By: rahat huq
With the Dwight Howard courting period still some time away from commencement, we’ll turn our direction towards the most polarizing topic in Rockets basketball - Jeremy Lin.
To begin, a recitation of prior thoughts: My stance all year long was one of opposition to Kevin McHale’s handling of Lin. I believed that McHale did not properly manage Lin’s playing time and confidence, maintaining a short leash when, in my opinion, the circumstances dictated trust and nurturing. As the only player on the team other than James Harden able to create his own shot, I believed that Lin should have been given more opportunities to succeed; instead, he was routinely benched in the fourth quarters of close games, after short spurts of poor play, and rarely allowed to attack as the primary point of offense. I believed that early lenience would bear later fruit through renewed confidence and repetition.
[While McHale’s approach can only be characterized as myopic, I can’t particularly find fault. Void of job security, McHale doesn’t have the luxury of coaching for the future, unlike Gregg Popovich of the Spurs.]
What transpired for Mr. Lin during the postseason was perhaps, with the benefit of hindsight, all too predictable. In the few games in which he appeared, Lin provided little of anything productive, appearing, if not timid, wildly out of sorts. However, it would not be accurate nor truthful to conclude that Lin would have fared better had he been given a chance to take his lumps earlier on or that the poor showing was direct result of McHale’s mismanagement. It could very well be that Lin simply doesn’t have it to compete against physical defense. Yet I contest that the only way to have truly known would have been to have given him a chance. Without those in-season reps, Lin didn’t stand a chance in the postseason.
Lin, the player, is a fascinating paradox. He shatters racial stereotypes in that his dominant trait is his athleticism. He’s big, sturdy and possesses elite level quickness. It’s his skill level that comes up short. Lin’s main ability is in blowing past defenders with a lethal first step, either one on one, or off the pick and roll. It’s in facing complex schemes or menacing defenders where he comes undone. I’ve posited that Lin possibly has the lowest overall skill level of any starting point guard in basketball. After having watched him closely for an entire season, I still feel comfortable with that assertion.
Unlike his peers, among deception/change-of-direction moves, Lin only has a standard right-to-left/left-to-right crossover, and a weak one at best. (Other moves frequently seen in the repertoires of Lin’s peers include the in&out, between the legs, behind the back, and spin.) Lin also does not have hesitation/head-fake moves. For these reasons, if Lin is unable to simply blow by his man with sheer quickness, he is left unable to get past his man at all.
Towards year’s end, I spoke at length with a well-placed individual within the Rockets’ basketball ops specifically about Lin’s development. When asked, in contrast, about which traits made the very best point guard—Chris Paul—truly great, he responded, “the ability to dribble the ball at different heights.”
While simple, this is rather profound. What makes Paul, and formerly Steve Nash, so lethal, is that they can keep a live dribble within cramped spaces by using a tight, close dribble. Paul can dip his way around picks, inside the paint, stop, stay low, and reassess the opposing defensive coverage prior to making his decisions. Lin, in contrast, can only blow by initial coverage, maintaining a waist-high handle; he can’t stay low and protect the ball. For Lin, there is no stop-assess, read-react. There is only the first initial burst.
This inability on the part of Lin is a subset of the overall inability to play at different speeds. Lin can only play fast which is why, to date, he is an average point guard at best. Point guards are taught from a young age that they can and should always be able to control their man, simply by keeping him at his hip. They can play slow, they can play fast, or they can even stand their ground in one spot, just by protecting the ball with their bodies. Lin, on the other hand, lets his man control him, as he simply tries to get past him; Lin can’t keep a live dribble in one spot against a pressing defender. To any trained eye, it’s apparent that Lin did not play point guard in college.
Among Lin’s other flaws are poor fundamentals and overall lack of variance in his arsenal. He has an awkward hitch to his shot and most egregiously, he simply cannot drive left. If you watch, Lin just isn’t comfortable going in that direction. There is no burst and if he even does go that way, it will just be a few soft dribbles before a pass off. Even worse, if taking a layup from the left, Lin jumps off the wrong leg and just resorts to a reverse right-handed layup. Lin doesn’t have a floater or any unique finishing move.
For these reasons, Lin will never be a pure floor general even at the level of former Pacer Mark Jackson. It’s possible that Kevin McHale, a man who’s seen a few games of basketball in his time, noticed this immediately and decided it wasn’t even worth the time and reps. I contest, however, that even if not serving as a full-fledged pure point, Lin at the least, with more confidence, could have better used his elite quickness in the playoffs to create opportunities as a hybrid guard. Alas, it didn’t happen and we won’t know. With that said, if McHale’s thinking truly was in line with my theorization, it at least holds ground against the test of rational basis.
In the next installment, I’ll discuss Lin’s dramatic shooting improvement over the course of the year with a look ahead to his role in what could possibly be a Dwight-centric offense.