The Fundamentals: Lin facing new challenges during his second act
By Rob Mahoney
When Jeremy Lin was at the height of his fame back in February, he was billed first and foremost as a great story, his meteoric rise creating a cyclone of narrative power. As an undrafted, twice-waived Taiwanese-American putting up All-Star numbers for one of the most visible basketball teams on the planet, Lin's career launch was prime for packaging and widespread consumption.
But in condensing Lin's 2011-12 tale into a self-contained drama sold through headlines or products, many ignored the fact that the Knicks were merely his first act. He was quickly established as an unlikely protagonist and showed early and massive success in his nationally televised call to action. It made for good basketball and better television, but his first real NBA tour was far too saccharine (and later much too unfortunate) to be a real, complete narrative. No career is without struggles. The madness of "Linsanity" eventually faded, and this offseason, Lin made a high-profile move from New York to Houston, where he is being challenged like never before.
A capable prospect of a point guard, Lin now stands disconnected from his fairy-tale roots, as all principal characters are when the tone begins to shift in Act 2.
Lin hasn't been horrible this season (10.3 points, 7.0 assists, 2.2 steals and a 13.8 Player Efficiency Rating in 34.3 minutes a game), but he also hasn't yet mustered the kind of production or efficiency that made his rise in New York so staggering. Opposing defenses -- through concentrated scouting and a more standard NBA schedule -- have made him look entirely mortal.
That attention has revealed certain limitations in Lin's game. His ability to function as a team's primary playmaker was overstated by his 2011-12 performance -- misrepresented not by a small sample size, but by defenders who at first underestimated and then overcompensated for his potential impact. Lin was more than capable of exploiting the lack of public familiarity with his game and equally good at attacking defenses that paid a bit too much attention to his drives and lost track of Tyson Chandler, Steve Novak and Landry Fields in the process. Yet with all of that balanced out in Houston, Lin is left to work against informed defenses that understand how to best challenge him.
Lin's great secret is that he was able to average 19.6 points and 8.3 assists per 36 minutes a season ago without much aptitude for reading help defense. Even in his brightest moments, he still played like a summer league standout, with straight-line drives and good finishes at the rim building the foundation of his game. Lin lacked the kind of spatial creativity or elite athleticism demonstrated by the league's best point guards. This isn't to say that Lin's success was some kind of mirage, but merely that it offered a less stable base for immediate growth than initially thought. He handles the ball well, can get by his defender consistently and makes an effort to attack the basket. But Lin doesn't yet have a firm grip of how his opponents might counter his initial move, leaving him blind to an opposing big man castling across the lane or the instant checkmate often brought on by his jump passing.
And about that jump passing: Lin has the annoying habit of leaving his feet without the slightest idea of where he's going, which is a drag on both his turnover rate and shooting percentage. Typically, this kind of move is the crutch of the athletically dominant, but Lin appears to have repurposed it to his own detriment, likely for the exact opposite reason. Nothing that Lin does is particularly explosive, and as a result, the 24-year-old point guard works toward the rim by way of some unconventional timing. He tends to lift off for layup attempts far earlier than he probably should -- a move that allows him to get the best of some defenders, but also leaves him incredibly vulnerable to disciplined opponents. Essentially, Lin creates a very slim advantage by giving up his dribble and forcing himself to make a judgment call within a single-second window. In that second, Lin isn't going through progressions; he's forcing himself to fully analyze a situation that he seemingly failed to properly measure up beforehand.
The idea behind that move isn't entirely wrong, but it almost completely erases Lin's margin for error and eliminates the possibility of forcing opponents to defend anything more than basic drive-and-kick sequences. Those kinds of plays can create a quick reward for skilled players, but they forsake the offense's position of power. The best thing that an offense can do is dictate the game in a way that forces opponents to make decision after decision after decision. The most stingy team defenses, after all, need to be torn from within by continuous stretching in uncomfortable ways. Lin hasn't yet shown the capacity to execute that kind of persistent operation.
That limitation is only accented by the fact that Lin struggles to create any positive impact when he doesn't have the ball in his hands -- a scenario made all the more frequent by Houston's acquisition of James Harden. An erratic shooting stroke makes Lin (who is hitting 25.8 percent from three-point range and 34.3 percent overall) an unreliable weak-side option, and yet when Harden initiates from the perimeter, the Rockets have few other options in terms of placement. And so Lin stands ready on the opposite wing, poised to hoist up a shot that the defense wants him to take or ready to counter-drive with the hope that the D doesn't rotate in time. Despite his shooting limitations, there's little actual cutting to speak of in Lin's game and no contribution to the offense's spacing through off-ball movement. Lin simply waits to be called on, as if the leather on his fingertips transforms him from witness into ballplayer.
