dwayne Casey, replacing him with long assistant Nick Nurse, also a highly controversial move.

The Lin pick-up was a modest one, but it was expected to pay immediate dividends.  Combo back-up guard Fred VanVleet has just torn ligaments in his thumb and would be sidelined indefinitely (for five weeks, as it turned), and Lin would slide into VanVleet’s slot behind perennial All-Star Kyle Lowry, and also perhaps see off-guard time next to Lowry along with the inconsistent Norman Powell.  The crowd that night included many Lin fans; one could never forget the huge roar that accompanied Lin’s buzzer-beater over the Raptors in the midst of Linsanity seven years before – an incredible roar for a visiting player who had just stuck a dagger into the home team.

A year ago, no one would have predicted Jeremy Lin could possible occupy such an auspicious role.  He had missed virtually the entire 2017-18 season, all but 25 minutes he logged in the Brooklyn Nets’ season opener before tearing a patella tendon, an injury that cost him not only the season, but also threatened to end his career.  In his absence, the Nets handed the ball to the newly acquired D’Angelo Russell and moved on, while Lin rehabbed in obscurity in Vancouver.  Eventually, over the summer of 2018, the Nets traded Lin to Atlanta, where Lin excelled as a backup to the rookie sensation Trae Young until his buy-out departure in February, 2019, which gave him a playoff opportunity with the Raptors.

It is perhaps instructive on the state of fortunes in the NBA to ponder the fates of those mentioned thus far, in just one short year.  After playoff heroics that brought home the Raptors’ first title, Leonard moved on to Clippers.  Far from being one-hit wonders, the champion Raps, while Leonard-less, are leading the East, champion contenders again.  VanVleet, more or less viewed as Lin’s equal at the time of Lin’s arrival one year ago (they were both averaging about 10.5 points per game, Lin the more efficient shooter and more natural point guard, VanVleet the better defender and long-range threat), has blossomed to the point where he is seen as a potential max player as a free agent this coming offseason.  Russell is gone from the Nets, traded to the Warriors after the Nets signed Kyrie Irving, as part of the deal that brought Kevin Durant to the Nets as well – and he has moved on from the Warriors as well, traded again to Minnesota.

And that takes us to Jeremy Lin, now in the CBA, after being unable to secure any deal with the NBA.

Lin’s brief saga in Toronto has been well-documented.  The short version: after a promising start, Lin played erratically, even poorly and never secured Nurse’s confidence.  When VanVleet finally returned, Lin’s role was sharply reduced.  He failed to crack the postseason rotation, and never played important minutes, even when VanVleet endured a horrendous, extended slump that was far worse than Lin’s regular season issues.  Lin emerged with a ring – no small accomplishment, the first NBA player with Asian roots to do so -- but his comeback storyline was tarnished in the process.

So what really happened in Toronto?  How did a player who, at one point in late December, 2018 was the only NBA guard shooting both 50% overall from the field and 40% from the three-point line, clearly outperforming expectations in Atlanta, fall so short of them in Toronto?

It started well.  In Lin’s first game in Toronto, against the Wizards (the game I attended), he filled the box score with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in 25 minutes.  He meshed well with Lowry and was on the floor for a decisive 15-0 run that put the game away.  He even nailed his first three-point attempt, though it was waived off due to a foul away from the ball.

Back after the All-Star break, Lin’s second game was even better, in another win, over San Antonio, in a nationally televised ESPN game.  Lin was quiet in the first half, but came alive, Linsanity style, in the fourth quarter before the home crowd.  In just under five minutes, Lin scored 9 points (out of the Raps’ 11), on a side-step jumper from the right elbow, a twisting lay-up that resulted in an old-fashioned three point play, a jumper from the left side, and another from the right that finally put the Raps ahead 101-100.  He also had a nifty wraparound pass to Serge Ibaka for a jam, took a charge on DeMar DeRozan, and pulled down a few rebounds.  The Raps won this game in memorable fashion, when Raptors-present Leonard stole the ball at midcourt with 18 seconds left from Raptors-past DeRozan, the returning hero, and won the game on the ensuing jam – a validating sign of Ujiri’s gamble and a portent of Kawhi’s heroics to come.

The cautionary sign, for Lin, in these first two games was his oh-for-six from the three-point line.  Lin had been having an incredibly inconsistent year from long range.  With Atlanta, he got off to a poor start (3-14, 21% in October), followed by a blistering November (23-48, 48%), and ended back at 26% (18-70) for his remaining time.  It would get worse in Toronto.

After the solid start in his first two games, Lin embarked on what was without question the worst stretch of his entire career.  Apart from simply going cold – he missed his next 11 three pointers to make it 17 in a row -- he simply looked lost, uncomfortable and tentative, not sure of his role.  Night after night he struggled, and while he had a few solid games with the Raptors, notably a 20-point outburst against Knicks, by and large it was a slog, an agony to watch.  And rookie Coach Nick Nurse simply had too much else on his mind to create situations where Lin could find himself.  When VanVleet finally came back, he played exceptionally well, and back-up shooting guard Norman Powell also stepped up his game, shooting a torrid 48% from the three after the All-Star break.  When the playoffs arrived, Nurse had his backcourt quartet cooking – Lowry, Danny Green, VanVleet and Powell – and there was no room for Lin.

