Like a Republican presidential candidate rocketing to the top of the polls, New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin has come out of absolutely nowhere to captivate the national consciousness this past week. Lin–the son of Taiwanese immigrants and a 2010 Harvard graduate–went undrafted, played in just 29 games and 285 minutes last season for the Golden State Warriors, was released twice before the start of this season–by the Warriors and, later, the Houston Rockets–and emerged only due to a string of Knicks injuries.
He has more than capitalized on his opportunity. Last Saturday, Lin came off the bench in a game against the Jazz to log almost 36 minutes, scoring 25 points and dishing out seven assists. He’s started the Knicks’ last four games–against the Jazz, Wizards, Lakers, and Timberwolves–scoring a total of 109 points while doling out 33 assists. After starting out 8-15, the Knicks have won five in a row since Lin’s emergence and have wiggled their way into the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. If you play off him, he can hit the jump shot. Play him too close and he’s quick enough to scurry by and drive to the hoop.
It’s a tremendous story, but is the success sustainable or not? In a word, yes.
How could this have happened?
More than athletes in any other American team sport, basketball players can can be evaluated on the basis of the “eye test.” Because basketball is played almost naked in sneakers, a pair of shorts, and a tank top, there is a much more scientific process in discerning who will thrive and who will struggle at the next level. Where Victor Cruz and Wes Welker can be undrafted free agents and wind up as the best receivers on their respective Super Bowl teams and Albert Pujols can be drafted in the 13th round–402nd overall–and wind up on the short list of the greatest hitters of all-time, Lin’s streak is almost unheard of in basketball.
Friday Night Lights author and Daily Beast Columnist Buzz Bissinger pointed out that John Starks and Ben Wallace had successful NBA careers as undrafted free agents but neither had a rise quite as meteoric as Lin’s. In 50 years of watching the sport, my dad has never seen a basketball player emerge this swiftly and hasn’t been this excited to watch a single player since Pete Maravich.
Prior to the Knicks’ game against the Lakers on Friday night, Kobe Bryant feigned ignorance (at least I think he was faking it) about Lin’s run:
“What? I have no idea, I mean I know who he is, but I don’t really know what’s going on too much with that,” Bryant said when asked about Lin and what he’s done in the past week.
“I don’t even know what he’s done, like I have no idea what you guys are talking about,” Kobe insisted. “I’ll take a look at it tonight, though.”
Lin dropped 38 points and added seven assists that night in a 92-85 Knicks win so it’s a fair guess that Kobe will not be caught unaware again.
Because it is so fascinating, I had to go out to a bar on Saturday night to watch Lin and the Knicks play Ricky Rubio, an exciting rookie point guard from Spain, and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday night. Without sound. After some annoying persistence, I was able to get a friend to watch with me but I would have gone alone. I didn’t have a choice.
While he’s had a magical run, Lin showed some signs of decline late in the Timberwolves game. His legs started to bear the burden of his newly found minutes and when Minnesota forced him to dribble to his left in the second half, he struggled mightily.
As opponents get more tape on Lin, they are going to key in on his weaknesses. How he counters to these adjustments and how much energy he can sustain will go a long way in determining whether he will ultimately be a strong starting point guard in this league. How he adapts his game when Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony return–Amar’e from the death of his brother, Carmelo from injury–will factor into whether the Knicks are viable playoff contenders. More on that in a bit but there’s something we need to get out of the way…
Is Lin Basketball’s Tim Tebow?
We’ve gotten and are going to get this a lot because it’s an easy comparison because of Christian faith, persevering through obstacles, and insufferable hype. That being said, it’s a lazy one that is unsound for a number of reasons.
Yes, Tebow has had to overcome a mountain of doubt from the haters. But he was the starting quarterback at Florida–one of the premiere programs in college football–where he won two national titles and a Heisman trophy. He was drafted in the first round by the Denver Broncos. It fits a narrative to call him the little engine that could but the fact of the matter is that his moderate level of success was far more likely and predictable than Lin’s.
