Monday, August 25, 2014

Jeremy Lin: A Brief History of Post-Linsanity, Part II

Continued from Part I.

Jeremy Lin's first year as an NBA starter was full of ups and downs. He did answer the most pressing question of whether he actually belonged in the league: YES. But how good could he be? While he did show that he could still replicate Linsanity-like games, he also had games in which he could be very ineffective and invisible. The arc of his season was trending very positively until a terrible playoff debut (for the whole team) and an injury ended his year on a sour note.

In the offseason, the Rockets signed Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers, and Patrick Beverley—with a reputation for being a defensive maven—was eventually named the new starting point guard.

What would Lin's second season have in store?

11) A blazing hot start and potential Sixth Man of the Year

Lin actually ended up starting the 4 of the first 5 games of the season due to Beverley injuring his ribs in the opener. The Rockets got off to a promising 3-0 start before hitting a wall against their first true test against the Los Angeles Clippers. In that game, Chris Paul scored 23 points and dished out 17 assists. Lin put up respectable numbers but was no match. This perhaps reinforced the narrative that while Lin wasn't a bad player, he just wasn't the PG to take the Rockets to the top.

However, with Beverley and Harden rotating in and out of the lineup due to injuries, Lin still got plenty of minutes and starts. Against the Toronto Raptors on Nov. 11 and the Philadelphia 76ers on Nov. 13, he put up 31 and 34 points, respectively. It was the first back-to-back 30-point games in his career.

A few nights later, in what was becoming a common occurrence, Lin balled against the Knicks, putting up 21 points. At about 15 games into the season, Lin was averaging somewhere around 18 points with a PER of approximately 18 as well. He was also shooting a ridiculously high percentage from 3-point range. Though most people knew that he probably couldn't keep it up, it was a very promising indication that Lin could become a deadly weapon for a contending Rockets team.

Luckily, I was there in person to see Lin drop 34 points and 11 assists against the Sixers

12) Injuries

Unfortunately, Lin ran into a series of niggling injury problems that derailed his momentum. He missed about 1.5 weeks in late November and early December, then another week in mid-December. Though Lin had been an ironman the prior season (playoffs notwithstanding), his explosive style of play had always worried observers about his longevity. Those fears were perhaps becoming more true.

He recovered with a 20-point performance against the Dallas Mavericks a few days before Christmas to show everyone that he was back.

A drive-and-dunk is usually a pretty good way to alleviate injury worries

13) Thunderous Disaster

On January 16, 2014, the Rockets set an unwanted record by following up a 73-point first half with a 19-point second half. It was the worst halftime collapse in NBA history. Even worse, it came against the Thunder, which was the type of elite team that the Rockets had to beat regularly if they wanted to be a serious contender. On Dec. 29, they had already lost to the Thunder, so this loss was doubly tough.

Even worse for Lin, he played very poorly in both games (though to be fair, almost all other Rockets players did as well). It once again fed into the belief that Lin wasn't the PG that the Rockets needed to compete in the cutthroat Western Conference.

This tweet was TCR

14) Filling in for Harden whenever needed

Harden not only dominated the ball, but he also dominated minutes. Naturally, this resulted in a lot of wear-and-tear on his body, and in the 2013-14 regular season, there would be runs of games where he would be out. In those instances, Lin reliably stepped up and even if he didn't put up gaudy stats, he usually ran the offense effectively and the team won.

The most important instance of this occurred was on Jan. 28 and 29, when the Rockets had a back-to-back against two fierce rivals, the San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks. Harden was out with an injured thumb, but the Rockets coped without their superstar and won two key games in a tough situation.

Lin had 18 points and 8 assists against the Spurs on Jan. 28, 2014.

15) Triple double 

Against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Lin became the first player since Brian Shaw in 1995 to collect a triple double while playing fewer than 30 minutes. Rod Strickland and Russell Westbrook are the other players in NBA history to have accomplished this feat. There's nobody else besides this quartet.

Yes, it was the pre-LeLove Cavs, but a triple double, especially off the bench and in less than 30 minutes of playing time, is still a really difficult thing to pull off. There's a reason that so few players in the history of the NBA have accomplished it.

Lin recorded 15 points, 10 assists, and 11 rebounds against the Cavaliers on Feb. 1, 2014.

16) Inconsistent minutes

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, after his triple double performance, Lin saw his minutes fluctuate wildly for the rest of the season. Some games, he would only play 15 minutes, while in others, he'd get up to 35 minutes. His field goal attempts usually remained in the single digits as well. This was in stark contrast to the prior season when he'd average 30+ minutes with double digit field goal attempts. Uncoincidentally, he played much better in March/April of 2013 than in March/April of 2014.

Lin remaining on the bench was becoming more and more of a common sight

17) Securing home court in first round

Lin had one more big game left in the regular season, though. On March 9, 2014, he had a classic Linsanity game against the Rockets' likely first round playoff opponent, the Portland Trailblazers. In the game, he went to the free throw line 12 times, a telltale indicator of his Linsanity-like attacking mindset. It had been nearly 2 months since he'd been to the charity stripe 10+ times.

More importantly, it likely secured home court advantage for the Rockets in the first round by giving them breathing room for 4th seed in the West.

Lin put up 26 points against the Trail Blazers on March 9, 2014.

18) Playoffs!

Expectations were much bigger for the Rockets in the 2014 playoffs than the 2013 version. This team could no longer be happy just to be there; they were expected to at least seriously challenge for the conference finals. Their first round matchup against the Portland Trail Blazers was viewed as a favourable one, as the Blazers were young, inexperienced, and defensively challenged. Plus, they weren't the Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis Grizzlies, or the Los Angeles Clippers, who were all teams that gave the Rockets a lot of trouble.

Then LaMarcus Aldridge happened. And just as importantly, James Harden didn't.

LMA put up consecutive 40+ points against the Rockets in Games 1 and 2, completely destroying their home court advantage. Meanwhile, Harden became a liability on both offence (by jacking up inefficient long-range jump shots) and defense (by being himself).

Lin had a good Game 1 by exploding in the late stages of the game. He was the engine of his team's offence in overtime, and he had what would've been the game-winning basket in the last minute had it not been for the Rockets' inability to play close-out defense.

Lin also had a decent Game 3, where he crucially recovered a teammate's turnover in overtime and slung a kick-out pass to Troy Daniels for the game-winning shot.

Sadly, Lin gave much ammo for his critics in the closing minutes of Game 4. The Rockets had the lead with very little time remaining, and Lin rebounded the ball. He tried to dribble out of the backcourt, but he didn't see Mo Williams on his tail and eventually lost the ball. The Blazers missed their next shot, got the offensive rebound, and then hit a 3. They would eventually go on to win the game.

For most of Lin's critics on fan forums, this was the last straw. Never mind the fact that Harden had been arguably the worst starting player in the entire playoffs (let alone the worst star player). Or that Chandler Parsons had apparently forgotten how to shoot a 3-pointer at the worst time possible. Or that Kevin McHale let LMA torch the Rockets for 2 straight games before making adjustments by putting Omer Asik on him. No, to these people, the series had been lost on that single turnover by Lin. Never mind the fact that the Rockets had overtime to make up for his mistake, or that Patrick Beverley also turned the ball over on the last play of the game where they had a chance to tie.

No, it was all Jeremy's fault.

Fittingly, Lin would quickly recover with a stellar Game 5. With Beverley out injured and Harden still in a disastrous funk, Lin had to carry the team to victory with a 21 point, 4 assist performance. His team at least avoided elimination on home court.

The Rockets would've taken the Blazers to a Game 7 and a potential to pull off a rarely-seen comeback from a 3-1 series deficit, were it not for Damian Lillard's magnificent last minute buzzer beater. Predictably, the defensive lapse that allowed one of the league's best 3-point shooters to get so wide open was caused by Harden and Parsons, the two key Rockets players who just had not shown up for most of the series.

Lin finally had a signature playoff performance by putting up 21 points and 4 assists against
the Blazers in an elimination game on April 30, 2014.

19) On the way out of Texas

When the Rockets lost in 6 against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013, there was reason to be optimistic; when the Rockets lost in 6 against the Portland Trail Blazers in 2014, there was reason to panic.

Despite the addition of Dwight Howard and the further development of the rest of its players, the team had done no better than before. The fanbase clamoured for another star player, and the management seemed to agree. With Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh becoming free agents, the team legitimately dreamed of a Big Three of their own.

