And now, if the early results of the 2013-14 season can be believed, he's going to emerge as a leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Averaging 18.2 points and 4.9 assists per game, he's been absolutely phenomenal for the Rockets, and that isn't going to change any time soon.
In fact, B/R's Howard Beck even goes so far as to bring back the "Linsanity" phrase from the dead.
So, what's changed? How exactly is Lin reinventing himself again?
Controlling the Ball Much More
Because Lin is no longer spending all of his time playing alongside James Harden, he's been able to maintain much more control of the rock. And as we learned during Linsanity, he's much better when he's able to lead the offense and open things up with his drives to the basket.
According to NBA.com's statistical databases (subscription required), Lin has spent 25.3 minutes per game lining up next to Harden. Since he plays 33.8 minutes total per game, that leaves 8.5 minutes each contest free for him to function as the lead guard.
And that's been all that Lin needs.
The SportVU data collected by NBA.com shows that Lin has been quite active touching the ball.
Checking in at 69.5 touches per game, the former Harvard standout has been as involved as all but 32 players in the NBA. To put this in perspective, the two players directly in front of him are Stephen Curry and Carmelo Anthony, and he actually touches the rock in the frontcourt more often than 'Melo.
As far as time of possession, Lin is controlling the ball for 4.2 minutes per game.
That's more than LeBron James and 'Melo.
Lin has to have this type of ball domination. Without it, he's relegated to being an off-ball guard, and while he's proving that he can thrive in that type of role (more on that later), it's not allowing him to maximize his talents.
That's why he struggled more when Anthony returned to the lineup for the New York Knicks a couple years back. It's why he was kept in check when he had to play next to Harden so often last year.
In 2012-13, 83.7 percent of his minutes were spent next to the bearded 2-guard. This season, that number has dropped to 74.9 percent.
Is there any doubt that that has helped him break out as a sixth man?
Of course, Lin's rise to prominence as a bench player has also been aided by two primary offensive skills.
It's All About the Drives
They say in golf you drive for show and putt for dough. Well, Lin has driven for both during the 2013-14 season.
In fact, per the SportVU database on NBA.com, few players (if any) have been better at attacking the basket. A drive is defined as "Any touch that starts at least 20 feet of the hoop and is dribbled within 10 feet of the hoop and excludes fast breaks," and only Monta Ellis and Ty Lawson have recorded more than Lin's 113.
But here's the key.
While Ellis has made 46.2 percent of his drives and Lawson is sitting pretty at 57.1, Lin makes both of them look bad. He's knocking in 63.4 percent of his attempts. Among players who have driven at least twice per game and played in eight contests, he also has the No. 7 field-goal percentage on drives. Take a look at how the top 10 have fared:
|Player||FG% on Drives||Drives Per Game|
If you're handing out a "Most Impressive Driver" award, there would be two logical candidates: Tony Parker and Lin. Personally, I'd go with the latter because he's been so active in the area and is only ceding a tiny bit of efficiency, but it really is a subjective call.
Plus, of the 10, Lin is generating the most team points per game on drives, which factors in his passing off of penetration as well. His mark of 12.7 is tops in the group you can see above, and it's bested by only Ty Lawson among all players in the NBA.
Part of his prowess stems from both his ability to split double-teams (easier when playing alongside Dwight Howard) and his knack for finishing right around the basket.
Below you can see an impressive play against the Charlotte Bobcats, the proud owners of a surprisingly potent defense:
As the play begins, the Bobcats are trying to prevent Lin from going over the top, forcing him into the teeth of the defense.
Fine, says Lin.
After a hesitation dribble right on the hip of D12, he shoots through the gap and is ready to attack the basket.
And that's exactly what he does, going off the wrong foot to finish creatively. By using both his body and the rim for protection, there's virtually no chance that his shot gets blocked.
But even if it's going to, he has plenty of options. See Francisco Garcia out on the perimeter, waiting for a wide-open corner three? How about Dwight crashing to the basket for a dump-down pass?
Lin has been thriving when he gets to the rim, and it's a direct result of his ability to serve as the primary facilitator.
Improvements Catching and Shooting
The biggest reason for his success, though? That would be the remarkable improvement that Lin has shown as a marksman.
Not only is he shooting well over 50 percent from the field this season, but he's also knocking down 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts. Small sample size? Nope, as Lin is taking 4.1 triples per game.
While he's been solid off the dribble, Lin has become extremely potent when spotting up for a catch-and-shoot attempt. Below you can see an example, once more against the 'Cats:
Chandler Parsons initiates the play by crashing to the hoop, something that he's done quite often this season. And while the defense responds, Lin sneakily moves out along the perimeter and finds himself below the break, waiting to fire up a three-point attempt.
See? Wide open.
Lin hasn't maintained this success long enough to draw consistent defensive focus, but he's getting there. It'll be increasingly rare for him to find himself with this much space on the perimeter if he can keep up these percentages.
Now this is exactly why I've included the play.
Parsons' pass is by no means on target. It barely gets to Lin and, in attempting to corral the errant pass, Lin is momentarily knocked out of rhythm for a potential shot. It also gives Kemba Walker time to close out after he had drifted a dangerous distance away from the perimeter.
But does it matter?
Walker doesn't get there in time, and Lin drills the three-pointer. And if he's finding this type of success even without on-target passes, just imagine what he does when they're delivered with pinpoint accuracy.
Throughout the season as a whole, Lin has shot 52.6 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities from the field, including a scorching 48.6 percent from beyond the arc, per NBA.com's stats.
Among all the players in the NBA taking three catch-and-shoot triples per game, only 11 are hitting with more frequency. And the list reads like a who's who of great marksman: Ryan Anderson, Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson, Jodie Meeks, Wilson Chandler, Wesley Matthews, Kevin Martin, Arron Afflalo, Lance Stephenson, Stephen Curry and Steve Blake.
Since when did that happen? Part of the reason Patrick Beverley was earning minutes for the Rockets was that he was a better shooter, capable of spacing out the court for the rest of his offensively talented teammates.
Well, so much for that.
Beverley is shooting only 30.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes.
All of these developments have allowed Linsanity to return in full force. And this time, there's no question about whether or not it's a fluke due to a lack of scouting reports.
Lin is legitimately emerging as one of the best sixth men in the league, and he's here to stay. And if that happens, the Rockets' status as contenders only takes a step in the positive direction.