Some of that falls on Lin, but Kevin McHale, Kelvin Sampson and the rest of the Rockets' coaching staff aren't excused from the blame for this kind of off-ball inactivity. Defenses are far too sophisticated for a non-shooter to take the floor without any cutting directives, and based on the way that Lin has played without the ball, it seems fair to assume that he hasn't exactly been put in a position to succeed. Houston isn't a bad offensive team, but merely an unimaginative (and possibly under-structured) one in need of more strategic synergy between its two primary ball-handlers.
That said, only so much can be done to account for the fact that Lin has been relatively useless away from the ball, but isn't yet good enough to demand control of it. That makes Harden both the better high-usage ball-handler and the better weak-side option -- a tilt of the backcourt that creates a tactical quandary every trip down the floor. A resolution to that particular issue is certainly within Lin's grasp, provided that his development propels him forward in a matter befitting the lead in any successful second act. Lin's narrative, however unique it may seem, is bound by a very traditional structure. After all, what great story is without its mid-course hardship?
A look at some of the relevant quantitative trends and tidbits emerging around the league.
• As the season teeters on the edge of the "wait-and-see" precipice, it's growing more and more appropriate to question the long-term integrity of the Celtics' defense. Boston has never ranked lower than fifth in points allowed per possession since importing Kevin Garnett in 2007, and yet the C's stand 22nd after surrendering 103 points to the Pistons in a 20-point loss Sunday. There's still a lifetime to go before the playoffs, but for now the degradation of the league's most consistent defense has cast some doubt on the Eastern Conference hierarchy. With both the Celtics and Pacers underwhelming, might the Knicks actually wind up as the second-best team in the East?
• The ability to pile up free-throw attempts is beneficial not only to a player's individual production but also a team's greater hope of scoring efficiency. As such, those who are able to draw fouls and create uncontested points from the free-throw line with any consistency are highly valuable -- and typically among the most effective offensive players in the league. But if we look at which players are averaging the most free-throw attempts per minute this season, a few surprising names pop up. Harden, Lou Williams, Paul Pierce and Dwight Howard round out the usual suspects, but scattered throughout the top 10 are the Pacers' Tyler Hansbrough (second), the Lakers' Jordan Hill (fifth), the Hornets' Jason Smith (sixth) and the Bobcats' Ramon Sessions (seventh). It's still hard to read too much into those standings, but the work done by those role players has been fairly impressive -- particularly considering the limited touches of Hill, Smith and Hansbrough.
THOUGHTS FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. From the mind of Scott Brooks
Sunday's game between the Thunder and Warriors featured a defensive cross-match born of neither convention nor basketball logic -- the kind of tweak that would go entirely unconsidered by most coaches and likely laughed off by the rest. For a few minutes, the Thunder's Brooks switched Russell Westbrook off of Stephen Curry -- and replaced him with Kendrick Perkins. Not only that: Brooks had Perkins pressuring Curry full-court in what was likely the most curious implementation of the one-man press that the NBA has ever seen. The Warriors scored on three of their four ensuing (non-transition) possessions, all tied in some way to the down-the-line switching that resulted from Brooks' little gambit. Baffling though it was to see Perkins waddle-press Curry in the backcourt, I wish more regular-season games were marked by such experimentation.
2. Jerry Stackhouse, NBA regular
Brooklyn has an incredibly unreliable bench, but even that isn't reason enough for the 38-year-old Stackhouse -- who last played at a league-average level in 2007 -- to get regular minutes. But Stackhouse has played 15 minutes a night for the Nets over the last five games and made the occasional shot while playing predictably lacking defense. There comes a point where age gets the better of every talented player, and I wish that moment hadn't already come for Stackhouse. But it has, and throwing him into the fire against players far quicker than him won't rejuvenate tired legs or undo the gradual decline of his game.
3. James Harden's indifference to the shot clock
Harden has always had a bit of a callousness to his game when it comes to the shot clock, but now that he has the green light of all green lights in Houston, his tendency to launch jumpers with 20 seconds or so left in a given possession has become all the more prevalent. This isn't a value judgment, really; Harden uses those early chances to create both good opportunities and bad ones. But it's interesting that the shot clock seems to have no real bearing on his determination of shot quality, to the point where Harden doesn't hesitate in the slightest when taking pull-up three after pull-up three immediately after bringing the ball up the court.
