Linsanity Revisited

Roughly ten years ago, on February 4, 2012, Jeremy Lin came off the bench to lead the Knicks to win against the New Jersey Nets.  Lin, who had not previously played more than six minutes one time all year, had 25 points and 7 assists in 36 minutes.  This spurred a 25-game run where Lin was ignited to instant stardom before more weirdness ensued.  Now, Linsanity is remembered for that fun run but few actually delve into what happened and whether it could have or should have turned out differently.  I thought we could take another look back at Linsanity and see if ten years later, we can properly put this phenomenon in context. 

A Little Background on Lin

Lin had a great career at Harvard, where he started for three years and showed flashes of real athleticism.  After his senior season, Lin looked a solid sleeper prospect, particularly when he scored 30 points against a ranked UConn team. On May 13, 2010, our own Ed Weiland wrote a post where he noted that Lin’s rate stats (particularly blocks and steals) were good indicators that Lin was viable as a pro: “[t]he reason is two numbers Lin posted, 2-point FG pct and RSB40. Lin was at .598 and 9.7. This is impressive on both counts. These numbers show NBA athleticism better than any other, because a high score in both shows dominance at the college level on both ends of the court.”

Ed didn’t think Lin would be a star but did note that “I like Jeremy Lin as a PG prospect, but he isn’t without flaws and concerns. He isn’t a great passer yet and he didn’t score as frequently as a prospect from a small college should. Both numbers are in the grey area though. They’re lower than I’d like them to be, but not low enough that I’d say Jeremy Lin was doomed as a prospect. That being noted, he does bring that combination of a high 2-point pct. and RSB40, which has been a very, very good thing for aspiring NBA PGs to have on their college report card in past years.”  Other publications also wondered whether Lin would the first Asian-American drafted to the NBA (though Ed probably did the deepest dive at the time).

Lin in the NBA pre-Linsanity

Ultimately, Lin was not drafted but the Warriors signed him in the summer of 2010 and he ultimately made the roster out of training camp.  Lin’s background, a Harvard player and the first Asian American to possibly excel in the NBA, got him a lot of attention.  Before the 2010-11 season, The OC Register profiled Lin’s unique story, calling him “a somewhat reluctant torch-bearer for race” and noting that if he makes the NBA, Lin “becomes a lasting image in this place where they say amazing happens, and the inspiration grows.:”

Lin made the Warriors but did get sent down frequently to the G-League where he had 18 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 4.4 apg in 32 mpg in 20 games for Reno.  (As an aside, that Reno team went 34-16 and had a ton of future/past NBAers, most notably pre-famous Danny Green and Hassan Whiteside.  Green and Lin were mostly in the NBA but led Reno in scoring when they did play). 

Lin played a total of 29 games for GS and averaged only about 10 mpg (Steph Curry and Monta Ellis had a lockdown on the majority of the backcourt minutes).  Lin did get a bit more extended time at the end of the lost season and his best game came in the last game of the season (12 points and 5 assists in 24 minutes versus Portland).  Lin had some decent momentum as a prospect based on his G-League stats and his solid last few games.  Even so, GS had a logjam with Curry and Ellis and added to the mix for 2011-12 were Nate Robinson and rookie Klay Thompson.   With no room on the roster, the Warriors waived Lin in training camp.  He was quickly signed by the Rockets but was also cut before the regular season because Houston already had young PGs Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, and Jonny Flynn.

Pre-Linsanity Knicks

Finally, on December 27, 2011, the Knicks signed Lin.  This was a better gig for Lin because New York’s only actual point guard was a mostly cooked 33-year old Mike Bibby and the team really struggled finding a legit point guard to start (sound vaguely familiar Knick fans?).  Mike D’Antoni said at the time that he liked Lin: “[h]e went to Harvard so he might be the smartest guy we have. But he’s very quick, he defends pretty well and he can really get in the lane and distribute the basketball. We haven’t seen him for a couple of years but when we worked him out we liked him.”

D’Antoni did not play Lin much early and actually looked to try to get by at the point without a true ball handler (a la Alec Burks and the 2021-22 Knicks).  First, D’Antoni tried Toney Douglas at the point but he really struggled.   Douglas played well in an opening night win but was pretty bad overall as a starter (in 7 games, 11.7 ppg, .340 FG%, .275 3FG%, 4.0 apg).

Next, D’Antoni took a whirl with rookie Iman Shumpert.   Shump had a nice career as a defensive guard but he was also no PG.  He started 16 of the next 17 games and also struggled, putting up 9.4 ppg on .365 FG%, .250 3FG%, and 3.5 apg.  New York went 6-11 in that span (after a 3-4 start with Douglas).  During all this time, Lin had not played much except for a 20-minute look against Houston (9 points on 3-9, .333 FG%, 6 assists, 3 rebounds).

Finally, on February 4, 2012, D’Antoni gave Lin extend time and he torched Deron Williams for 25 points and 7 assist off-the-bench in a win.  Naturally, D’Antoni gave his only actual PG the starting job immediately.  Thus we would soon have the apex of Linsanity.  Including the win over Jersey, the Knicks won Lin’s first seven games as the primary PG and Lin hit a couple of game winners.  He put up 24.4 ppg, .512 FG%, 9.1 apg, and 4.0 rpg (he still had only .256 3FG%) which also featured a 38-point game and four other games over 23 points.

The world then began going crazy about this exciting underdog, who was leading New York back to respectability while crashing in his brother’s apartment on Canal Street.   After the hot start, Lin had two more great games but came back to earth a bit.  New York went 3-9 in the next 12 games where Lin shot much worse (18 ppg, .412 FG%, .368 3FG%, 8.1 apg, 3.4 rpg).  Things also got strange because Carmelo Anthony was hurt for most of the hot streak (Amare Stoudemire also missed most of that streak too) but the team immediately started losing upon Melo’s return, which people noticed.

After that bad stretch, Lin continued to start but his minutes and shots dipped.  The Knicks went 6-1 in that next stretch but Lin was much more role player (28 mpg, 13.3 ppg, .429 FG%, .294 3FG%, 5.4 apg, 4 rpg).  On March 24, 2012, Lin tore ligaments in his knee, ending his season.  New York had gone 16-10 during that span and Lin’s stat line for Linsanity was: 34.1 mpg, 18.5 ppg, .449 FG%, .324 3FG%, 7.7 apg, 3.7 apg.

Without Lin the rest of the way, New York did not struggle.  The Knicks went 12-5 with an older Baron Davis playing the point most of the time (In 14 games, Baron was very limited and had 24.6 mpg, 7.6 ppg, .386 FG%, .354 3FG%, 4.4 apg, 2.2 rpg).  Baron wasn’t exactly Lin at that point but New York had gotten good minutes from Shumpert, Novak, Landry Fields, and newly signed JR Smith and that was enough to continue to excel.   New York finished 36-30 but were thrashed 4-1 by the peak LeBron/Wade/Bosh Miami Heat.

Would a healthy Lin have changed anything at the end of the 2011-12 season?

Lin was a clear upgrade over the older versions of Bibby/Baron but Lin wasn’t going to make a difference against LBJ & Company.  Nor is it likely they would’ve been better than 12-5 to end the season, even with Lin.  In fact, the strong finish actually hurt New York.  Had they slipped to the eight seed, the Knicks would’ve drawn Chicago, which lost its first round series due to a Derrick Rose injury.  In theory, the Knicks might’ve had the same fate of beating a Rose-less Bulls and drawn a better Boston team in Round Two that was beatable but this whole sliding doors scenario would’ve only happened with a bad finish to the regular season and having Lin for the playoffs, an unlikely combo.