The playoffs were a wondrous run for the Raps, as Leonard put the team on his shoulders and carried them to victory time and again.  Lowry ran the show admirably, Gasol, after a tepid regular season performance down the stretch, found his rhythm in the playoffs, and Danny Green played his 3-and-D wing role to the max.  The Raptors dispatched the Magic in five in the first round, but ran into an up and coming 76er team in the second round, who extended them to seven games.  The Raps beat the Sixers in Game 7 on the strength of a Leonard four-bouncer from the deep corner as time expired, that finally dropped for the 92-90 win, one for the ages.  And as they headed off to face the Bucks for the NBA Eastern Conference title, it was clear that only one part of the machine was amiss.

And that was Fred VanVleet.

VanVleet, for no good reason, was suddenly stuck in a slump of utterly epic proportions.  Against the 76ers, he was essentially unplayable, shooting 3-24 for the series and 1-14 from the three-point line.  VanVleet’s first 15 playoff games, a five-week span covering the entire Magic and 76er series plus the first three games against the Bucks, were so wretched that the unthinkable was suddenly on the table:  giving Jeremy Lin a shot.

Lin had had his troubles, for sure.  But there was no denying the numbers – VanVleet’s 15-game stretch in the playoffs was far worse than Lin’s worst 15-game stretch within his 23 games with the Raps.  In fact, there was no comparison, except that VanVleet’s came during the postseason.  The difference was that while Lin could not hit a three-pointer, he was still hitting about half of his two-point attempts.  VanVleet could not find the hoop from anywhere, making only a third of his two’s.

 Per Game
G
MP
FG%
2%
3%
FT%
RB
AS
ST
BL
TO
PF
PT
VanVleet
15
20
26
32
20
71
1.6
2.7
0.6
0.4
0.9
2.2
4.0
Lin
15
19
37
48
20
74
2.4
1.9
0.3
0.3
1.1
2.2
6.7

But Nick Nurse stuck with his man, and ultimately he was rewarded.  VanVleet, perhaps inspired by the birth of his son, found his game, with a vengeance, playing superbly in the final three games against Milwaukee and through the Golden State series, not only on offense but defending Steph Curry tenaciously as well.  His comeback culminated with a stunning fourth quarter performance in Game 7, when he hit a trio of treys and made three free throws as well, giving him 12 points at the most crucial of times.  In the case of Nick Nurse, sometimes it’s the buttons you don’t push that work out the best.

So there would be no playoff redemption for Lin, no positive note to end on – quite uncharacteristic for his career, when second half surges (notably in LA and in Brooklyn) would vindicate early season woes or injuries.  This was the opposite, and it plunged Lin into an offseason of uncertainly.

Why did Lin fail in Toronto?  There are a number of theories, and which you believe neatly defines where you stand in the polarized world of Jeremy Lin.  His supporters believe that Lin was simply worn down after a long comeback year, that anyone who misses a full year needs more than a year to recover (see:  Gordon Hayward).  Plus it was a new system, requiring more freelancing, and Lin never felt comfortable in it.  The pick and roll, Lin’s bread and butter, was not featured much in Toronto, and certainly not for him.  Furthermore, among Gasol’s world class talents is an ability to run an offense from the point, which further relegated Lin to a minimal offensive role.  And finally: everyone has a slump, and Lin’s simply occurred at the wrong time.  Nurse, notably loyal, probably never intended a big role for Lin in the playoffs to begin with; he was simply insurance, a quality fifth guard if injuries demanded one.
2019 NBA Finals - Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors : News Photo

The critics, on the other hand, simply wrote him off without consideration of any of these factors..  He’s washed up, lost his quick first step, never as good as Linsanity, a poor defender, can’t shoot the three.  For the detractors, Atlanta was a distant memory, the injury was discounted, and all that was left was that bad Raptor stint aftertaste.

But whatever one may make of Lin’s Toronto adventure, he won a championship ring there, experienced the ecstasy of a championship run, a parade and a celebration in a wonderful, cosmopolitan global city with teammates who supported him.  He was the first NBA champion of Asian descent, however limited his on-court contributions, and that is quite a distinction.


THE OFFSEASON

No one really saw it coming.  Despite the poor performance in Toronto, there was every expectation that Lin would find a job in the NBA without too much difficulty.  He had had a fine year overall, and would be stronger with the comeback year behind him (he had been notably cautious in training camp and in the very early days with the Hawks). 

