Jeremy Lin: Agent of Chaos

As the season rounds out and sample sizes loom large, we can finally see just what this new Houston Rockets team is. After having by far the highest player turnover in the league, a Rockets team full of question marks has filled in a few blanks. One such question mark was the puzzling Jeremy Lin, a third string point guard who suddenly electrified the world with superstar level play for a dazzling month last February. Now that he’s spent a year as a starter, who is Jeremy Lin? Is he a star, a role player or a bust?

So far, he’s an exceedingly promising ball of chaos. While his shooting may not be as efficient as the team average, and he may not be likely to top ten in assists this year, he’s begun to find his role in Houston’s offense. Lin’s potential role looks similar to that of another point guard and agent of chaos, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook.

Westbrook is an integral part to the Thunder’s elite offense, despite the fact that he subsists on what are traditionally thought of as poor shots. As his game has matured, he’s improved his scoring and more importantly his assists. He’s liable to take any shot with any coverage at any time, and he’s increasingly likely to find an open teammate, too. The value of Westbrook comes from the fact that his actions are unpredictable and somewhat outside of the defense’s gameplan.

Harden seems to be following Kevin Durant’s gameplan, shooting about twenty to twenty-five times a game, and looking for those shots to be efficient. Harden tends to end up poor shooting more often, but his free throws generally keep his true shooting percentages high. Westbrook offers an outlet for those other shots, the shots which make up the other 57 or so attempts per game. Westbrook’s willingness to shoot from midrange has been controversial, but the Thunder have been excellent under his stewardship.

Lin also has a propensity to shot the dreaded midrange two. Of all the players who’ve spent all season in Houston, he’s the only one who scores 10% or more of his points from midrange. Lin’s 12.6% may be well below the league average, but it’s well above Harden’s 7.7% and Parsons’ 6.3%. Even the range-happy Carlos Delfino only scores 8.9% of his points from midrange twos. Some of Lin’s most effective plays have come from his willingness to pop out from behind screens and nail a two point jumper, a shot that’s increasingly rare in Houston.

But this is exactly what Jeremy Lin can keep doing. He’s shoes that he can keep his dribble alive for long stretches, probing and circling the defense. He’s prone to no look passes from reckless drives into the lane, as well as circus shots in the teeth of the enemy defense. Just when he’s curled around the basket, looking to reset the offense, the defense will find another two point shot instead. If Harden is the embodiment of efficient offense, Lin is instead a disruption to the court, and he’s at his best when he’s most unpredictable.

The hope, then, is that he can develop along similar lines to Westbrook. After being known primarily as a scoring point guard, Westbrook has improved his assists per game by a whopping two from last year (5.5)  to this year (7.5). There’s no reason the think that Lin can’t follow a similar trajectory. While it’s not clear if Lin could ascend to a star level of play as Westbrook has, he can definitely play a similar role. When defenses have to account for unpredictable action and moves uncharacteristic of the team, the Rockets’ offense has that many more opportunities. If opposing players are pulled into planning according to the unplanned, and preventing unlikely attempts, the planned and likely is even easier.

The drawback to Lin’s madness is that it’s madness. His propensity to go up without a plan for when he comes down leads to turnovers, and his fearless forays into the paint often end in misses. But there’s value to staying at it, even when the chaos sours. Opposing defenses have to see Lin’s confidence and aggression for the chaos to work. As he improves, his internal entropy engine will only improve with him. While Lin’s style of play might result in some high turnover, low field goal games, the more aggressive he is, the better. In the middle of the Rockets’ efficient offense, some chaos is in order.

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