In "Every Play Counts," Kevin Pelton focuses on one player, team or matchup in a single game, looking to explain how and why they succeed or fail. Naturally, one game isn't everything, but the results can be illuminating.
It's been more than a year since my last Every Play Counts column, but I can think of no more appropriate time to resurrect the format than at the height of Linsanity. The rise of Jeremy Lin is unique in the way it forces us to rely on scouting because statistics have such a difficult time capturing the meaning of a run of elite performance that comes out of nowhere. There are ways to try to quantify Lin's potential, including Nate Silver's use of comparable streaks and our Bradford Doolittle's work with Lin's in-season projection, but ultimately how Lin is succeeding is as meaningful as the numbers he's putting up.
I recorded Saturday's comeback win by the New York Knicks over the Minnesota Timberwolves to review in full, which was useful since I'd only caught bits and pieces of the first four games of Lin's breakout. However, this is not my first time focusing on Lin. Over the summer, out of curiosity and to inform his entry in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, I watched every shot Lin took for the Golden State Warriors on Synergy.
The player I saw on film then and the one lighting up the league both are and are not the same. Lin has always shown the ability to get to the basket off the dribble, but that was easier to write off when it came largely in garbage time instead of against opponents that have begun tailoring their game plans to Lin's skills.
Notably, the Timberwolves made a concerted effort to force Lin to his left off the pick-and-roll, which was credited in part for Lin missing 11 of his 12 shot attempts after halftime. I'm not sure that had much to do with Lin's struggles. Minnesota was looking to make Lin go left from the start of the game, and there wasn't a substantial difference between his shooting percentage going left (3-9) and right (2-5) when he was actually forced to declare a direction.
Mostly, I think Lin wore down. He played 39 minutes on the second half of a back-to-back, including the entire fourth quarter, and had little energy available at either end of the floor. Lin was still able to get by his defender at times, but lacked the explosion to finish at the rim, which led to him having three shots blocked.
Over the last five games, per Hoopdata.com, Lin has averaged 8.0 shots at the rim. That would lead the league over the course of the season, ahead of Blake Griffin's 7.3 per game. Among penetrating guards, Russell Westbrook averages 7.0 tries at the rim and Dwyane Wade 6.9. That Lin is ahead of their pace is remarkable, and the part of his performance least susceptible to small sample size.
Lin has proven dangerous both in space and in traffic. In the open court in transition, his quickness is key to his ability to blow past stationary defenders and get to the rim. This also shows up when the Knicks have Tyson Chandler set a rub screen for Lin at speed in the early offense, a staple of the Mike D'Antoni playbook in Phoenix. Because Lin is moving so fast, Chandler doesn't even really need to make contact. Simply getting in the way and forcing the defender to change direction is enough to send Lin toward the rim.
Within the half-court set, Lin relies more on his ballhandling ability than his quickness. In traffic, he is capable of reversing direction quickly with the dribble to find a crack in the defense. He's even shown off a Eurostep at times. This comes at a price, as Lin does tend to dribble himself into turnovers. Miscues have been the dirty secret of Lin's terrific stretch. He's averaging 4.6 per game over the last five games; no NBA player has averaged more than four a night since 2007-08 (Dwyane Wade). I don't think Lin's turnovers are worth obsessing over, as they're a byproduct of his ability to create easy shots. At the same time, they can't be ignored in evaluating his performance. Those plays count too.
Beyond just getting into the lane, Lin's run has been grounded in his ability to finish at the rim. Hoopdata.com shows him making 24 of his 30 shot attempts at the rim (80 percent) over the first four games of this stretch, an unsustainable rate. Last year, among guards who averaged at least five attempts at the rim per game, Wade had the highest percentage at 66.6 percent. We can probably consider that an upper bound on Lin's eventual percentage, and since Wade is an athletic freak of the highest order, it will likely be tough to match.
The same acrobatic finishes that made for the most impressive entries on Lin's highlight reel will be most difficult for him to replicate. Indeed, even before Lin tired against Minnesota he wasn't quite having the same success around the basket. Still, I think Lin can be an above-average finisher. He made a solid 58.1 percent of his attempts around the rim as a rookie, and displays the strength to score through contact when necessary.
Away from the basket, Lin is less effective. Friday's win over the Lakers, when he shot 6-of-10 from beyond 15 feet, was the only time this season he's scored more than four baskets away from the immediate vicinity of the rim. Teams will surely ramp up their efforts to get Lin to shoot over the top. As compared to non-shooters like Rajon Rondo Lin is more capable of making defenses pay and keeping them honest, which he will have to do to continue scoring as he has.
Throughout his career, Lin has never racked up assists at a high rate, and I think the descriptions of him as a pure point guard suffer from a bit of halo effect. When Lin drives, it's first and foremost to score. That said, Lin has shown the ability to make the right read and find the open man. His best past on Saturday came when the Timberwolves tried to trap him and he found roll man Tyson Chandler free in the paint for a score. Where Lin can improve is finding teammates from the paint when the defense has him surrounded, as was the case at times during the fourth quarter Saturday. As with his dribbling, Lin can be prone to trying to squeeze passes into tight areas, leading to turnovers.
Honestly, I think Lin's defense against Minnesota might have been as impressive as anything else I saw. He spent much of the night defending smaller, quicker players--mostly Luke Ridnour and Jose Barea, but also Ricky Rubio at times--and was able to keep them in front of him. Defending point guards was one of the biggest knocks against Lin coming out of Harvard, and may well have been overstated. As much as size and length can be overrated among unproven players, sometimes we might underestimate their value on the perimeter. Lin was able to compensate when he was beaten off the dribble, and his presence forced Barea into committing an offensive foul while trying to keep Lin at bay with his left arm in transition.
Where Lin did have some issues was dealing with screens, both on the ball and away from it. I'm not sure what he was instructed to do by the coaching staff, but Lin twice went under screens against Ridnour (a capable, though not dangerous shooter) and was burned with a three-pointer one of them.
One constant from Lin's game has been his ability to rack up steals. He had three of them Saturday and is averaging an even 2.0 over the last five games. Lin has quick hands and is effective digging down against post players. He's also taken at least one charge in each of the last five games.
The question everybody wants answered is whether Lin's performance is a fluke. I suppose I'd qualify my response by wondering what exactly defines a fluke. If the standard is Lin continuing to average 20 points per game (and, I suppose, the Knicks never losing again), then I doubt it. Fatigue and all, Saturday is probably closer to Lin's legitimate level of play than the previous four games, when everything is rolling for him. Of course, Lin still played a leading role in a road win against a quality opponent with an undermanned lineup, so if sub-All-Star the performance was impressive nonetheless.
It's cliched at this point to wonder how Lin will respond to the return of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire to the lineup, but the concern is legitimate. While less talented, this group is probably better suited to playing around Lin, largely because of floor spacing. Steve Novak's three-point shooting has also been a pleasant surprise during the winning streak, and Lin's presence doesn't solve the congestion issues that existed with the Chandler-Stoudemire frontcourt early in the season. At the same time, the thought of opponents trying to deal with a Lin-Stoudemire pick-and-roll, if the latter is anything near 100 percent, is mildly terrifying.
Coexisting with Anthony figures to be more difficult. Both players are better with the ball in their hands, and neither frightens defenses as a spot-up shooter. In a sense, D'Antoni faces a miniature version of the issue (problem would be too strong and too negative) that Erik Spoelstra confronted with Wade and LeBron James. As in Miami, making both dangerous in transition may be a solution here too. No matter what, New York can't go back to the desultory basketball it played early in the season. Lin's emergence has shown a better way.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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