New York was also close to catching Orlando for the six seed, which would have drawn New York a good Indiana team in the first round featuring Paul George and Roy Hibbert.  New York probably would’ve not beaten Indy either (the same Pacer team dispatched New York in the 2012-13 playoffs fairly easily).  So,, an upset of Indiana in 2011-12 wasn’t impossible but unlikely.  Even if the Knicks could’ve beaten Indy, the reward would’ve been a thumping by Miami in the next round anyway.  All this is a long way of saying that Lin’s injury was sad and disappointing but probably didn’t materially change New York’s playoff outcome.

Free Agency Debacle?

Lin entered the 2012 summer as a restricted free agent, so New York could’ve matched any deal.  The young point guard market that summer was very interesting.  There were three very nice young players out there.  Here are their per-36 minute stats (with their signing results in parentheses):

-Kyle Lowry (age 25): .409 FG%, .374 3FG%, 5.1 rebs, 7.4 asts, 1.7 stls, 0.3 blks, 3.1 TOs, 16.0 pts, 18.8 PER, .156 WS48, 4.1 BPM (signed with Toronto for two years, $12 million)

-Goran Dragic (age 25): .462 FG%, .337 3FG%, 3.5 rebs, 7.2 asts, 1.7 sts, 0.2 blks, 3.2 TOs, 15.9 pts, 18.0 PER, .139 WS48, 1.9 BPM (signed with Phoenix for four years, $30 million)

-Jeremy Lin (age 23): .446 FG%, .320 3FG%, 4.1 rebs, 8.3 asts, 2.1 stls, 0.3 blks, 4.8 TOs, 19.6 pts, 19.9 PER, .140 WS48, 3.8 BPM (signed with Houston for three years, $24 million)

Intuitively, it would seem the Knicks would match any offer given to Lin because of how much peak Linsanity was worth to New York.  Lowry and Dragic were older and seemed to have lower ceilings. How do you not take another shot at Lin with these options and the good vibes he imparted?

Two things happened that sabotaged that plan: (a) Lin signed a backloaded deal that would’ve cost New York up to $40 million in luxury tax penalties and (b) Melo didn’t seem keen on playing with Lin anyway.  Before discussing the free agency decisions, let’s address Melo’s alleged complaints about playing with Lin.  Here are Melo’s stats broken down from the 2011-12 season:

-Pre-Lin: 20 games, 35.7 mpg, 23.9 ppg, .406 FG%, .295 3FG%, 6.4 rpg, 4.4 apg, 15.3 GmSc, 1.1 +/-

-During Linsanity: 19 games, 30.8 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .390 FG%, .288 3FG%, 5.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 9.9 GmSc, 0.4 +/-

-Post-Linsanity: 16 games, 36.1 mpg, 29.1 ppg, .491 FG%, .429 3FG%, 7.3 rpg, 3.4 apg, 20.8 GmSc, 4.9 +/-

Melo had been pretty bad before Lin and even worse with Lin.  Anthony then exploded post-Lin.  Based on these numbers you get why he didn’t want Lin back.  Not sure that jettisoning Lin was a great idea but Melo’s perspective was surely rational.

The team’s handling of Lin’s free agency, however, was poor.  In hindsight, Lowry and Dragic were better choices but, not knowing what we do now, signing Lin made all the sense in the world.  On top of that, the Knicks didn’t replace Lin with these youngsters, opting for Raymond Felton, age 27, who was coming off a terrible season in Portland (13.4 PER, .042 WS48, -1.5 BPM) and had never been that good to begin with.  The Knicks were actually good in 2012-13 (54-28) as Felton was okay and a very old Jason Kidd manned the point pretty well but it all fell apart quickly (Felton regressed hard and Kidd retired).

As for Lin, he started for the Rockets in 2012-13 and put up stats consistent with his last few games of the 2011-12 season:  32.2 mpg, 13.4 ppg, .441 FG%, .339 3FG%, 6.1 apg, 3.0 rpg, 14.9 PER, .099 WS48, 0.3 BPM, 1.5 VORP.  The real story was that the Rockets landed James Harden that year and Lin’s skillset made little sense around a ball dominator like Harden.  Lin then bounced around as a mostly backup PG with the Lakers and Hornets.   He did have a nice run as a starter with the Nets in 2016-17 before a few more serious leg injuries in Brooklyn turned him into a backup for good.   He last played in the NBA in 2018-19 when he won a ring as deep bench payer with the Raptors.

