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!

No comments :

Post a Comment