I know you probably think I’m crazy for saying so, but Lin has actually played pretty well thus far in Houston. He has actually improved his game in several areas and hasn’t seen drop offs in key aspects of his game:
- He’s become an even better defender.
- His decision-making has improved.
- He’s learning to play in different gears.
- He’s become better at making the easy plays (i.e., perimeter pass to teammates who are all set to shoot), rather than going for the high-risk plays (i.e., passes into traffic, leaving his feet without a specific plan in mind, etc.).
- He still has just as keen of a sense for when and where to give his teammates the ball.
- He still has the ability to get into the lane pretty much anytime he wants, the only problem is that in Houston, once he’s in the lane, he doesn’t have a guy like Chandler or Amare who’s ready and willing to receive the ball. Asik still has trouble handling the short hand offs or wrap around drop offs, that Lin often did with Chandler and Amare when Lin attracted the defense in the paint and 2Pat is usually in the perimeter so he’s not usually around to get the ball from Lin in those situations. So this is why you don’t see Lin doing this as much in Houston, but the ability is still there.
As a result, Lin has been quite effective at running the offense and giving his teammates good looks. Lin is doing a good job as a point guard in that regard. Lin’s struggles this season has only to do with his ability to score the ball (this is why in the title of this article, I specifically say “scoring struggles” as opposed to “offensive struggles” or simply “struggles”). His shooting percentage is down and his explosiveness, as well as his ability to finish at the rim is not at the same levels that we saw during Linsanity. He’s also not able to draw fouls like he did during Linsanity. Some of Lin’s scoring struggles have to do with Lin, but some have to do with outside factors. Here are the main reasons for Lin’s scoring struggles:
- Rockets coaching staff. The Rockets coaching staff have not been high on Lin from the very beginning. Compound this with the fact that they were over the moon with the acquisition of Harden and Harden’s monster debut games and you have the recipe for Lin not being allowed to play the way Lin knows how to play. In the preseason, McHale told Lin not to worry about getting the ball to KMart, when Lin expressed his concerns about not being sure if he’s giving KMart enough touches. This was a big relief for Lin. But this all changed once Harden was acquired. The coaching staff emphasized that Harden is the number one option, which makes complete sense, but they went a little overboard. They also made Lin change his game, since both Harden and Lin are ball-dominant players. But, because Harden is a ball-dominant number one option, Lin was forced to play off the ball–something Lin has not been good at. Whenever you’re not playing your game, you’re going to struggle scoring the ball no matter how elite of a scorer you are (i.e., Melo under D’Antoni), because you’re out of rhythm and you’re forced to think about what you’re doing constantly, since it’s still all new to you. In sports, whenever you’re thinking, you’re not doing and so this is a big reason why Lin hasn’t been able to score the ball. He’s uncomfortable contributing as a scorer off the ball. It’s something that he’s still learning and will take a very long time to be comfortable with–if ever. It’s very difficult to learn a new style of playing for anybody. Aside from changing Lin’s game, the Rockets coaching staff also doesn’t instill confidence in Lin. Scoring has a lot to do with confidence. When you feel confident and think that everything you put up will go in, they usually go in. But when you’re feeling like you’re constantly being doubted, then that wears on you and the shots don’t fall. Lin doesn’t feel like he has the license to make mistakes–whether or not this is valid. So he’s been very cautious (i.e., passive) in his play, fearing that the coaching staff will yank him if he makes mistakes. When you play passively you’re not going to score the ball.
- Lin over-thinking. As I’ve said many times in this blog, over-thinking is death in sports. The ideal state is to be in a state of flow, where you’re not thinking about what you’re doing at all. In the Spurs game, Lin said that he wasn’t thinking. He was just playing. And in his breakout game last season against the Nets, Lin said that he finally just went out there and just played the way he knew how to play and just put it all out there without worrying about it. This season with the Rockets, Lin is constantly thinking out there. He’s thinking about whether or not what he’s doing is what the coaches want him to do. He’s thinking about whether or not he should be playing aggressively or passively so there’s a lot of hesitation when he’s shooting the ball, say. In the back of his mind, all the attention about the Linsanity hype, also plays a part in messing with his psyche. I think he’s also concerned about limiting his turnovers, so he’s playing more passively.
- Lin’s shot adjustments. A recent Sports Illustrated article mentioned that Lin’s shooting coach is trying to take some arch out of his shot, since he tends to shoot the ball short. This is unusual, since coaches tend to want players to shoot with more arch. But Lin has too much arch, so a lot of his shots fall short. This explains why Lin’s shot has looked so horrible at times. It’s very difficult to change your shot mid-season, because you need a lot of time to get comfortable with the new adjustments, no matter how minor they may be. Lin is still not comfortable in the mechanical changes to this shooting stroke, so that’s why his shooting percentage is so ridiculously low.
