A cursory glance at Jeremy Lin's numbers through the first month of the 2012-13 NBA season would suggest that the Houston Rockets made a mistake. For a noteworthy investment of $25.1 million over three years, the Rockets have thus far seen a player whose scoring and shooting are down, whose rebounds are slightly up and whose assist and turnover stats have held relatively steady, for better or worse.
But to gloss over these early returns and assume that Linsanity was nothing more than a flash in the pan is to ignore the circumstances that often dictate the difference between success and failure in the minds of the NBA's viewing public. As Matt Moore of CBSSports.com recently noted, moving into a new role on a new team in a new city is not a seamless process and often requires a length adjustment period, even for All-Stars like Andre Iguodala.
Lin certainly isn't on Iggy's level, and may never be, which, in a way, makes his seemingly slow acclimation more understandable. Throw in a lethargic recovery from a knee operation that ended Lin's celebrated tenure with the New York Knicks, and the lackluster start, if not excusable, falls well within reason.
Still, why, amidst all this apparent evidence to the contrary, would anyone think that Lin is anything more than a flash in the pan who's long lost his magical touch? Allow me to explain...
Our first invocation of the "he's hurt/adjusting to his new digs" explanation comes in relation to Lin's shooting percentages.
However you slice it, he's not converting his looks at a particularly pretty rate. Among point guards who average at least 10 minutes a night, Lin ranks 54th (out of 71) in field-goal percentage (.374), 55th in three-point percentage (.256), 57th in effective field goal percentage, which accounts for three-pointers (.408) and 56th in true shooting percentage, which factors in threes and free throws (.460), all per Hoopdata.
So why, then, would these numbers paint anything but a grim picture?
For one, we know his stroke ain't broke. He's converting his free throws at an 85.3 percent clip, though he's made 2.8 fewer trips to the stripe per game compared to his sensational stint last season.
Not that he hasn't been attacking the basket. To date, Lin's taken 52.4 percent of his shots at or near the rim (see chart above, courtesy of NBA.com/stats), compared to 52.7 percent last season. His success rate in that region—45.5 percent—is comparable (albeit still troublingly low) to the 48 percent he posted in 2011-12. Those numbers should improve so long as Jeremy stays aggressive and continues to penetrate whenever he can.
As for his perimeter shooting, his 28.6 percent mark is also bound to recover. Rahat Huq of ESPN.com wrote on Wednesday that Lin had been working diligently on his shooting and that, in the opinion of Rockets interim coach Kelvin Sampson, he "got his swagger back against New York." Lin shot 6-of-12 from the field against his old team, followed by a 7-of-9 showing opposite the Toronto Raptors.
His percentages, then, should keep climbing as he grows more comfortable taking fewer shots in a relatively reduced role next to James Harden.
Sharing a backcourt with James Harden has (rather predictably) left Lin with fewer opportunities to orchestrate his team's offense. According to Basketball Reference, Jeremy has thus far used up 18.6 percent of the Rockets' possessions when he's on the floor, compared to a whopping 28.1 percent with the Knicks last season. The latter number would put Lin on par with a near-All-Star like Brook Lopez, the former with a role player like Brandan Wright.
Yet despite getting fewer touches in seven more minutes per game, Lin's raw assist numbers have held steady, if not ticked slightly upward. He's averaging 6.4 assists through his first 14 games as a Rocket, compared to 6.2 in 35 outings with the Knicks.
That's still good enough for 17th in the NBA, and Lin's only just started to get cozy in Space City.
To be sure, Lin's stable assist numbers likely have something to do with the shift in systems. He's gone from a Knicks squad that ranked 22nd in helpers per game (19.6) and fifth in pace (93.1 possessions per game) to a more uptempo Rockets squad that ranks eighth in assists at 22.1 and first in pace with 94.9 possessions.