While there would be no starter role for him at this stage of his career, he would certainly be among the better back-ups in the league.  He could play both positions.  He proved with Atlanta and Trae Young that he could be a mentor for a young point guard on a developing team, and he proved with Charlotte he could be a fine role player on a contending team.  He is notably a team-first player, a fine locker presence, and there can be little doubt of his global appeal, and strong draw in cities that have large Asian-American communities.  The NBA has become a guard-driven league, and there are simply not enough quality guards to fill the demand.  And, if it came to it, for a franchise that simply needs some juice to offset a poor product with little else to attract fans (did I say “New York Knicks?”) he would be a fine distraction.

With Lin part of the Raptors championship run, there was precious little time between that Game 7 climax on June 13 and the July 1 start to the free agency period, and Lin Nation filled it with speculation on which teams would be most likely to sign him.  It seemed a healthy enough list, and with few quality free agent point guards available, it seemed to be only a matter of time before the puzzle pieces fell into place and Lin found his slot.

The top free agents were the Celtics’ uber-talent Kyrie Irving and the long-suffering Kemba Walker of Charlotte.  After that, Darren Collison was next, but, surprisingly, he retired to pursue his religious convictions just days before the free agency period.  Other starters on the market included Ricky Rubio, Patrick Beverly, Goren Dragic and Rajon Rondo, and the latter two were aging (both 33) and coming off injury-riddled years.

These players would play musical chairs for the positions they vacated and others that were open, including the injured John Wall’s position in Washington, as Wall was expected to be out for the year.

Lin would compete with another group of players for back-up point guard positions, and there appeared to be a long list of openings.  Tony Parker was retiring, Atlanta, Phoenix and Miami ended the season without a proper back-up per se, and it seemed likely that Jose Calderon, Ray Felton and Devin Harris, all in their mid-30’s, were likely to be gone.  Lin stacked up well against his competition, a collection of fellow vets and callow youths.

But in the end, this was not a good season for veteran free agents.  Not only was Lin shut out, but so were bigger names, including, most prominently, Carmelo Anthony and Jamal Crawford, the latter having scored 50 points in his final game in 2020.  Apparently, NBA teams collectively decided to go with younger, less expensive projects than veteran talent.

Having said that, the Lin case stands alone.  It is hard to argue that Ish Smith, Isaiah Thomas, Michael-Carter Williams and Tim Frazier were more deserving than Lin, especially given the intangibles Lin could bring as a mentor, locker room presence and (more tangibly) as a global drawing card.  There is something insidious about Lin losing this particular game of musical chairs.  And that is, Lin was never going to be given the benefit of the doubt.  Dion Waiters, setting league standards for “conduct unbecoming to a team” continues to be thrown a million lifelines; Isaiah Thomas, almost surely the worst defensive player in the league and with greatly diminished offensive skills, receive shot after shot.  The NBA is populated with third-rate talents like Frank Jackson, Dennis Smith, Dante Exum, Brad Wanamaker and Gary Payton II, who still command roughly 15 minutes per game – and there is no room for Jeremy Lin?

Lin, always honest, perhaps to a fault, despaired publicly, and in tears, at a forum:

“I’ve given more of myself to God every single year and every year it gets harder. In English, there’s a saying, and it says, ‘once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way is up,'” Lin said at an event in Taiwan. “Rock bottom just seems to keep getting more and more rock bottom for me. So free agency has been tough, because I feel like in some ways the NBA’s kind of given up on me. I always knew that if I gave anyone a reason to doubt, they would.”

There is much we don’t know; it is certainly possible there were training camp invitations with no guarantee of a rotation spot, just a spot on the bench with no opportunity aside of injury.  But clearly Lin was not willing to take the chance to just sit it out and wait for the phone to ring, the choice made by Carmelo Anthony and Jamal Crawford.  After Steph Curry went down, who knows if early backer Joe Lacob might’ve had Warriors’ management give Lin a call.

But Lin had another opportunity that was indeed highly tempting.  And he acted.

On August 27, Lin signed a $3 million dollar a year contract with the Beijing Ducks of the China Basketball Association, binding him to the club until their season ended in March, leaving open the possibility of a late season NBA stretch.


CHINA  AND THE DUCKS

The CBA was an obvious choice for Lin, though not for most NBA fringe players.  The Euro League is the better league, with more talented players, by a wide margin.  But Lin’s ties to the Asian world made it the only choice for Lin, and he himself had hinted for years that his basketball journey would lead to China, albeit not quite this soon.  He is an icon there, and it seems likely that whatever his agent’s possible protestations that the Euro League would be the best path for a return trip to the NBA, Lin never seriously considered that alternative.

The CBA, as it is commonly referred to, even in China, was founded in 1995 and is a robust entity.  The nation is basketball-crazy and NBA legends such as Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are revered there.  China is a crucial market for the NBA.  When Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong, it infuriated the Chinese government so much they simply took the NBA off the air.  The freeze, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, cost the NBA “several hundred million dollars” in lost revenue.

