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It's hard to say that Jeremy Lin started off the season with incredibly high expectations. How could there be, considering that the Houston Rockets essentially paid to get their former point guard off their team?
Even a year ago, Linsanity was a fading memory. It had been two full seasons since the point guard set New York City ablaze with his transcendent play, at the same time earning himself over $20 million in free agency money. Though he was solid in his next stop in Houston, Lin's play wasn't nearly as electric as that one month in the Big Apple. He was often good, but not great, which as an undrafted player from an Ivy League school, would be beyond anyone's wildest expectations. But seeing as how Linsanity had already crossed that rubicon, Lin's achievements were, and perhaps always will be, played against what now looks like one month of extraordinary play.
Last summer, on July 15th, the Rockets -- then seemingly on the cusp of signing free agent power forward Chris Bosh -- shipped Jeremy Lin and his $15 million salary off to the Los Angeles Lakers along with a 2015 first round pick for Sergei Lishchuk, a player who will likely never play an NBA minute. Houston's primary focus was clearing the requisite salary cap room to be able to sign the two-time champion Bosh, but the transaction was telling: they had to pay a premium to get Lin off of their roster. Oddly enough, the very same day, they had traded center Omer Asik to the New Orleans Pelicans on a very similar contract and actually received a pick for his services.
Expectations for Jeremy Lin were not exactly bubbling with positivity to being the season, to say the least. However, on a Lakers team with Steve Nash, Ronnie Price and Jordan Clarkson, there was no doubt: Jeremy Lin would be given every chance to make the position his own. But even this was a testament to how far he had fallen. There was once a time where the conversation wasn't about Lin beating out a broken down veteran, a journeyman and a second-round rookie for a starting job. It was about how good the Harvard graduate could truly be.
Still, hope sprung anew. Despite the Rox paying a premium to rid themselves of his contract, there was a sense that if Lin could again succeed, this Lakers team could be a great opportunity. With the other point guard options being lackluster (to say the least) and the team's other offensive options being limited to a 36-year-old Kobe Bryant and Nick Young, it seemed as though LA's new PG could thrive. Expectations for him were as low as they'd been since he was cut twice during the 2011-2012 season.
Jeremy Lin had everything to prove this year and it looked like he'd have every chance to do so. After all, if he couldn't do it with a talent-bereft Lakers team with zero expectations, where was he ever going to do it?
Lin's year-end numbers tell the entire story: a true mixed bag. At 11 ppg, 2.6 rpg and 4.6 apg, with a respectable .424/.369/.795 shooting line, the guard's statistics look just fine. Nothing that would deliver an All-Star berth, surely, but certainly nothing to be ashamed of. He shot under 9 times per game, which gave him a decently efficient clip, though taking fewer than 3 free throws a game certainly was a bit of a disappointment. He shot a career-best .369 from long on fewer attempts than his last two years in Houston, but his shooting numbers took a big tumble everywhere else on the board essentially. His turnovers were down and his usage rate was up, which partially explains why his points per game was down.
All in all, from a statistical picture, Lin had a solid, but unspectacular season. His line makes him look like a capable player with noticeable flaws and room to improve. At 25.8 minutes per game, one would certainly think that with perhaps another half quarter on the floor, he certainly could achieve that. All of this makes sense when we look at the product on the floor.
Lin played in 74 games this season, a fantastic development for anyone who had questions about his durability. However, in a year when he was supposed to grab the starting job by the throat, the point guard only ended up starting 30 of them. In Lin's defense, part of this logic had to do with the development of youngster Clarkson, whom management had every intention of allowing to develop in this lost season. But looking at the big picture, it's extremely difficult to ignore the fact that Lin was replaced early on not by Clarkson, but rather Ronnie Price.
At the time, coach Byron Scott gave some nebulous excuse that he "likes the energy that Price was bringing in the starting lineup", rather than it being an indictment of Lin. This explanation was shoddy, to say the least. How could Scott possibly say that Price, a training camp invitee veteran who may never play in the NBA again, should be starting over a proven scorer with a multimillion dollar guaranteed deal? Perhaps Scott liked the intangibles the scrappy Price brought to a starting lineup, which potentially set the tone for the team the rest of the game. Maybe Scott wasn't a fan of Lin's inconsistency from week to week. Or perhaps he just thought that his new point guard was better suited playing against other teams' second units.