Plus: This could be one of those odd intangible areas that ultimately irritates Harden's teammates. The circumstances are quite different now than they would be if the Rockets were a playoff contender, but I wonder how Harden's willingness to launch shots might eventually affect Houston's chemistry. All's well and good when those shots are producing lofty scoring totals, but can a lack of a conscience really be so endearing among teammates who made an effort to get down the court and position themselves for a full offensive possession?
4. The same Rajon Rondo
Sidestepping his bizarre assist-hunting efforts on Sunday for a moment: Rondo, despite the preseason media clamor for a more focused scoring mentality, still drives around screens without even the slightest interest in actually putting up shots. He ambles around the pick in a way that telegraphs his every intention and allows back-line defenders to get by with providing token pressure on his drive. It's to Rondo's credit that he's able to keep the Celtics' offense efficient without providing much of a threat to score, but it's nevertheless a shame that his playmaking potential be so needlessly restrained by a lack of dribble-drive assertiveness. Perhaps Rondo should be given the benefit of the doubt because of possible lingering pain in his ankle, but even the pre-injury performances left me wholly unconvinced that he had undergone any sort of cognitive shift.
5. Damian Lillard's grace under pressure
The Trail Blazers' rookie point guard doesn't simply have great instincts and impressive finishing ability -- he has the kind of personality and character traits that would make him ripe for placement in an Ernest Hemingway novel. Lillard has resolve without detachment and an earnestness about his game that positions him well for late-game heroics. He's but a handful of games into his career, but already Lillard is unflappable. He's limited in other ways and hardly complete as a player. But to paraphrase Hemingway, Lillard plays correctly, following the ideals of honor, courage and endurance in a game that is sometimes chaotic, often stressful and always painful.
6. Raymond Felton: an exercise in volume
In New York's last four games, Felton is averaging a whopping 18.5 field-goal attempts -- more than any other Knick. The weird part: It hasn't exactly been a bad thing. There are only five players who shoot so frequently on a per-game basis, and with Carmelo Anthony among them, and Amar'e Stoudemire set to return, we shouldn't expect Felton to keep on that pace. But the bulk of Felton's shooting volume this season has come at the rim (thanks to some well-executed driving) and from behind the three-point arc (by way of the Knicks' improved ball movement). That's a dreamy shot distribution for a player capable of scoring efficiently from both ranges, especially considering how amenable Felton has historically been to taking long two-point jumpers.
7. Joakim Noah finding comfort on the perimeter
Noah's hitch-addled jumper was at one point a significant burden to his offensive game. It's bad enough when bigs can't space the floor from mid-range by way of spot-up jumpers, but Noah's odd form let every opponent on the court know that he wasn't a threat from that range.
That's changed, as the Bulls' center is converting enough of his open looks from the free-throw-line extended to actually make him an immediate threat upon catching the ball. That only adds to the impact of Noah's tremendously helpful dribble-drives, as many opponents are now forced to hesitate: Should they yield an open shot that Noah now consistently makes, or close the gap and potentially allow him to wheel toward the rim?
As a side note: Big men who can even catch the ball on the perimeter without being completely out of sorts are underappreciated. The Noahs and Tyson Chandlers of the world who can catch a pass and reset the action without wasting precious seconds and opportunities deserve a moment's consideration, if only because there are so many bigs who get the ball on the perimeter only to become cripplingly timid.
8. Avery Johnson does a good thing badly Data have long supported the notion of a team's intentionally fouling its opponent when leading by three in an end-game scenario, but Nets coach Johnson took that concept to a fairly ridiculous extreme in a nail-biter against the Celtics last Thursday. With 19 seconds remaining and Brooklyn ahead 99-95, Johnson had his team intentionally foul Paul Pierce, who has made more than 85 percent of his free throws in each of the last three seasons. Needless to say, fouling when up four is significantly different from fouling when up three; rather than prevent a potential game-tying shot, Johnson's decision only served to extend the game and provide his opponent with more possessions through which to make up ground. Weirder yet: Johnson made the same decision again, this time having his team foul Jason Terry, a career 85 percent free-throw shooter. The Nets wound up winning the game despite Johnson's best strategic efforts, offering further repudiation of the "do what works" philosophy.