The CBA has 21 teams with colorful names such as the Nanjing Monkey Kings and Sichuan Blue Whales.  They play a 43-game season in regimented rounds, moving lockstep through the year.  There are two conferences, a North and a South, and there is, of course, a postseason.

The league has self-imposed constraints on foreign players that directly impact the talent level of the league.  Each team can have only two such players on the roster at any one time; it can have more under contract, but only two can be on the active roster for any game.  And within the game, those two foreign players can only share the court only in the second and third quarters; they cannot both be on the floor in the first and fourth quarters.  This poses an obvious problem for teams, in that their foreign players are often their two best players, so they must be forced to choose which to go with at various points in the final quarter.  Obviously the Chinese are intent on developing their native players.

The CBA also plays by slightly different rules than the NBA and the Euro League.  Two important differences are a slightly closer three-point line, and the lack of a defensive three-second rule.  These rules, in particular the latter, have had very important consequences for Jeremy Lin, one helping the the weakest part of his game, his three-point shooting, the other hurting the strongest part, his ability to go to the hoop.

And the nature of the NBA, Euro League and CBA differ from one another.  While the NBA balances the individual with the team, the Euro League is more team-oriented while the CBA is more individually oriented.   In the NBA there are currently two players averaging more than 30 points per game, and 28 more averaging over 20..  The Euro League (which plays only 40 minute games), has only two players averaging more than 20 per game; the leading scorer, Alex Shved, averages 21.5.  The CBA, on the other hand, has six players scoring over 30 per game and 29 more averaging over 20.

The CBA’s ethos is that foreign players come here to shoot, and shoot often, and they are judged by their scoring totals more than, say, their contributions to winning championships.  Jimmer Fredette, a many-time NBA wash-out, is the poster child for CBA ball (from an American perspective); he averaged 37 points per game for three consecutive seasons with the Shanghai Sharks, hoisting 27 shots per game, including 12 three-point attempts.  (By contrast, noted NBA gunner James Harden averages only 23 shots a game, and 13 three-pointers.) 

The CBA is highly point-guard centric.  The premium the league puts on pace and scoring virtually demands that each team have a capable point guard, and most import them.  For point guards who have no particular aspirations to win championships, the CBA is a bit like heaven.  Of the top 11 scorers in the league, all averaging over 27 points per game, seven are point guards.

The Beijing Ducks are a storied franchise in the CBA, perennially achieving a winning record, with three CBA titles in the last decade.  This is largely due to the triumphant career of Stephon Marbury.  “Starbury” had a solid NBA career, a two-time All-Star and reliable 20 points-per-game scorer.  But after a reasonably unsuccessful stretch with the Knicks and a brief stint with the Celtics, he was waived out of the NBA at age 31.  He thus began a second career in the CBA, spending seven years with the same Beijing Ducks with whom Lin signed, winning those titles that had proved so elusive in the NBA.  He became a legend in China, honored by a statue, no less, outside the Ducks’ arena.  Retiring after the 2017-18 season, Marbury ultimately took on the position of head coach for the rival Beijing Royal Fighters, and he dresses for those games in traditional Chinese attire.

And so Jeremy Lin arrived in this context.  And if there was any thought that the season would settle into a routine of any kind, that notion was completely shattered.  This was to be yet another season of ups and downs for Jeremy Lin, with the “ups” on the court, the “downs” off it.


THE SEASON

Lin served notice that he had arrived in China right at the start of the exhibition season, when he dropped 40 points – more than his NBA career high of 38 – in his very first game.  This was surely a point of pride, an announcement that, far from beaten, he was ready to reassert himself at center stage.

And while he did not hit that marker during the regular season, he started off the regular season with 25 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds in an easy 103-81 Ducks’ win over the Tianjin Gold Lions.  In classic, slashing Lin style, he went straight to the rim, and was rewarded with 12 chances at the free throw line, making 11.  But the woes remained from the three-point line when he whiffed on all five attempts, and, befitting his return to “high usage” status, he also made 4 turnovers.

The Ducks won their first four games and six of their first seven, as Lin settled into a steady level of production, leading the team as he filled the box score.  Game after game Lin delivered big, with slash lines speaking to both his production and his consistency:  in the five games following his debut, he went for 24/8/6, 26/7/4, 27/7/6, 28/5/9 and 26/3/4.  

Jeremy Lin's double-double not enough as Beijing Ducks lose to ...Lin’s game also passed the eye test.  He was a more consistent performer than in the past, not only from game to game but also within the games, scoring less in Linsanity-esque spurts, but rather steadily accumulating points throughout games.  His production was particularly impressive because he was usually double- or even triple-teamed.  The Ducks would run the pick and roll time and again, and often the opposition big man would jump out to try to smother Lin with the double. 