Whatever the reason, that's where Lin was for a majority of his games this season. He came off the bench without a large variance from his numbers as a starter, with his baseline statistics down slightly in accordance with a six minute dip in playing time. It seems that Lin's impact on the floor was very much similarly serviceable whether he was in the starting lineup or not. So what does all this tell us?
What Jeremy Lin proved this year is that the player we saw in New York isn't the guy he's really going to be. Ever. Jeremy Lin is not a superstar. Jeremy Lin is not an All-Star-caliber player. He is not a centerpiece of a team or even a player that should be considered a part of a franchise's core. He is an international star, that's for sure, but that is for reasons that are not entirely confined to the basketball court.
What Jeremy Lin is, however, is an NBA rotation player. His professional destiny going forward is most likely that of a back-up NBA point guard. And you know what? That's not a bad thing. Is it what some of us envisioned for him during that game-changing (some would say culture changing) month a few years ago? No. Far from it. However, it's more than many -- including Lin himself -- could have ever asked for.
Looking deeper at the statistics, Lin's play, skill set and numbers identify him best with being a back-up-caliber guard. Take a look at Dallas Mavericks bench PG Devin Harris' Per 36 numbers (stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com, obviously):
And now Lin's:
Not too dissimilar, no? Harris is a back-up point guard in this league and probably will be at any stop going forward. If you disagree, well, go tell Rick Carlisle that. He's one of the best coaches in the NBA.
Now, some will argue that Lin wasn't used correctly by coach Byron Scott. That's not exactly a novel argument, from any side of the coin: I don't know that he used any Laker correctly this season. Scott's offensive system didn't play to Lin's strengths: a real lack of drives to the basket, tons of one-on-one post-up possessions, high screens leading to nothing creative. It was a dry, boring offense with little ball movement and a lack of focus on the point guard position. That said, how then do we explain Jordan Clarkson's numbers? How do we explain the rookie's aggressive drives to the rack, reminiscent of the Jeremy Lin of old?
Lin would be a much more effective player in an uptempo offense where the point guard is doing most of the distribution. Put in a system where his role was similar to say that of Patty Mills with the San Antonio Spurs, Shaun Livingston of the Golden State Warriors or Dennis Schroeder of the Atlanta Hawks, I have no doubt that Lin would look like a much more comfortable player with slightly better statistics, say, the 15 ppg and 5 apg stratosphere. However, as a starter? Is Jeremy Lin better than Jeff Teague? What about Stephen Curry? Or how about...Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight, Monta Ellis, Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Ricky Rubio, Brandon Jennings, Chris Paul or Tyreke Evans?
He's not. I just named 19 starting point guards. That's most of the league. And even if his stats were to end up around 15/6, in this point guard-driven league, that makes him a very good player. It doesn't make him an All-Star. The limitations that Lin showed this year independent of Scott--hesitation when making decisions in the lane, spotty mid-range shooting, a solid but uncreative passing ability and rampant inconsistency--lead me to believe that this soon-to-be 27-year-old is reaching his peak. He often looked lost and adrift, wearing a frustrated expression made all the more stark when compared to the cool confidence that Clarkson showed as the season wore on. After three seasons as a regular contributor, it's starting to become unreasonable to believe Lin will ever become the All-Star player that Linsanity suggested he could be.
Jeremy Lin is not a disappointment. Not by a long shot. He is an undrafted player who should have never made it into the L, who also had an incredibly hot month of play, will have intermittently solid weeks of above average production and has the skills to stay in the league for a long time to come. Despite playing in a system that doesn't cater to his strengths and with many teammates who, quite frankly, didn't deserve to be in the NBA, he put up some nice statistics in a horrible basketball situation. I have no doubt that an NBA team -- unlikely to be the Lakers -- will snap him up to play back-up minutes for another guard vying for a spot on the All-Star roster.
What Lin proved this season is that he's a good player. Not a great player. But a good one.
It's time that all of us -- the haters, the loyalists and everyone in between -- adjusted their expectations accordingly.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino