Jeremy Lin is one of the most polarizing figures in all of the NBA, which means there’s a lot of misinformation, outlandish opinions and flat-out incorrect rumors being spread on any given day. The record needs to be set straight, and I had an opportunity to sit down with Nathan Gottlieb, unquestionably one of the world’s foremost Lin experts to set the record straight.
Michael Dunlap (Editor-in-Chief, HoopsHabit.com, Senior Content Director, FanSided): Tell us a bit about yourself and your history, Nathan.
Nathan Gottlieb (Professional Writer, Former New York Knicks Beat Writer, Jeremy Lin Expert):
I was a sportswriter with the Newark Star-Ledger for 19 years. The Knicks were my beat for 9 years. I traveled with the team to all away games. Saw over 800 Knicks game from court side. After that I branched out into covering Yanks, Mets, Giants, horse racing, NCAA tourneys, and worked 5 World Series, including the 1989 one which was disrupted by the big earthquake.
Currently, the only sportswriting I do is for HBO’s boxing website. Been getting assignments from HBO since 2005. My writing focus now is on a mystery series in which I’ve published five books and am working now on a 6th. Here is a link to myauthor page on Amazon.com.
MD: Jeremy Lin is now with his third team in three years and fifth in six seasons. How can a player with such promise not seem to find a home?
NG: There’s no simple answer to that. Each situation was different.
The Warriors cut him reluctantly because of roster space. The Knicks let him go because of a maniac team owner, James Dolan. After Linsanity, Lin was a restricted free agent. Arrogant Dolan didn’t make him an offer. Told him go out and get one and he’d match it. My guess is Melo, who was jealous of him, had something to do with that. When Lin got that “poison” pill contract from Rockets GM Darryl Morey, with $14.5 in last year, by all insider accounts Dolan went nuts. Felt betrayed by a kid he thought owed him, which is silly. So he basically didn’t match, and let this huge fan favorite walk for NOTHING in return.
Important to note, as is often case with restricted FAs, only offer Lin got was from the daring Morey.
Morey promised Lin he’d be the face of the franchise. But all the while Morey was doing a behind-the-scenes push for James Harden. As soon as Harden was traded to the Rockets, he became the face of the franchise.
Popular myth is that Pat Beverley beat him out as starter. Reality is different. Beverley was a lot better defender than Lin (at the time), and because Harden couldn’t guard a garbage can, Beverly was a better fit with him. Also, Harden is ball dominant and really wanted to play PG. Beverly didn’t need ball in his hands, and in truth when he had it, couldn’t do much in the way of passing or scoring when he did have it.
Morey didn’t want to trade Lin to LA. But Houston was deep in talks with Bosh to get the obsessed Morey’s “third star.” By all accounts, Bosch was very close to signing. But Morey needed to free up cash. Lin’s contract for third year counted as $8.3 million against the cap.
Here’s where LA GM pulled a fast one on Morey. Kupchak had Morey over a barrel. He wanted Lin, Morey needed to get rid of the salary to sign Bosh. Knowing this, Kupchak gave Morey a one week deadline to make the deal or LA would move on. With Bosh apparently ready to sign, Morey dumped Lin BEFORE he had Bosh’s signature. That’s how Lin came to LA.
LA was Lin’s worst nightmare. He had a dinosaur for a coach in Byron Scott, who discouraged PnR, 3-point shots, transition basketball, and drives into the lane. Basically all the tools a modern team uses to win.
Then came the Kobe factor. He saw how popular Lin was with LA fans. He didn’t want anyone to outshine him, so he forced his weak coach, who feared Kobe could get him fired yet again, to bench Lin and play career third string PG Ronnie Price. By having do-nothing Price at PG, Kobe basically had cleared the way for him to dominate the ball, like Harden, and get his shots at will.
Scott constantly was critical of Lin. He insinuated he was soft like toilet paper. Scott’s worst sin was to play havoc with Lin’s playing time. There was no consistency in minutes, no set role. He’d jerk him in and out of the game at will. Several times Lin would have strong first half off the bench, like 18 points, 6 assists in 18 minutes. Then the second half he’d only play Lin 8 minutes. Or Lin would rally the team in the third quarter from a big deficit, only to never see a minute in 4th Q.
A lot of this crap from Scott was part of LA’s tanking scheme. When Lin was on the court, he was always a threat to help LA get that dreaded “W.”
End result was that Lin became depressed, started to lose his confidence. By All-Star break he was confused and dispirited. Then he spent a lot of time with his family and friends, asked God help him get his mind straight and at peace. After the All-Star break, Lin’s next 7-10 games were terrific. Don’t have the numbers handy, but LA Media widely wrote about the change in him.
