Jeremy Lin helps teach us about Yay Points, Clutch and Risk

This season New York has been front and center when it comes to a lot of our basketball posts. With Wages of Wins Favorites Carmelo Anthony and Tyson Chandler (albeit popular by us for opposite reasons) joining forces and up-and-comer phenom Landry Fields teaming up with aging like milk Amare Stoudemire, there were simply too many interesting reasons to avoid the Knicks this season. That’s why it’s surprising that the biggest story this season from the Knicks is none of those players.

The story that has taken the NBA blogosphere by storm is Jeremy Lin. We’ve talked about the draft and how it is perfectly acceptable to say no one could have seen Lin coming. After all most young players — even future greats — don’t play well in their first starts. But what is not acceptable to say is that no team should have realized Lin was worth a look. In a league where mystery box players such as Bargnani get major minutes as young players, it is ridiculous to say the Warriors, Rockets or even Knicks were right in sitting Lin on the bench. However, with Lin now front and center, I am happy to say there are even more great lessons to be learned from this already amazing story.

Lin and Yay Points

Points drive perception in the NBA. Points get you drafted high, paid, voted to All-Star games and even sways voters for major awards. It is true that to win in the NBA you have to outscore the opponent, and this is a matter of points. Of course, missing shots gives the opponent an opportunity to score. As does turning the ball over. In Lin’s first three starts he scored 28, 23 and 38 points while shooting over 60% true shooting. That’s remarkable! In his last two games he’s kept up the 20+ points per game but he had a 33.3% true shooting percentage in the win over Minnesota and 54.3% true shooting percentage in the win over Toronto — also had Lin not scored his last second clutch shot he would have ended the night with a below average 50.3% true shooting percentage. Those marks are terrible and above average respectively. He’s also been racking up the turnovers. Of course, the focus is still on points. Lin shoots amazingly? He’s amazing! Lin shoots terribly? He’s still amazing! Lin shoots above average? Still amazing! People like winners. The Wages of Wins showed the biggest factor in ticket sales is a winning team. However the biggest thing people like to give credit to is scoring. Lin is scoring a lot of points on a currently winning team. Players like Joe Johnson show this is a good way to boost your popularity.

Lin and Clutch

Toronto has been a bad team this season. However, recently they’ve been a great opponent for some spectacular play (perhaps we should rename them the Washington Generals?) Both Kobe and Lin were able to sink last second clutch shots to will their team to a win. Of course, neither Kobe or Lin actually played that well. As I mentioned, Lin needed the clutch shot to get his scoring percentages above average and with 8 turnovers to his 11 assists, it’s not like he was being a great facilitator. Kobe’s game was even worse. He shot 9 for 23 and did little else. Yet at the end of the game, both players were lauded as heroes. The True Hoop blog actually had this to say about Kobe:

Sunday was a day in which Kobe Bryant made like Magic Johnson…

Wait…what? 9-23 shooting with two rebounds and four turnovers is like Magic? This wasn’t an article written by Henry Abbott and thank goodness Abbott did take another look at this game. That said, on the network that has been pounding the Kobe isn’t clutch drum, all it takes is one game against a bad team with a bad performance by a player that gets the game winner to draw comparisons to one of the greatest players ever? Yahoo Sports was similar in their talk of Lin and his game winner in Toronto:

Even after his amazing week, this one took Linsanity to a whole new level.

Again, a game with a below average performance against a bad team somehow takes Lin’s Michael Jordan like start (seriously compare Lin’s third start to Michael Jordan’s third start) to the next level? I enjoy clutch and excitement on Sports Center, but both of these claims are hyperbole to the Nth degree!

Lin and risk

The rise of Lin has brought out a lot of speculation and finger pointing. How could the Warriors cut Lin? (The answer by the way was so they could not sign DeAndre Jordan) How could the Rockets cut Lin? (The answer was to make room for Dalembert and to keep warm bench spots open for Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet) How could the rest of the league pass on him?

The issue in the NBA is this: playing an unknown player while your team is losing is a risky proposition for coaches. Much like going for it on fourth down in football will draw scrutiny in a loss, so will playing unknown players in front of known players. While everyone scurries to prove that Lin will be the greatest player since MJ or that they could have known he was coming (we’re somewhat guilty of that), there’s a bigger issue. Lin is proof of an inherent flaw in NBA management. Owners refuse to quit because they’ve sunk millions of dollars into players. Coaches refuse to play unknown players because of a risk to their job.

Lin is the very definition of a low-risk high-reward proposition. This season he will make less than $1 million. Compare that to even the most fringe free agent point guard signed in Earl Watson, who will make $2 million a year. Lin’s college numbers also suggested he was worth a look. On a losing team (such as Golden State), such a player should be great; you play him, and if he works out you’re better off. If he fails, then your cap is intact and you can roll the dice again in the draft. Yet the way the NBA management is structured, somehow playing a cheap, undrafted player is seemingly high risk. I say seemingly because, as Arturo has pointed out, if you are on a losing team your only hope of salvation is winning. That’s a problem that I suspect won’t be solved even after all the dust has settled and the finger pointing in regards to Lin has stopped.

Summing up

Let’s just get this out of the way: sample size. I didn’t even need to form a complete sentence around those two words. Lin has started less than ten games. All the narratives we are building stand a very good chance of looking foolish in the future. All I can say is that in all aspects (fun to watch, fun to talk about, fun to analyze the stats) Lin has been a joy for NBA fans. As the NBA is about entertainment that’s really all we can ask for. Regardless of how this plays out in regards to Lin’s career or NBA front office decisions, what we can say is that for two weeks in February Jeremy Lin was the most polarizing person in the NBA, and that in itself is pretty damned impressive.



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