Also, in an admittedly small sample size, Lin has played much better than Tebow. The Broncos had a stalwart defense and strong running game, staying in games in spite of Tebow’s inaccuracy for long enough for Tebow to win them with late-game heroics. Lin, meanwhile, has been the catalyst to the Knicks’ success. I would bet a dollar that Lin will ultimately be an above average NBA starting point guard several times before I would make the same bet on Tebow’s becoming a league average starting quarterback.
In the aforementioned Daily Beast Column, Buzz Bissinger provides a much more apt comparison for Jeremy Lin–for now:
For signs of Lin’s fate, let’s roll the tape of a fellow athlete from Harvard named Ryan Fitzpatrick. As the quarterback for the Buffalo Bills last season, Fitzpatrick, in his seventh year, threw for nine touchdowns in the first three games. He led Buffalo to a 3–0 record, and there was serious talk of making the playoffs. He got a $54 million, six-year contract extension with $24 million guaranteed. In the next 13 games he threw for a total of 15 touchdowns as the Bills went 3–10. His quarterback rating went from 100 after those first three games to a season average of 79.
For the record, I am rooting for Lin’s run to be more sustainable than Fitzpatrick’s has been.
Where do the Knicks go from here?
As previously mentioned, Knicks’ stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire will be returning relatively soon. Stoudemire, who thrived in head coach Mike D’antoni’s pick-and-roll system with the Phoenix Suns and star point guard Steve Nash, is well-suited to be a corner piece in Lin’s puzzle. His return will make these Knicks even better.
However, even more than the extent to which Lin can sustain his great play, the biggest variable in the Knicks’ quest for contention will be how Anthony adapts to Lin. This could go any number of ways but in order for the Knicks to perform optimally, Anthony will have to accept a role where he controls the ball less. If he returns to his ball-hogging ways, we are going to see a series of Knicks losses, Anthony’s minutes decline at a rate that will be embarrassing to him, and any number of caricatures on the back pages of the NY Post and Daily News.
Simply put, the next few months will be a defining period in Carmelo Anthony’s legacy. Last season, the Nuggets went 32-25 before trading Melo to the Knicks (he had played in 50 of those games) and 18-7 after the trade. The Knicks went 28-26 before he arrived and 14-14 after. Both teams lost in the first round of the playoffs. His subtraction arguably improved the Nuggets (in addition to their comparatively better record, they performed much better on the aforementioned “eye test”) while his addition failed to improve the Knicks.
Bill Simmons calls this phenomenon in which teams play better without their superstar the “Ewing Theory,” named for former Knicks star Patrick Ewing. Depending on how these next few months go, he may need to consider re-naming it the “Carmelo Theory.”
For the Knicks to keep
Linning winning, make it into the playoffs, and perhaps win a round or two, Melo is going to have to learn to contribute more with the ball in his hands less. One would hope that Lin’s success with him gone and the blame that he will take if his presence messes this all up would be enough to motivate him to adapt.
To win a round in the playoffs, the Knicks probably need to climb up to at least the 6th seed–as things stand now, they would have to play the Bulls or Heat if they finished any worse than that. While the Knicks would probably be a tough out in those series, it’s hard to see them winning outright.
Back to Lin
I am hopeful that the Jeremy Lin saga is just getting started. While the exposure Lin is receiving all over the national media (including here!) is already approaching Tim Tebow levels of insufferability, it is a wonderful American story almost befitting of fiction. To reiterate, we simply don’t see players come out of nowhere like this to thrive in professional basketball. Football, yes. Baseball, all the time. Basketball, never. But, right now, this is happening.
If Lin were 6-foot-3, African American, and playing in a small market, this story would be fascinating. That he’s an Asian American Harvard grad playing in the basketball-starved New York market is truly remarkable. However this all ends, we may never see anything quite like it again.