Scott then went back to his usual bag of tricks, screwing around with his PT, yanking him if he missed a shot. So his game diminished as season wound down.
Lin didn’t want any part of re-signing with LA as a free agent, and the feeling was mutual. Scott, Kobe didn’t want him either.
And all that is why he played for five teams in six years.
Linsanity had been a perfect storm for Lin. His years after that were a perfect storm of bad luck, bad coaching, and jealous superstars.
Melo to Harden to Kobe. What NBA rookie ever had to suffer three straight times playing alongside the league’s premier ball hogs?
Most important to know: during all this adversity, Lin constantly worked on improving his game and his body strength. He cut down on his turnovers. He improved his 3-pointer.
I firmly believe the Lin you’ll see this year is a more mature, more under control version of Linsanity. Lin is better now than during Linsanity.
I expect a big year from Lin, who will then opt out of his 2-year deal, having regained his reputation, and will sign for his true dollar value, likely a 3-4 year deal. Which would stop the crazy bouncing from team to team.
MD: Do you feel that Lin’s popularity around the world factored into his inability to get more minutes in his previous stops? Do you think those “premiere ball hogs” were also a bit worried about Lin stealing their spotlight?
NG: I think his popularity only affected his minutes in LA.
McHale, for all his failings as a coach, will play anybody who can help him win. He’s not insecure, he’s a HOF guy. Plus in Lin’s first year in Houston, McHale was on the last year of his contract. He needed to win to save his job. He mainly cut Lin’s minutes because he needed Beverley on court when Harden was in, which was pretty much most the time.
Lin actually played very well in Houston, especially when Harden was sidelined with an injury. That includes the 38 points Lin dropped on one of the league’s best D teams, Spurs, when Harden wasn’t playing.
The LA situation was different. It all boiled down to Kobe. Kobe was coming back after basically being dismissed as washed up by many national writers. He had something to prove. And to prove it, he needed the ball in his hands at all times. Lin was a threat to Kobe’s ball dominance and iso play. I don’t think he disliked Lin, no player ever does. But Kobe was in his “I’ll prove all of you hotshot writers wrong mode.” Weak, insecure Scott, who’d be fired by Nets, Cavs, and New Orleans, in large part by star guards who didn’t like his style of play, was coaching scared. I personally think he was hired only for two reasons: to facilitate and bodyguard Kobe’s final two years, and to tank. Tanking for Scott didn’t even have to be intentional, although it was. He’s such a bad coach, they’d have lost anyway.
As for the infamous trio of ball hogs, well I can say with some conviction Melo was jealous. He has a tremendous need to be loved by fans. Lin was obviously more popular. Melo had Dolan’s ear. I’m sure Melo was telling Dolan not to overpay this kid, and hinting he’d be better off letting him go.
Don’t think Harden was necessarily jealous of Lin. His big problem with Lin was that Lin needed the ball and so did he. And for Harden to prove he was a true starter, not a 6th man, he had to hog the ball. Harden wasn’t so much worried about Lin stealing the spotlight as he was that Lin would inhibit his ability prove he was a starter and a star.
MD: In your opinion, why didn’t more teams go after Lin this offseason?
NG: Several reasons. Some of them were on Lin’s side of the equation.
First let me say that Lin’s father indicted while they were on a family vacation in Asia that his son received interest from “8 or 9 teams.” Which is pretty decent considering: 1. His value had been diminished in Scott’s nightmare offense. 2. Most teams were offering just a backup PG role and Lin has a burning desire to start.
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When Dallas pursued him, they wanted him to start. Or so they said. Lin wanted that starting role so badly he ended up letting the Mavs put him in a holding pattern while they waited for DeAndre Jordan to sign. During that time, other teams interested in him moved on. Won’t say he got screwed by Mavs, but it seemed that way. Lin finally got tired of waiting on Mavs and took Charlotte’s offer.
One offer I do know he got was from the Grizzlies, who wanted to sign him for 3 years as a backup to Conley. Problem with Grizzlies offer is they wouldn’t give him an opt-out after one year. And therein lies the problem from Lin’s end.
If he wasn’t getting a starting job, then he wanted that opt out. Basically, teams then knew if they gave him the opt out, he’d be akin to a rental who was looking to showcase his true value on the market before signing elsewhere. That scared away teams.
Another factor is that majority of NBA teams in this PG rich era, already had their starting and backup PG in place. I believe after this year, though, when Lin regains his stature, you’ll see several more teams go after him.
Charlotte is in a win now mode because the coach and maybe the GM are on the hot seat after not making playoffs last year. So they were willing to rent him for a year, if it came to that, and gave him the opt out. I’m sure Lin would be open to signing long term with Hornets, but only as a starter. Meaning they’d have to trade Kemba Walker and his eminently affordable $12 million per year deal for the next four years. Unlikely to happen.