And Lin took an utter pounding.  Far from showing any deference to the basketball legend in their midst, his CBA opponents seemed to be intent on bludgeoning him at will.  He was knocked to the floor a mind-boggling 25 times in his first three games, and the pace did not let up.  He relied quite a bit on his short mid-range game, using a turnaround jumper and side-step moves to great effect.  Lin was a top percentage shooter in the NBA last season from the “elbow” and he has continued to be extremely effective there in the CBA.

The lack of a defensive three-second violation rule meant that there were always big men clogging the lane, ready to thwart his drives.  This did not particularly inhibit him – note the average of nine free throws per game – but it did make it more difficult for him to close.

He also was no Jimmer Fredette; rather, he embraced the team concept, looked to involve everyone, and looked for the open man, especially when double-teamed.  Far from turning into a typical import mad bomber, he continued to be frugal with his shots – averaging only 16 field goals per game -- and efficient in his scoring, averaging 1.5 points per shot, well above the very respectable 1.3 PPS of his NBA career.

On the defensive side, he was a stalwart, the highest rated defensive point guard in the league.  No one could accuse him of conserving energy on the defensive end.  He continued to take charges proficiently, although he blocked shots at a lesser rate than in his NBA career, perhaps because Udoh and Hamilton were able to plant themselves down low and swat away the down low efforts of Lin’s opponents themselves.

And, importantly, Lin proved himself able to handle the pounding and avoid injury, missing only one game due to back spasms.

The Ducks are a good team by league standards.  They had finished the 2018-19 campaign with a 31-15 mark, good for fifth best in the league and a playoff run that extended to the second round.  Lin in effect replaced Aaron Jackson, who had had a fine season, joining his former Nets’ teammate, the center Justin Hamilton.  The Ducks had also signed a third foreign player, another center, Ekpe Udoh, who had played nearly 400 games in the NBA.  The signing of the trio ensured that each would have to sit for a while to conform to the two-foreign-player limit, and that was Udoh at the start.

The Ducks had several fine local players as well, notably the power forward Xioachaun Di and the slick ball-handling guard Shuo Fang, who as the year progressed began to split point guard duties with Lin, as a means of reducing the battering Lin was taking.  The team was coached by Yannis Christopoulus, in his third year, a Greek coaching lifer who is an animated presence on the sidelines.

As the season progressed, Lin’s solid play if anything improved, most notably with the long-awaited return of the three-pointer to his arsenal.  Lin upped his long range proficiency from 32% in November -- not much better than the weak 29% he had compiled over his wildly inconsistent long-range shooting in 2018-19 -- to 44% in December, and his overall shooting percentage climbed to 49%.  He racked up nine free throws per game and was hitting 89% of them (higher than in any of his NBA seasons), continued to average six rebounds and assists per game, while cutting his turnovers down from four to three.

But this fine run on the court was darkly interrupted by a stretch of personal tragedy for Lin and the Ducks.  First in late November, a man described as Lin’s closest friend, the Taiwanese-Canadian actor Godfrey Gao, just 35 years old, died suddenly of cardiac arrest when filming a television show.  Just over a week later, former Ducks’ captain Ji Zhe, died of lung cancer at age 33.  These tragic deaths would cast a shadow over the early part of the season, but more was to come.

Far from letting these tragedies affect his play, Lin rose to the moment.  He went for his CBA high of 36 on December 3, hitting 10 of 16 from the field (2-5 from long range), 14-14 from the free throw line, and adding 8 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and no turnovers in a 109-86 win over the Guangzhou Loong Lions. 

Less than a week later, he recorded his top moment, when the Ducks honored Zhe with a ceremony that saw the late captain’s #51 jersey retired.  In the game that followed, the emotionally drained Ducks battled a middling Shenzhen Aviators team in a nip and tuck affair.  The Aviators pulled ahead with two seconds left, 100-99 on a steal and a trey.  The Ducks had no timeouts to call, so Di inbounded to Lin, who caught it near midcourt, surrounded by three defenders.  Lin quickly sidestepped two of the defenders, crossed midcourt and let fly, managing to draw contact from the remaining defender on the way up.  Sure enough, he got the call, and calmly sank all three free throws with no time on the clock for a thrilling win for the mourning home crowd.  For the night, Lin put up his typical 25/6/4 slash line. 

The Ducks ended December with an excellent 15-8 record, well in the playoff hunt.  Justin Hamilton had played extremely well in the month of November, and when Udoh replaced him on the roster in December, there was no fall-off.  Both essentially were 20/10 players and integral to the Ducks’ success, and Udoh was a ferocious shock blocker as well, averaging nearly 5 blocks per game.  But come January, a month with fewer games due to the Chinese New Year and All Star break, it was Lin’s turn (in a pre-arranged agreement) to sit while Hamilton and Udoh were both active.

This plan did not last long. 

The Ducks managed to win two games without Lin, over lowly Sichuan and Tianjin, but then were crushed by a Shandong team in the thick of the playoff hunt, by a staggering 37 points. The Ducks managed to beat another weak team before heading into the All-Star break.

