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.

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