This almost certainly meant that Lin was going to be traded. With his $8 million salary cap taking up space, especially compared to Patrick Beverley's minuscule contract, Lin just wasn't in the future plans of his team anymore. First, Omer Asik got traded to the New Orleans Hornets. Then the Lin-Melo Jersey Fiasco happened, which was another development in the curious entanglement of the careers of Lin and Carmelo Anthony. Then the rumours started to solidify: Lin was going to the Philadelphia 76ers or the Milwaukee Bucks, or the...

The writing is on the wall when this happens

20) Landing in Los Angeles as a Laker

On July 13, 2014, Lin was officially traded to the Lakers for basically nothing. The Rockets desperately needed the cap space to sign Chris Bosh, and the Los Angeles Lakers had the cap space to sign him. Plus, they needed a point guard with only the deteriorating Steve Nash, the limited Kendall Marshall, and the rookie Jordan Clarkson on board.

Lin is probably not a spiteful person, but on some level, he must have enjoyed the absolute disaster that befell the Rockets after his trade. Bosh ended up staying with the Miami Heat, which meant that the Rockets had made a "catastrophic trade" by dealing away one of their key players for cap space that no longer had a superstar to fill it. To make things worse, Chandler Parsons was offered a max deal by hated rivals, the Dallas Mavericks. Without Bosh in tow, the Rockets weren't willing to invest in Parsons, and they allowed him to walk for nothing. Daryl Morey, the Rockets' GM who is frequently hailed as a genius among dumb jocks, was tagged for once as the biggest loser of the offseason.

As for what awaits Lin as a Laker, things seem mostly positive. The press coverage has been quite flattering as most sportswriters and commentators seem to recognize that he had two productive years in Houston. The new Laker coach Byron Scott also seems to appreciate Lin's strengths and qualities. There is also a chance for Lin to learn from one of the greatest PGs of all time in Steve Nash, as well as the likelihood of major minutes due to a lack of experience and depth at that position. And while there is always the threat of incurring the wrath of the Black Mamba, Lin is a better player than the likes of Smush Parker or Kwame Brown (not to mention the fact that Kobe Bryant has probably mellowed out a bit with age).

Lin appears to have landed in the most ideal situation possible, and chances are greater than not that he will have a career year. There is a strong chance that he won't remain a Laker after this year, but Lin has previously shown that he doesn't need to stay in a place for very long to make a lasting impact.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Jeremy Lin: A Brief History of Post-Linsanity, Part I

Confession: Since Jeremy Lin was signed by the Houston Rockets as a Restricted Free Agent, I have watched almost every game he has played in. I have also spent a lot of time perusing fan forums to get an accurate gauge on the perception of the overall narrative of his career.

People paid a lot of attention to Linsanity, but not so much to Lin's career afterwards. Maybe it's because he hasn't been shattering records as a Rocket as he did as a Knick. Maybe it's because Houston is a less exciting market than New York City. Maybe it's because people's attention spans are short, and they maxed out a lifetime's worth of Jeremy Lin interest in a blazing short-lived supernova.

Whatever the reasons are, a lack of attention means a lack of knowledge. Now that Lin has been traded to the Los Angeles Lakers, some may wonder what happened in Houston. Some may think that he turned out to be a flash-in-the-pan bust who eventually got exposed. Others may think that he's a star player who was smothered by an immature offensive system that took away his best skills.

As someone who has closely followed the post-Linsanity era, I will try to set the record straight in the following timeline.

1) Offseason Drama

There is still a lot of confusion as to how the "divorce" between Lin and the New York Knicks came about. It went something like this: (1) Lin was a Restricted Free Agent, meaning that the Knicks could match any offer that another team gave Lin, and Lin would have to stay with the Knicks; (2) Knicks could've made an offer right at the start and locked Lin up, but they told him to go see what he could find on the open market; (3) Rockets offered him what was effectively a 3-year $20 million offer, which the Knicks said they would match; (4) the Rockets desperately needed a point guard as they had allowed Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic to walk recently, so they changed the offer to a 3-year $25 million offer with a "poison pill" backloaded contract that would really screw the Knicks in the final year; (5) Knicks refused to match and thus, Lin became a Rocket.

Carmelo Anthony's now-infamous remarks about it being a "ridiculous contract" are now well-documented. Statements like that certainly didn't help the suspicions that the Melo-dominated Knicks weren't too ecstatic about the rise of Lin on what was supposed to be Melo's team.

Now that Lin's future was set, several questions were set to be resolved by next season. Was he overpaid? Was Linsanity a total fluke? Would the Knicks be vindicated in their unpopular decision to let him go? Could he really be an offensive focal point with a barebones Rockets team whose best player was Kevin Martin?

Then everything changed with the James Harden trade.

Few people actually know the truth behind the how or why of Lin's departure from the Knicks

2) A Promising Debut

Nobody knew how good the Rockets would be. Nobody knew if James Harden was worth superstar money. Nobody knew if Jeremy Lin even belonged in the NBA.

Those questions were quickly answered within the first two games of the 2012-13 regular season after the Rockets blew away the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks. James Harden went absolutely mad, exploding for 37 and 45 points, respectively. A mere Sixth Man, he was not.

As for Lin, he did very well too. In his first game against Detroit, he recorded 12 pts, 8 assists, and 4 steals. In his second game against Atlanta, he notched 21 points, 7 assists, and 12 rebounds.

Such explosive debuts had some sports publications wondering if the Harden-Lin backcourt could be the best in the NBA.

Lin nearly got a triple double against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 11, 2012.

3) November slump, Toney Douglas Factor

Unfortunately for Lin, his November went into a bit of a tailspin, and many of his stat lines in the last 3 weeks of that month were unflattering with lots of games where he only scored in the single digits. Perhaps the lowest point came on Nov. 16 when the Rockets lost to emerging rivals, the Portland Trail Blazers, in overtime. Despite putting up a double-double with 11 points and 11 assists, Lin saw much of his closing time minutes given to Toney Douglas. Yes, the same Toney Douglas that was once on Deadspin's Shit List.

It was the first signs that perhaps Lin didn't have the trust of head coach Kevin McHale and the rest of his staff, which would ignite perpetual combustible debates on fan forums.

From the start, Lin never seemed to fully have the trust or support of head coach Kevin McHale

4) First game against New York Knicks

Lin's shaky start to his post-Linsanity career wasn't helped by the fact that the Knicks seemed to be thriving without him. The Knicks were 8-2 by the time they came to Houston to play the Rockets, including victories over the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers. Raymond Felton, the guy they brought in to replace Lin, was doing pretty well despite worries over fitness and character issues that saw him depart acrimoniously from Portland the season before. At this point, it kind of seemed as though the Knicks had clearly made the right decision to not re-sign Lin.

Lin had a lot riding on this game. If he put up another bad stat line, it would simply further fuel the blossoming narrative that he wasn't very good and that the Knicks were better off without him.

He finished the night with 13 points, 3 assists, and 7 rebounds, which weren't amazing numbers but were still respectable. More importantly, his team won. Lin didn't show much nerves either, knocking down 50% of his field goals and nailing some of the jump shots that hadn't been falling for him recently.

Lin got an important psychological victory over the New York Knicks on Nov. 23, 2012.

5) Linsanity Redux vs. San Antonio Spurs

While some of the skeptics may have been willing to concede that Lin was at least a serviceable player in the NBA, very few would've said that he could ever again be the offensive force that he was as a Knick.

Those doubts were answered after Lin went crazy for 38 points against the none-too-slouchy San Antonio Spurs. In what would become a familiar refrain in his career as a Rocket, Lin exploded because Harden was not completely dominating the ball; in this case, he was out injured.

However, the Rockets lost, which put a damper on Lin's resurgent night. Still, it was a reassuring sign that he had genuine untapped offensive potential. Also, Tony Parker said that Lin reminded him of when he was younger, and that Lin was just a reliable jump shot away from being a good PG. I always thought that Parker was a stand-up dude for saying such nice things about a young player on a rival team.

Lin equalled his career high in points against the Spurs on Dec. 10, 2012.

6) First return to Madison Square Garden

Lin's first return to MSG was bound to be full of uncertainty and emotion. How would he be received? There were lots of Knicks fans who thought that he had ditched the team for more money, when the truth was that he never had an offer from the Knicks in the first place. The Knicks were still red-hot at this point with an 18-5 record, and they were surely looking for revenge for their loss in Houston earlier.

After Lin put up 22 points and 9 assists, it was becoming more and more apparent that he had a knack for rising up in the big games.

It was also pretty sweet how in the pre-game introductions, the Knicks fans cheered the former Knick.

Lin put up 22 points and 9 assists in his first return to MSG on Dec. 17, 2012.

7) Patrick Beverley arrives in Houston

In early January, the Rockets acquired Patrick Beverley from Europe. He was a former Eurocup MVP with Spartak St. Petersburg. A little while later, Toney Douglas would be traded to the Sacramento Kings, making Beverley the main backup to Lin.

On fan forums, Lin's critics had the curious tendency of overhyping any Rockets PG who wasn't Lin. In the preseason, D-Leaguer Scott Machado was their favourite. Then it became Toney Douglas. Now, it became Beverley.

It unfortunately and unfairly set up Lin and Beverley as enemies among fans, which was a shame because the two players had a great friendship and played very well when on the court together. Bev's defensive tenacity and Lin's offensive aggressiveness made them a very good backcourt.

Patrick Beverley would eventually distinguish himself as a feisty defender, most notoriously injuring Russell Westbrook in the 2013 playoffs

8) Games against the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder

Fact is that the Western Conference is just loaded, so any wins against rival teams are doubly precious. In 2012-13, the Rockets were a fringe playoff team, but it was still clear that with a few upgrades, they could potentially join the heavyweight contenders. Wins against elite teams like the Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder made those notions even more tantalizingly real.

In these two big wins, Lin had 28 points and 9 assists (against Golden State), and 29 points and 7 assists (against OKC).

Lin's best game in his first season as a Rocket was against OKC on March 20, 2012.

9) Post-All Star break success

After the All-Star Break on February 17, 2013, Lin settled into a nice groove and finished off the season in very good form. He averaged around 16 points and 6 assists, which were excellent stats for a PG in his first year as a starter. His 3pt% was also edging close to 40%, which was crucial because Houston's offense required good shooters to space the floor. Were it not for a particularly ugly week from March 22-29 in which Lin could barely score, he would've had even better stats.

Lin had a superb April, which led to high expectations for the playoffs

10) Playoff debut disaster and injury

After Lin's extended run of good play in the second half of the season and the Rockets' unexpected playoff charge, there were high hopes. Sure, the Rockets were probably not going to get past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, but they were probably going to put up a good fight and their young players were going to make a name for themselves.

Game 1 was an unparalleled disaster for the Rockets. They lost by 29 points. Harden shot 6-19, and Lin didn't do much better at 1-7.

Lin wouldn't get much of a chance to redeem himself in Game 2 as not only was Beverley chosen to start over him, but he also suffered a chest injury and had to leave the game at halftime. He had been playing decently up to that point, however, with 7 points on 3-7 shooting.

The Rockets eventually lost in 6 games, which was a pretty decent result. But as for Lin, he couldn't contribute much with his injury and had to sit out a couple of games. He was brought in for Game 6, but he was nowhere near his usual self and played poorly. Beverley, on the other hand, played quite well as a starter, showing an offensive skill-set that few thought he had.

Lin's injury was frustrating for everybody, especially since he had played so well in the prior months

11) Preseason and loss of starting position

Though the 2013 playoffs couldn't have been called a disappointment for the Rockets, there was the sense that this was a team rapidly on the rise that had taken the Oklahoma City Thunder to 6 games, albeit without Russell Westbrook, and as such, it could've done a bit more. With James Harden firmly established as a superstar, and with Chandler Parsons now commonly viewed as a rising star, some Rockets fans looked for position upgrades.

Given the persistent doubts about Lin's "true" ability as well his no-show in the playoffs, the PG position was thought to be wide open. Patrick Beverley had acquitted himself well in the brief time he was a starter, and some Rockets fans felt that they had finally found the "3-and-D" PG needed to play with the ball-dominant Harden.

Kevin McHale remained non-committal during the preseason, saying that he had "two starting point guards." This did not bode well for Lin, who had started all games for the Rockets the previous season. Eventually, Beverley was chosen to be the starter. The popular opinion was that it was because he was a better fit due to his defense and 3-point shooting skills, as opposed to him being an overall better player.

A bright spot for Lin was during the Rockets' excursion to Taiwan. In his ancestral home country and against the then-elite Pacers, he put on quite a show.

Oh yeah, and the Dwight Howard thing happened.

Skip to 4:35 for the chase-down block on Danny Granger.

Go to Part II here!