Lin was back for the All-Star game itself, and it was a rousing show.  He led both teams in scoring with 41 points, though 18 of those points came in an inventive one-on-one game that followed the first quarter, featuring Lin against the Southern Divisions’ star Zhuo Rui.  Lin played a strong game overall, and lost out on the MVP to Rui as the South eked out a 167-166 win.

Back to the regular season and the Ducks played another playoff contender, Qingdau, and again were crushed, this time by 23 points.  With that loss, Ducks’ management had seen enough, and truncated the rotation plan, restoring Lin to the roster well before the end of the month.  Lin was rusty, but played well enough to lead the Ducks to two straight wins, before another loss brought their record to 19-11.

And then all hell broke loose.


TRAGEDY…AND FAR WORSE

It was on December 31st that the World Health Organization made its first public announcement about a novel coronavirus, officially termed “COVID-19,” in the city of Wuhan in the eastern part of China.  By the end of January, there were nearly 12,000 cases of the virus and more than 200 deaths, and it was time for decisive action.  China responded in many ways, limiting flights and instituting quarantines.  Among those actions was the suspension of the CBA season indefinitely, which was announced in late January, when the league was on the New Year hiatus.  Quite abruptly, Jeremy Lin’s season was on hold, after he had played in only 24 games.

During the New Year hiatus, Lin received word that the CBA would be suspended, so he headed home to Palo Alto to wait it out on January 25.   And yet another bombshell had occurred – the unbelievable death of former Lakers’ superstar Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash north of Los Angeles, on January 26.

Lin was among the first from the extended NBA community to offer his condolences via his Twitter account:  “Uhhhh, Noooo…life is too precious.  RIP Kobe.”  And later on Instagram:  “RIP Kobe From sharing the same bday to opponents to teammates … respect for everything you did for the game and world. Gone too soon, life’s truly too precious #legend.”

The true nature of Lin’s relationship with Bryant is unknown.  The most newsworthy aspects were generally of the negative variety, many of them indelible.  From the Linsanity days, there was Kobe’s press conference prior to his first game versus Lin in the midst of Linsanity, when he declaimed any knowledge of Lin.  That night, of course, Lin torched the Lakers in response for 38 unforgettable points and a win. 

Jeremy Lin Recalls The Time Kobe Called Some Of His Teammates Bums
Once Lin became teammates with an aging Bryant on the Lakers, the two were not a good fit – for the third time in his career, Lin was the point guard who needs the ball matched up with a usage-sucking superstar (Bryant following Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks and James Harden with the Rockets).  And there were a series of incidents that appeared to cast Bryant and Lin in adversarial roles.  There was Bryant widely reported taunt that his teammates, including Lin, were “soft as Charmin”; there was Bryant rushing to commit a foul to stop the clock in a close game, racing by Lin, who had been instructed by Coach Byron Scott to wait until the 10-second mark to do the same; and the celebrated “wave-off” by Lin, in the closing minutes of another close game, when Lin ignored Bryant, who was plainly calling for the ball, and instead made an astonishing three-pointer over Chris Paul as the 24-second clock wound down.

But the backstory is almost certainly more mixed and perhaps even positive.  Certainly Lin has made many more positive statements about Kobe than he has about either Anthony or Harden.  In their first camp together, Lin referred to Bryant as a mentor, helping him to be a better defender.  Through the season Lin said Kobe and he would exchange texts designed to help him improve his game.  And in his death Lin certainly focused on the positives in their relationship.

As the pandemic spread across the planet, jumping to each continent with massive deadly consequences – as of this writing, there have been more than 8.6 million cases and over 450,000 deaths -- Lin took on an outsized role in the sports world.  He became a notable and loud voice in defense of Asians who had been victimized by prejudice and racism in the wake of the virus, earning headlines by ripping Donald Trump directly on Twitter:

I wish you would powerfully support the vulnerable people that will suffer due to our mismanagement of this virus, including those that will be affected by the racism you’re empowering


NBA, Jeremy Lin, Donald TrumpLin wrote a long article on The Player’s Tribune, calling for unity in the face of the scourge.  He wrote another reflective piece on his Instagram account, reflecting on the entire range of tragedy that he had personally endured and witnessed over a period of months:

 “Time flies and life is a blur. As I sit back and reflect, all I can say is this past year has been so crazy. The NBA and China’s relationship soured, my friend Godfrey suddenly died filming on set, last year’s Beijing Ducks captain G-Man was diagnosed w a terminal disease midseason and passed away, the coronavirus became a global health emergency, and Kobe/Gianna/7 others passed away in a tragic accident….Today isn’t guaranteed. Tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. Nothing in life is guaranteed. Live life to the fullest, pursue the best version of yourself. If you aren’t content along the journey, you won’t be content at your destination. I learned this lesson the hard way. Find joy, find purpose, find truth. Love radically, serve generously.

Life is too short and too precious for time to be wasted. I’ve lived in China this past season and now being back on US soil, I’m saddened by the racist comments regarding the virus in China. There are real people suffering and real heroes working around the clock in service to others - please don’t let your fear or ignorance rob you of seeing that. This world needs more compassion and empathy. We are all imperfect humans - we all need grace. You have one life to live, focus on what really matters in life. And pray that God blesses us with the chance to see tmrw 🙏

And he backed his words with actions, donating $1 million to coronavirus relief agencies, among the first athletes to step up to the crisis.

He even made basketball news, revealing that, back in 2012 when he was a free agent, he had pleaded with his agent to get the Houston Rockets to lower their “poison pill” offer to make it easier for the Knicks to match, undercutting whatever doubt may have still existed that Lin wanted to return to New York that fateful summer.  And, after nearly a decade of being whitewashed out of Knick history, the Knick-owned MSG channel approached Lin about finally replaying every game from the Linsanity run on the cable channel, a surefire ratings booster in the barren landscape of sports programming.

Finally, after one false start in April, the CBA announced it would resume play on June 20, with the remainder of the season to be held in two locations, and a new schedule announced with 13 more games per team, for a total season of 38, slightly shorter than usual.  The regular season would end in late July, to be followed by the playoffs.


AN ASSESSMENT

With the season about to re-start, we can ask, how has Lin fared so far in China?

Evaluations of Lin’s play in China are in the eyes of the beholder, of course, and as always.  His detractors lead with the very fact of the CBA itself; even the most sublime performance would be discounted simply because of the fact that the CBA is a far cry from the NBA.  And if that was not enough, they would point to the seven point guards, most of them NBA wash-outs, who have compiled loftier scoring averages than Lin.  And still others might say that Lin has a long way ahead to match Marbury’s championship record yet, that the Ducks are not among the league’s elite teams.

Yes, it was certainly to be expected that anything short of Fredette’s points per game combined with Marbury’s ring would be a disappointment to some.   But Lin was never, ever going to hoist them up at a Fredette rate.  He has always been a selective and efficient shooter, and, while a score-first guard, has always sought to involve his teammates and, of course, plays only to win.

But the stat to date is nevertheless exceedingly impressive, as Lin sports a 24/6/6 slash line, driven by excellent shooting percentages across the board. 

MPG
Pct.
2FG%
3FG%
Pct.
REB
AST
STL
BLK
TO
PTS
34.2
47.7%
51.6%
36.2%
82.7%
5.8
5.8
1.8
0.2
3.5
24.1

It is important to note that Lin is averaging only 16 shots per game, far fewer than his point guard counterparts (Dominique Jones, who leads the CBA in scoring at 38 points per game, is averaging 27 shots per game).

Simply stated, he is playing winning basketball, as evidenced by his team’s 19-11 record.  He dominates the ball on the Ducks, evidenced by his usage rate of 33.5%, and makes the team click.  Using more advanced stats, he has a 116 offensive rating and a 106 defensive rating (tops among point guards) for a net +10.  His play may not bring a championship to the Ducks – the Guangdong Southern Tigers, featuring China legend Yi Jianlian and Marshon Brooks, who is having a splendid season and probably deserves a shot in the NBA – are 28-2 and dominating the CBA.  But he has earned high marks for his team play, stayed true to his game, stayed healthy and simply played superbly.


WHAT NEXT?

The question becomes, what next for Jeremy Lin, after the 2019/20 season concludes?  (It does not appear that he will be eligible to sign with an NBA team for this year’s playoffs, even if the timing worked.)

This is, of course, a two-part question:  the first is, will Lin receive any legitimate NBA offers, that is, with a commitment for a rotation slot, not merely a seat on the bench?  And then, even if he gets one, will he return to the NBA, or continue in China, which, on the court, has been an excellent experience for him?

There is only one thing clear about the NBA free agent season that emerges later this year – it is not a very exciting class.  Anthony Davis is the only superstar in the group, and it would be a stunner if he did not return to the Lakers.  It’s a pretty big drop-off from there, down to Brandon Ingram, DeMar DeRozen, Gordon Hayward, Danilo Gallinari and Fred VanVleet as the next big five – all solid players, but none in the superstar category.

More germane to Jeremy Lin’s prospects, not one NBA starting point guard is a free agent.  Every single starter is signed through at least 2020/21.

There will be a very healthy market at the backup point guard position, so the game of musical chairs will begin.  There is no particular reason to think that Lin, one year older (at 32 as of his birthday in August), and a year removed from the NBA, will be in demand.  On the other hand, he has certainly proved that his has completed his comeback, his body is healthy and his game is sharp. 

His has a number of assets to offer, as always – the ability to play both guard positions, his ability to penetrate and break down defenses, draw fouls and his short range game.  He has re-discovered a capable three-point shot, and continues to play passable (and long-underrated defense), with a knack for taking charges.  Most importantly, he can run a second unit proficiently, and provide a scoring boost.  He still has the ability the deliver those Linsanity runs that can win games.  And those intangibles remain: his locker room presence, his ability to mentor young players and his global appeal.