Lin and Hoopsanalyst

Before summing up on Linsanity, let’s digress for a minute about how it sort of affected this little blog.  When Lin first started playing well, I vaguely recalled that Ed had written about Lin and wondered if anyone would notice.  Shortly after, I started getting hundreds of Twitter notifications, which was strange because I didn’t even remember I had an account.  Next, I got a call from several media members, most notably The Wall Street Journal, wanting to track Ed down.   This resulted in tons features from big shops like The New York Times, The Atlantic, Business Insider, The Huff Post,  Fox Sports, CNN, and WSJ

At the same time, by pure coincidence, the site went down. We assumed it was a bandwidth issue due to increased traffic (which was what I told WSJ at the time).  I later learned this was purely coincidence but who knew?

Even weirder was an April 2012 article by Daryl Morey about Linsanity in The Economist, where he recognized Ed’s work but was skeptical that anyone could guess something like Lin’s success.  Morey wrote that: “Mr Weiland’s seemingly clairvoyant forecast is a red herring. In fact, no one could have predicted the level of play Mr Lin has attained—at least not without mistakenly foreseeing similar achievements for dozens of other players as well. Rather than life imitating Poe’s art, what Mr Lin’s story really demonstrates is the old Niels Bohr adage: prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” 

Morey further noted that Lin’s stats package in college was similar to that of Josh Slater, a guard from Lipscomb, who never came close to sniffing the NBA, to highlight how hard it is to find the next big thing.  Morey then accepted some shame for letting Lin go previously but explained this was not foreseeable: “Mr Lin has received so much attention because he embodies the reason we love sports: every time you watch, something amazing might happen that no one anticipates. He is an outlier and an underdog whose hard work is paying off at last. Just don’t tell me that anyone—even C. Auguste Dupin—could have predicted it.”

Of course, Morey was broadly correct.  No one can predict with great accuracy that a second rounder or undrafted player would project as an above-average starter.  Morey got it further incorrect when he signed Lin and let Lowry and Dragic both go.  But none of that mattered because Morey predicted that Harden would be good.  In the end, this proves Morey’s point that predictions are imprecise.  Still, that’s a real oversimplification of the prediction process.  Predictions, whether based on scouting or stats, may be wrong but if they are based on sound logic, they will be more often correct than wrong and being correct puts you in the position for a happy surprise like Linsanity or Draymond Green or numerous happy finds. 

Finally, do not take this article to mean that Morey wasn’t impressed with Ed’s analysis.  Ed later was hired to work for the Rockets.

Summing Up Linsanity

No matter what you think of Lin, the Linsanity Run was pure fun for all.  Having said that, we can safely draw the following conclusions:

-Lin was bona fide and legit NBA point guard.  His hot streak was a bit above his head but he deserved to be drafted in mid-first round of the 2010 Draft based on his ability. 

-A healthy Lin probably makes no difference to the 2011-12 Knicks.  The Knicks replaced him adequately in 2012-13 as well.  That doesn’t make the decision to jettison him any better.  Opting for the adequacy of Felton over Lin still feels bad and really represents a lack of imagination by the Knicks.  No one knew Lin’s ceiling but we all knew Felton’s and it wasn’t very high.  That the Knicks put the kibosh on Lin’s return still seems like weirdness.  Any normal organization would’ve tried to sign Lin quickly and without giving him a chance to get a deal that could submarine his return. 

-Lin’s career was solid but hurt by some bad luck.  He had leg injuries that cut short the two best stretches of his career.  His only healthy shot at possible stardom was also quickly gone because he had to share time with a superstar like Harden.  Lin made about $54 million in NBA salary as well as plenty endorsement cash, so he’ll be fine but I get why he might look back with a little frustration at his career.

-Finally, Linsanity gave me whiff of derivative viral popularity and it was both cool and weird.