Lin may not be assisting on as high a percentage of Houston's makes (29.3 percent) as he was New York's (41 percent), but he's also not the only one of his teammates who can dish consistently. Harden drops 5.4 dimes a night, and sophomore swingman Chandler Parsons chips in 3.5 of his own.
It's not just that Jeremy's assisting that counts. It's also how he's assisting that matters in this discussion.
According to NBA.com's stats tool, the Rockets shoot significantly worse in the paint when Lin's on the floor (28 percent) than they do when he's not (42 percent). To be sure, shots in the paint but outside the restricted area aren't necessarily the easiest or most efficient looks. Many teams have shifted their defensive philosophies to crowd the middle of the floor, rendering eight to 12-footers amidst a pack of opponents that much more difficult to hit.
And considering Lin's still-subpar numbers as a finisher, as noted earlier, this hardly comes as a surprise.
To Lin's credit, though, the league's analysis suggests that he's doing a fine job of setting up his teammates for easy shots where he should. With Jeremy on the floor, the Rockets are shooting 58 percent in the restricted area, which is on par with their overall accuracy, and 35 percent from mid-range, which is slightly higher than the team average and significantly higher than their 28 percent sans-Lin clip.
But the best news for Lin comes from the shift in percentages on the all-important corner three. The Rockets are knocking down the second-most efficient shot in basketball (behind the dunk/layup) at a 40 percent pace with Lin, compared to a paltry 25 percent without him.
This shouldn't come as too great a shock. Lin routinely does an excellent job of using his quickness to penetrate and collapse the defense, thereby leaving his teammates with wide-open looks from the corners.
So long as he keeps finding them in the right spots, his presence will be of plentiful value to the Rockets.
As mentioned earlier, Lin has benefited from a move away from Mike Woodson's iso-heavy offense to a more uptempo situation in Houston.
But were the Rockets really a running team before? And to what extent might Jeremy have changed that?
The answer to the first question would best be described as "not exactly." The Rockets were just 11th in pace, 10th in fastbreak scoring and 13th in fastbreak efficiency prior to Lin's arrival.
As for how (if at all) Lin has altered that reality, consider that Houston now checks in first, fourth and ninth in those respective categories. It would appear, then, as though Lin has played a part in helping the Rockets push the pace and pick up more easy buckets as a result.
It helps that Jeremy's as good at crashing the boards as he's proven to be. He's tied for fifth among point guards with 4.6 rebounds per game, 3.8 of which have come at the defensive end. By wiping the glass, Lin can often start the break himself, be it with a long outlet pass or a speedy dribble up the court.
Again, it helps to have another ball-handler and scoring threat like Harden with whom to share the backcourt. But even Lin is out-boarding the bigger Bearded One, who's served as a solid finisher on many a Lin pass in the early going.
Lin's defense remains a bone of contention—the Rockets allow 3.1 points per 100 possessions more when Lin's on the floor, per NBA.com.
But, to Lin's credit, he's done a solid job of attacking those against whom he has something to prove, at least of late. This past Friday, Lin helped to lead a 131-103 rout of the visiting Knicks. His numbers (13 points, seven rebounds, three assists, one steal) were hardly eye-popping, but he played with a level of confidence that'd rarely been seen this season, and that, apparently, rubbed off rather well onto his teammates.
For an encore, he outplayed Kyle Lowry, whose job Lin essentially took, in a 117-101 walloping of the Raptors. While Lowry was mired in a relatively subpar performance (seven points on 3-of-10 shooting, eight rebounds, five assists), Lin was busy filling it up as the Art Garfunkel to Harden's Paul Simon. Jeremy ended the evening with 16 points on 7-of-9 shooting, with four rebounds, three steals and 10 assists to boot.
If Lin continues to play with this same sort of fearlessness, efficiency and self-belief, he'll soon be eschewing any memories of his early-season slump in favor of flashbacks to the salad days of Linsanity.
And that $25.1 million contract? For a 24-year-old point guard who's still learning the NBA game, it'll look like a steal.