Mike D’Antoni is so fond of some of his former players that he will get excited to the point of gushing out of control about them.
On Sunday night, before D’Antoni’s Lakers faced the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers coach called Denver’s Danilo Gallinari a “great player” before backing up and rationally scaling it down to “good player.”
D’Antoni almost got into the same predicament in Houston before facing the one player whose life fortune he has changed more than anyone's (except for maybe Steve Nash).
But Lin hasn’t been anywhere near the same phenom since leaving the Knicks.
The reality is that it’s almost impossible for anyone to be that kind of phenom—especially someone like Lin, who got hot at the best of times and has plenty of fine-tuning left to do on his skill set. The Harvard grad doesn’t have anything close to Nash’s court vision or the one other critical quality that has made the two-time MVP a legend—shooting.
D’Antoni started to gush about Lin on Tuesday night, flat-out saying how Lin was able to “dominate the league” for that stretch last season. But this time, D’Antoni slowed down and found the simplest way to make that good versus great distinction with Lin.
“You don’t do that unless you’re a good player,” D’Antoni said of last season’s dream stretch. “To be a great player, he has to improve his shot.”
Lin signed for almost the same free-agent money that Nash got from the Lakers in his sign-and-trade deal with Phoenix. Maybe expectations after “Linsanity” will forever be that Lin should become as amazing as Nash has been.
So the Lakers coach knows just as well that Lin will never be "great" unless his shot can be, well, "good."
It’s almost funny that this magical story of Lin’s rise, with all the inspiring racial and cultural ramifications, ultimately boils down to something that basic. How many thousands of basketball players have hit that crossroads where athletic ability only takes them so far, leading to the development of a dependable jump shot?
So much of the talk around the Rockets centers on the need for Lin’s aggressiveness. No doubt, his burst off screens can be special—not Dwyane Wade special, but a sight to behold—and when Lin goes hard, that certainly make the Rockets better.
After Lin helped Houston beat Los Angeles, teammate James Harden said, “As long as he continues to be aggressive, we have a better chance of winning.”
Rockets coach Kevin McHale added, “Jeremy did a much better job just being more aggressive.”
But let’s be clear: It doesn’t take an expert-level basketball mind to realize that Lin will have a lot more space to burst and make straight-line runs to the rim if defenses have to honor his outside shot.
The man is shooting 28 percent on three-pointers this season. In the longer view of his 99-game NBA career, he is below 30 percent.
That’s the level of shooter Lin is, according to the numbers that include the bewitching days of Linsanity. Evidence supports that his jump shot is not good.
That’s why D’Antoni said what he did.
Being great in this league is always about getting better—a little medical treatment here, a little video study there and you're well on your way to improving your game.
And yet for every single guy in the league, working on the jump shot cannot be overstated.
The whole reason Lin didn’t stick with the Golden State Warriors was because he couldn’t seem to overcome the pressure of being the first American of Taiwanese or Chinese descent in the NBA. He was worrying so much about the pressure of getting better that he failed to make the most of his limited minutes.
Nash didn’t have to face that level of societal burden coming out of Canada. He had his own underdog drama to write. Like Lin’s story, Nash’s grew out of the lack of recruiting efforts to have him play in college.
Asked Tuesday night to reflect after recording that 10,000th assist, Nash paused before summing up his emotions in two words: “Fairytale career.”
Lin has worked incredibly hard to get this far, without a doubt. But how well he puts the constant attention aside and focuses on just getting better on the court—especially with his shot—is what will determine whether his career turns out to be a fairytale...or just a short story.
Kevin Ding has been a sportswriter covering the NBA and Los Angeles Lakers for OCRegister.com since 1999. His column on Kobe Bryant and LeBron James was judged the No. 1 column of 2011 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
Follow Kevin on Twitter @KevinDing.