- Lin’s teammates’ lack of confidence in him. When Lin joined the Rockets, he was embarrassed by the “face of the Franchise” label that the media pinned on him. As a result (this is pure conjecture on my part), Lin tried to downplay himself and maybe he toned it down during training camp. I’ve talked about this in a previous post, so won’t dwell on it here. As a result, his teammates weren’t impressed. Contrast this to the way Harden came in and embraced the “face of the Franchise” moniker and told his teammates to tuck in their shirts on the first day of practice. I’m not criticizing Lin nor Harden’s approach, but just pointing out the contrast. I think as a result of Lin downplaying himself, that first impression Lin made to his teammates really stuck. And as Lin began struggling with his scoring in the pre-season, as well as during the season (which was capped by his end of game air ball against Miami), his teammates continue to look Lin off more and more, which is completely understandable I might add. Lin has rarely received the ball back from his teammates after he passes it off. When you’re not getting screens (which is a big part of your scoring game) and your shot isn’t falling, it’s very difficult to beat your man off the dribble if your man is standing back daring you to shoot. It would help some if Lin gets the ball back from his teammates when he’s wide open or when his man is not expecting it so he can drive past his man.
- Lin’s knee recovery. People have pointed this out as a reason for Lin’s struggles. I think this is last on the list of things, but it is still a factor. I think this is affecting Lin’s explosiveness and his ability to beat his man off the dribble, as well as his ability to finish at the rim. So even though it’s last on the list of factors as far as I’m concerned, it is still a significant factor.
Of the five major reasons for Lin’s scoring struggles, some are external to Lin, some are internal, some are a combination of both and one factor is internal to Lin, but is something no one really has much control over (Lin’s knee recovery). The reason why I think Lin’s Spurs game is a breakout game for Lin is because it has positive impacts on three of the five factors above. Namely, “Rockets coaching staff”, “Lin over-thinking”, and “Lin’s teammates’ lack of confidence in him”. This is why my immediate reaction to Lin’s performance in the Spurs game was that it is the most important game Lin has had in Houston.
Lin had probably his best statistical NBA game against the best team in the NBA. A team that embarrassed the Rockets just a few days prior to that game. It would be very hard for the coaches and Lin’s teammates to ignore the significance of this. It’s the type of game that will help change their perceptions of Lin and force the coaches to re-think the way they have been playing Lin and treating Lin. If the coaches are too stubborn to change, then I have a feeling that Morey and Les will have a thing or two to say about it. Les, in particular, was the one who really wanted Lin at all cost. Now, I’m not expecting major changes overnight, but I think that Spurs game will encourage the coaches to allow Lin to play more of his game. As Lin is allowed to play more of Lin’s game, Lin will have fewer things to think about when he’s out on the court. As a result, he will be playing more aggressively and making more shots. In turn, his teammates will gain more confidence in him and give Lin the ball when his man is not expecting it or when Lin is wide open so Lin will get more shot attempts and maybe even get to the line more often.
As for the other two factors, his shot will come as he continues to work on it. His knee is also looking more and more like it’s fully recovered, considering how hard he played in the Spurs game. Lin was just as aggressive in the Spurs game as he was last season. So I don’t think the knee is that much of a factor anymore–if at all.
I know you might think I’m crazy for placing so much significance in just ONE game. But, hey, Lin was able to leverage ONE game last season (i.e. against the Nets) into a “ridiculous” contract in the off season. So if anyone can leverage ONE game, Lin can. Lin just needs to play the way he knows how to play and turn everything else off. I’m not saying Lin is going to score 20+ every night from now on nor am I saying that Lin is not going to have games where he’s shooting 2 for 11. What I am saying is that you’ll see Lin playing more aggressively and making plays almost equally for himself and for his teammates from now on. I’m saying that the days of consistent single-digit shot attempts for Lin are over. From now on, Lin scoring in the mid to high double digits is going to be the norm, not the exception. Unless Lin continues to struggle massively with his shooting, I think this scenario will play out for Lin. Lin’s ability to shoot the ball at an adequate rate (field goal percentage in the mid 40%) is critical to Lin’s scoring success, because it opens up all aspects of his game. For example, when the defense has to worry about your shooting, he can’t stay back on you, making it easier for you to beat him off the dribble.
Anyway, I know this might sound like wishful thinking. Maybe it is. We’ll see how it all plays out.