It is interesting to note that backup point guards in the NBA are a bifurcated group:  they are either young and developing, or older, but not ancient, veterans (like Lin) who used to command starting roles.  You don’t find many back-up point guards who are 25 to 27 years old.  They are either on the way up or on the way down.

So, let’s break the 30 NBA teams down into two categories:  teams that are set with a signed, capable back-up point guard and those who are not.  Here are the back-ups in the “set” category; the back-up is solid and signed, or the teams feature two point guards in the starting backcourt, one of whom is on the court to run the team at any given time.  Also included in the charts are the backup’s free agent status, minutes played and Player Efficiency Rating, a catch-all advanced stat pegged to an NBA average of 15.0 (it is a fine stat for offensive play, but not so much for the defensive side).  Presumably none of these teams will be in the market for a rotation point guard.

Teams that Appear to be "All Set"
Team
Backup Point Guard
Age
Free Agent Status
MP
PER
(Irving/Dinwiddie)

signed


(Rozier/Graham)

signed


Brunson
23
signed
17.9
15.0
M. Morris
24
signed
21.6
14.9
(Harden/Westbrook)

signed


27
signed
18.9
16.2
A. Holiday
23
signed
23.6
11.7
Hill
33
signed
21.2
17.5
Schröder
26
signed
31.0
16.8
Burke
27
signed
13.2
15.4
Mills
31
signed
22.7
14.7

And below are the teams that will be playing musical chairs before next season.  Most have backup point guards who are either free agents or underachievers.  They will try to either fill or upgrade their backup point guard slot with someone on this list (including re-signing their own), or an up-and-comer (currently a third-stringer or a G-League prospect), a draft pick – or perhaps Jeremy Lin.  The NBA draft is not viewed as a particularly strong one, without many immediate impact players, and probably none among the highest point guards.  

Teams that are not "All Set"
Team
Backup Point Guard
Age
Free Agent Status
Minutes Played
PER
Comments
Rondo
33
PO
20.5
12.4
LAL looking for an upgrade
(Dunn/Satoransky)

Dunn RFA


If Dunn goes, may be potential
Wanamaker
30
RFA
19.3
11.8
Lin would be an upgrade
Carter
24
RFA
15.1
10.4
PHO has many young PGs
F. Jackson
21
RFA
12.9
7.7
J. Holiday also can play PG
(Lillard/McCollum)

    signed


POR went without backup PG
(Lowry/VanVleet)

FVV RFA


Not an option for Lin
MINN
23
UFA
19.7
16.3
Young and very talented
MIA
33
UFA
28.4
15.9
This is the Lin peer group, all longstanding veterans except for Mudiay.  All are UFA.  At this stage, Lin is middle of the pack of this group, certainly an upgrade over Mudiay, Knight and Della.
R. Jackson
29
UFA
24.2
15.0
Teague
31
UFA
24.8
14.6
WAS
28
UFA
24.2
14.5
Augustin
32
UFA
24.8
14.2
Mudiay
23
UFA
15.7
13.7
Knight
28
UFA
18.5
8.5
Dellavedova
29
UFA
14.4
8.1
Bowman
22
signed
22.6
9.2
Steph needs a back-up
Ntilikina
21
signed
20.8
9.8
Frank young, still raw
Joseph
28
signed
24.0
10.3
Joseph adequate

Celtics beat Hawks 129-108 — Boston Celtics — Bangor Daily News ...My favorite opportunity here for Lin is with Boston.  Brad Wanamaker is not a quality back-up for a playoff team, and Boston is surely a contender.  Neither youngsters Tremont Waters nor Carsen Edwards are likely to be capable options.  You want a proven quantity at the position.  Brad Stevens has long been a Lin fan.  And, of course, Kemba Walker is a fan of Lin’s from their time in Charlotte, where they worked together well. 

Having said all that, Lin is already in a sweet spot.  He’s the face of the CBA, playing in front of throngs of adoring fans, getting a steady diet of 34 minutes per game, controlling the action and piling up numbers in a winning situation.  That may be hard to walk away from.

I suspect, though, that pride would dictate a return to the NBA if the situation was promising.  Lin craves the top competition, and it would be a sensational comeback story were he to succeed once again under the  brightest of lights.

But regardless, any NBA future will likely depend in large measure on Lin’s performance in these last 13 games and then the postseason.  If he does not maintain his “first half” pace, that will be forgotten -- as Lin painfully learned last year.  And it all begins tomorrow, Saturday morning at 7:30 AM ET.


Here are the first five Jeremy Lin articles in this series, in order, starting with 2015.



1 comment:

  1. "He was the first NBA champion of Asian descent, however limited his on-court contributions, and that is quite a distinction."

    Mengke Bateer would like a word.

    ReplyDelete

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