Just about a calendar year ago, Jeremy Lin ’10 burst onto the NBA scene, jumpstarting Linsanity. Lin, who then won a job as the New York Knicks’ starting point guard, won over the hearts of fans as he led the Knicks to seven consecutive wins. His 136 points through his first five starts were the most in league history.
In New York, under head coach Mike D’Antoni, Lin benefited from the absence of Carmelo Anthony. In D’Antoni’s offense, the point guard begins almost every play with a pick-and-roll that gives said point guard full responsibility. The offense is predicated on the use of “finesse” power forwards that can stretch the floor—à la Steve Novak in New York as well as Boris Diaw in Phoenix—and shooters from all angles.
Lin is at his best as a slasher attacking the lane, where he is adept at both finishing in traffic and drawing high-percentage free throws. The Harvard alum, who shoots about 80 percent from the line for his career, consistently benefited as a Knick by playing with an exceptional pick-and-roll big man in Tyson Chandler—who shot nearly 70% last year from the center position. He repeatedly ran pick-and-rolls with the option to either hit the rolling Chandler if both defenders
converged or blow by a defender into the lane if his defender went over Chandler’s pick. If his defender went under the pick, Lin had the green light to shoot the three. Although it isn’t his strong suit, Lin shot a respectable 33 percent from deep in the 2011-2012 season. If he drove, Lin would have shooters, including Novak and J.R. Smith, on the edges.
In Houston, Lin is part of a rotating cast of ball handlers. James Harden—who averages 5.7 assists—will often be the one to begin the Rockets’ possessions. Harden is a better pick-and-roll player than Lin and an adept finisher at the rim who draws 10 free throws a game, which he converts at an 86 percent clip. Houston likes to use pick and rolls with Harden and big men Omer Asik and Patrick Patterson that allow Harden to drive inside with the screen man collapsing to the hoop, enabling the former to either dish it off or take it to the basket—where he draws contact better than anyone else in the NBA.
When Harden is handling the ball, Lin will often curl along the baseline and set screens for shooters like Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino. Frequently happening at the same time as a pick-and-roll at the top of the key, these screens free up those shooters to rotate towards the top of the arc.
Another intriguing quirk to the offense is using Lin as a backdoor cutter. If Lin can create separation from his man darting to the post, he usually has the option when he catches the ball either to go up for a lay-up or hit a cutting man in the lane. If the defense collapses, Lin can pass the ball back to a shooter on the wing.
When Lin has the ball, he runs sets very similar to the ones D’Antoni drew up for him last year. The Rockets’ league-leading offense is centered around the three (the squad takes about 28 attempts per game) and the free throw (26 tries per game). If Lin gets the ball in transition, he is free to drive up the court and often goes straight to the rim. However, Lin gets less than half—48 percent—of his field goals via assist, one of the lowest rates on the team, evidence of how often he creates his own shot.
Since both Lin and Harden are most effective with the ball in their hands, the duo’s minutes are staggered to minimize the amount they share the court. It’s no coincidence that Lin’s most productive output of the year (38 points against San Antonio on Dec. 10) came with Harden sidelined. Lin has been turnover prone for most of his career—he averages three a game—but is maximally effective as the focal point of the offense.
At this point in his career, Lin is not nearly the player Harden is and is not the focal point of his team’s offense. At Harvard and New York, Lin brought the ball up the floor consistently. In Houston, he has begun working more on his three-point shot, a weaker element of his game. Although he air-balled a game-winning three-point attempt against Miami earlier this year, he is making progress. The combination of Lin’s developing three-point shot and his improved off-ball skills bodes well for his future in the NBA as he adapts to a new role in Houston.
—Staff writer David Freed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @crimsondpfreed.