During the month and a half that spanned the unofficial reign of “Linsanity,” comparisons between Jeremy Lin and Tim Tebow were rampant. They weren’t entirely unfitting, either.
Lin and Tebow were each sensations far beyond their talent levels. Lin was not actually the stud who almost single-handedly dragged the New York Knicks into the playoffs. Tebow was not some magic unicorn with an extra “winning” gene that could compensate for his lack of throwing accuracy over the long haul. They were both thrilling blips on the landscape of otherwise unremarkable careers.
Two years on, though, one major difference between the two athletes has become apparent and indisputable: Lin can actually play.
On the heels of Thursday’s performance against the Memphis Grizzlies, who he helped bury with 14 points in the fourth quarter, Lin has provided the moral to all the hoopla of 2012. Gripe all you want about his outsize contract, which pays him star-level money. He’s not a star, but that was never the point. The point was that he belonged in the NBA then and he belongs there now. It’s an inescapable fact, not an opinion, just like it’s not an opinion that Tebow cannot be a No. 1 quarterback in the NFL.
Critics of Lin’s game — which there are, just as their should be for every player — point out that he still turns the ball over too much, isn’t all that great a defender and probably has a higher usage rate than a player of his caliber should. All are valid points.
Except pointing out Lin’s flaws actually serve to bolster the argument that he’s a viable NBA player, through and through. These are not unworkable issues of a player lost and overmatched. Lin has actually improved as a one-on-one defender and the change is both visible and calculable. ESPN.com pointed out that Spurs superguard Tony Parker was 2-for-8 from the field when guarded by Lin on Christmas. That’s a significant impact in a game that was tight in the fourth quarter.
The usage argument has also been muted this season. It was entirely appropriate last season, Lin’s first in Houston, when he started all 82 games, played more than 32 minutes a night and took close to 11 shots per game. He didn’t shoot particularly well on 2-pointers or 3-pointers, and he took too many twos for a 6-foot-3 combo guard. He did belong in the NBA. He didn’t belong in an NBA starting lineup.
This season, Lin has been recast and (when healthy) it’s a much better look for the one-time undrafted free agent. His usage rate — basically the rate at which a player ends a possession with a shot, a turnover or by getting fouled — is actually up over last season, 21.6 to 20.8, but he’s gotten more efficient. Playing less than 30 minutes per game, he’s shooting within a rounding error of 50 percent from the field while taking fewer twos and more threes. That means he’s not only hitting shots more frequently, he’s also getting an extra point more often when he does make them.
In other words, Lin is turning into a case study in Daryl Morey-nomics. Morey, the Rockets’ analytical general manager, champions new-school statistics and tracking systems to optimize individual players and lineups. Morey’s philosophy explains why Houston went all-out to get James Harden and Omer Asik, then went all-out to get Dwight Howard a year later, even though Asik was already under the team’s control. The metrics said Asik was good defensively, but they said Howard was better. So the Rockets got Howard.
It’s one thing to stockpile players of a certain ilk and skillset based on computer models, however, and another thing to change a player’s behavior based on those models. Lin’s adjustments indicate he has at least somewhat incorporated these concepts. Taking more threes is an obvious dog whistle to the advanced-stats adherents. An uptick in free throw rate is another, especially since any trip to the foul line is gravy when he shares a backcourt with Harden, a free-throw-generating machine.
As for more traditional scouting measures, Lin could always run a pick-and-roll. That was the primary method he and Tyson Chandler used to lay waste to the NBA for a 25-game stretch, and any guard who can run a pick-and-roll belongs in the league. (Just watch Raymond Felton and Greivis Vasquez, whose pro-level skills start and end there.) Even with Harden running far more pick-and-rolls as the primary ballhandler, Lin hasn’t lost that area of his game.
Still, rumors abound that the Rockets wouldn’t mind unloading him. He and Asik have pretty much been buddies on the auction block since the summer. Yet again the knocks against Lin prove the case for him. The Rockets not wanting to keep him at his $8.3 million cap hit is not the same as thinking he’s a complete loss as a player. Few teams do legwork like the Rockets. If they overestimated his price, they merely did what teams regularly do with other legitimate NBA players.
The irony is that as Lin has demonstrated his staying power, his star has grown dimmer. Tebow was a big story on SportsCenter right down to his final hours as a New England Patriot, yet many fans probably turned on their TVs on Christmas night, saw Lin rocking those awful sleeved jerseys and thought, “Oh yeah, I wondered what happened to him.” It’s as though the more you show that you belong, the more the true believers quiet down, because they don’t have to work as hard at their sales pitch anymore.
“Linsanity” and “Tebowmania” were flashes, the likes of which we may never see again in either sport. But now that the buzz has died down, only one overnight sensation is still plying his trade as a pro athlete. And that’s all either one was looking for in the first place.
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