Jeremy Lin, a starter for now, relishes fresh beginning with Lakers
Jeremy Lin found out he'd be the Lakers’ starting point guard in peculiar fashion. Magic Johnson vouched for Lin last Wednesday, shortly after Steve Nash was ruled out for the season with a back injury. And yet coach Byron Scott, Johnson’s Showtime backcourt partner, delayed his decision until after Ronnie Price bruised his right knee in the preseason finale on Friday. Once Scott was ready to choose Lin as the starter for Tuesday’s opener against the Rockets in Los Angeles, he informed reporters before telling Lin or his teammates.
Many NBA players might be taken aback by not receiving a direct show of support or a team-wide pronouncement, but the world learned at the beginning of Linsanity in 2012 that Lin isn’t easily included in the group of many NBA players. In less than eight months he went from the D-League, to the toast of the Big Apple and global superstardom, to a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet with Houston that went unmatched by the Knicks. During his first year with the Rockets, Lin transitioned quickly from presumptive No. 1 option to second fiddle behind James Harden, who was acquired on the eve of the '12-13 season. In his second season in Houston, Lin lost his starting job to Patrick Beverley, and then his jersey number to Carmelo Anthony during an offseason recruiting pitch. Those hard, fast turns of fortune have left Lin sounding cautious, too aware of what might happen next to bother celebrating.
“[Being named starter] is more like a game-to-game thing than a permanent thing,” Lin told SI.com by telephone on Sunday, a few hours after learning the news from the media. “I know how fast things can change. … If [coming off the bench] is what the team needs, I’ve shown I’ll make sacrifices.”
Don’t mistake his humble hesitancy for a lack of desire. Lin has admitted deep disappointment about his struggles in Houston, and those feelings are a prime motivator this season. He is also not afraid to stake his claim to the starting job, even if that means sharing minutes and touches with Kobe Bryant.
"Starting has always been a goal for any team that I’ve been on,” said Lin, who expressed his appreciation for Johnson’s public endorsement. “Part of me is like, Wow, Magic knows who I am. The fact that he thinks what he thinks, I’m blown away by it.”
That L.A.'s point guard spot remained in question for so long is somewhat surprising. By any objective analysis, Lin is easily the team's best floor leader. Nash, 40, was set to be the league’s oldest player after appearing in only 15 games last season. Price, 31, hasn’t posted a Player Efficiency Rating above 10.0 since 2009-10 and he is on his fifth team in five years. Rookie Jordan Clarkson has potential, but he wasn’t selected until No. 46. Lin, 26, is far from perfect, but he averaged 12.5 points and 4.1 assists last season, shot a respectable 35.8 percent from three-point range and posted a PER (14.3) just below the league average of 15.0.
Scott’s indecision throughout the preseason, though, stemmed from two major factors: injuries and roster fit. In early October, before Nash and Price were injured, Los Angeles lost its premier bench scorer, shooting guard Nick Young, for eight weeks because of right-thumb surgery. Assorted other Lakers -- including shooting guard Wayne Ellington, swingman Xavier Henry and power forward Ryan Kelly -- are also banged up. Using Lin and Bryant together, then, could leave the Lakers with a feeble second unit. Spacing out their minutes, on the other hand, could provide stability over 48 minutes.
But the fit question loomed larger. Are Bryant and Lin redundant as scoring guards, or can they be complementary? Would using a stand-in starter such as Price allow Scott to maximize the offensive abilities of Bryant and Lin by staggering more of their minutes?
Lin faced the same question about sharing the ball in both New York, with Anthony, and Houston, with Harden. Last season Rockets coach Kevin McHale paired Harden with the defensive-minded Beverley in the first unit (Lin ended up starting 33 games because of injuries to Beverley), a duo that posted an excellent plus-10.4 net rating in 1,245 minutes, topping the strong plus-7.6 net rating achieved by Harden/Lin in 1,339 minutes.
“The Rockets were on to something using Lin as a third guard because he needs the ball to be effective,” a rival scout said. “He’s not a bad shooter and he plays with such good pace. His biggest strength is putting pressure on the defense off the dribble and in transition. His challenge will be to play off Kobe. He has to grow his offensive game for that to work.”
Lin believes his time with Harden has prepared him for life with Bryant.
“I challenged myself to become a multidimensional player because James was ball-dominant,” Lin said. “I became a better spot shooter, a better cutter, and I got better at moving without the ball.”
After training with Bryant for a week of early-morning, no-nonsense sessions over the summer, Lin says he is “definitely comfortable” playing with the Lakers' alpha dog. Though Lin joked that Kobe is “always in his ear,” he added that the coaching has been “very, very helpful” and that he’s “very excited” to team with the 36-year-old Bryant.
“He's telling me that he’s the elbow [near the free throw line] and below, and I’m the elbow and up,” Lin said of Bryant, referring to positioning on offense. “I’ve got the top of the key and the pick-and-rolls; he’s got the low-post isos and playing from the block.”
While that sounds simple enough, the Lakers’ approach has raised eyebrows during the preseason. Scott made headlines when he suggested that three-pointers “don’t win championships,” even as many recent title teams have been lethal from beyond the arc. Critics pounced after the Lakers failed to make a three (on just five attempts) in a blowout loss to the Jazz. Lin feels the detractors missed the point, as Bryant’s mid-range game and the Lakers’ Princeton offense will naturally combine to produce fewer threes.
“That was a little overblown,” he said. “Every time we have an open three, [Scott] definitely wants us to take it. That’s the right shot. He just wants us to take good shots, be patient with the offense and trust it.”
Trust will be a defining theme for Lin, who enters a contract year with new teammates and a new coach, hardened -- pun somewhat intended -- by his experience in Houston. In August 2013, Lin spoke candidly about feeling “tired and weary” during his first season with the Rockets because he failed to live up to the hype. Those feelings continued in 2013-14, he acknowledges, in part because he was demoted for Beverley.
The sting of his benching was followed by an uncomfortable summer moment. Part of Houston’s free-agent wooing of Anthony involved images of him in a No. 7 Rockets jersey, which still belonged to Lin because he hadn’t been traded to the Lakers yet. Lin said he felt “disrespected,” and the story played out over multiple news cycles before Anthony decided to re-sign with New York.
“That [situation] got blown out of proportion,” Lin said. “I’m so far beyond that. It became a bigger deal than it needed to be. I wasn’t as offended as everyone guessed that I was. [The jersey-number pitch] happened, it was fine, it probably wasn’t the best way to go about it. I feel like people were talking about it for a long time and I didn’t think it was worth mentioning.”
Still, that storyline makes for a juicy revenge angle on Tuesday, though Lin is doing his best to downplay it.
“When the NBA was planning opening night, they weren’t thinking about me getting traded,” Lin said. “It’s the Kobe and Dwight [Howard] thing. This is the first time they’ve played each other [since Howard's free-agent departure in 2013]. My trade is just a subplot to the main story.”
Regardless of the result, the collective presence of Bryant, Howard, Harden, Lin and Beverley at Staples Center will make for must-see intrigue. The Rockets face big expectations in 2014-15, with their two All-Stars looking to win their first playoff series together, while the Lakers are viewed as a likely lottery team. Lin isn’t looking back at what could have been, though.
“I’m in a better place now,” Lin said. “There’s more opportunity for me here. No knock against anybody in Houston. The reality of the situation here is there’s a lot more room for me to be aggressive.”
More from Lin
• Bryant’s advice for Lin has extended to the defensive end, where Lin has long been considered a liability. Bryant, a 12-time All-Defensive selection whose defense has gotten less attentive later in his career, is preaching the importance of studying “nuances” and opponent tendencies.
“[Bryant is] challenging me to be a great defensive player,” Lin said. “He thinks I have the tools to do it. … I’ve gotten better at containing dribble penetration and staying attached, fighting through picks. I’m more solid, I make fewer gambles, I make it more difficult on the offensive player. I’m better at getting deflections and trying to be disruptive.”
• Beverley told the Houston Chronicle this week that Lin helped him work on his offense, even though the two were competing for the same position. Lin’s reply: “I’m really cool with [Beverley]. He will definitely be a friend forever. We taught each other a lot. He taught me a lot about defense."
• The Bay Area-raised Lin is enthused about playing in his home state, but he says he hasn’t thought about whether the Lakers would be a good fit for him past this season.
“My career has had highs and lows, but I try to enjoy each day," Lin said. "I haven’t really thought that far ahead [about my next contract]. I’m still worried about Tuesday. Five years into my career, with everything that has happened, you can’t sit here worrying about it and thinking about it. You just kind of go with it and allow it to happen the way it’s supposed to.”