MD: Let’s move forward a bit. Do you believe Lin can push Kemba Walker for the starting PG spot or do you see a potential for them to be paired together at some point this season?
NG: First off, I want to say that right now I believe Lin is a better all around PG than Kemba.
Sure Lin can push Kemba for the starting PG, but ONLY if Clifford and the GM are open to that kind of competition.
Let’s say by December that it is easily apparent that Lin deserves to start. What would Clifford/Chu do? Have Kemba come off the bench and risk “losing him” because he’s unhappy? This is tough decision because they have no assurance Lin would be willing to sign a new, longer contract with them next year. So if they did bench Kemba, and then Lin bolts after the season, you are stuck with a very unhappy starting PG.
Clifford and Chu will undoubtedly make the case that Lin’s skills are better utilized with the second team, a more athletic team with shooters to spread floor. Plus Lin can PnR with the bigs on second until, like Kaminsky, Hawes, Zeller. Al Jefferson is not adept at PnR. Lin is widely considered one of the best PnR guards in the league. Go askTyson Chandler and Ed Davis about that.
As for Lin and Kemba being paired, Clifford said when Lin signed that he can see using them together at times (mostly in small ball) One problem there is that it would be a small backcourt. Kemba is just 6’0, Lin is 6’3. Standard argument against small backcourts is that they won’t be able to guard big backcourts.
Me? I believe that the equation goes both ways. How many big backcourts could matchup with speedy, elusive Lin and Kemba. To me, that levels the playing field. BUT, I do recognize that one strong need in a small backcourt is a rim protector, which Big Al definitely is not. But having Batum play SF and MKG play PF in small ball would provide excellent wing defense, and two players who can help in the lane to prevent guards blowing by Lin and/or Kemba.
Basically, I believe they will play together, maybe 10-12 mins tops, depending on matchups with other teams. It could also work as a long term backcourt but ONLY if Kemba improves his shooting quite a bit from beyond the three-point arc. Last year Kemba shot just 31 pct from 3 range, only 39 pct overall. If Kemba does improve his shooting to the point where teams can’t slack off him outside, then Hornets would have a triple- threat backcourt combo: either can drive very well, both can pass very well, and both would be good enough three-point shooters to keep the D honest.
And finally, if both played together, Lin would have to be the 2 guard, which he has done before and has had success at. But IMO this underutilizes Lin, who is the far better passing guard, has superior court vision, and is a better floor general.
MD: Let’s come up with the best-case scenario for Lin this season. What does your crystal ball show us?
LIN IS A BETTER ALL-AROUND PG THAN KEMBA.
NG: Knowing how unstable things are for a team during the season, predictions I tend to shy away from. So many factors have to be considered, like injuries, for one example.
But if you put a gun to my head, okay:
Best case scenario. If Lin gets 28-30 minutes of PT, is allowed and encouraged to play his game and be aggressive, I can envision 16 pts per game, and 6-8 assist. But that’s very hard to do off the bench. The only real certainty in the NBA is nothing is certain.
More realistic and maybe even preferable best case scenario is if Lin is able to show the NBA his true current value, and not be judged unfairly by his bad situations in Houston and LA, then Lin gets a $$ offer at his true value and be a starter.
MD: Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about Lin’s strengths and weaknesses. What is his single greatest strength and weakness?
NG: His greatest strength is his ability to make players around him better. I think teams value that more than raw statistics.
Greatest weakness? Casual observers, including many national writers who haven’t watched much of Lin’s game, would answer: his defense. They ignore all the work he has put in the past three years on his D. Right now IMO he is a solid B defender, with potential to be B+.
I think his single greatest weakness—and it’s not often on display that much anymore—is his tendency to leave his feet when driving the lane without a clear idea of what he wants to do. This is what causes the majority of his turnovers. My out-of-left field answer is that his greatest weakness has been having to play for erratic, sub-par coaches like McHale and Scott who did not know how to use him.
MD: Is there a point guard that you’ve covered in the past that reminds you of Jeremy?
NG: Well, when Lin is at his best, he reminds me of Nate “Tiny” Archibald. So many years ago, my memory is foggy. But similar style: drive, breakdown D, dish off near the rim in creative way, pull up and shoot the J. I can think of a better comparison in today’s NBA: Tony Parker of the Spurs. They have a lot of similarities.
MD: Let’s wrap it up. If you were Jeremy’s agent, what team would you have on speed dial for next offseason and what single player would you love to see him paired with?
NG: Gee, how about tossing me a softball instead of these difficult questions. Ha ha.
What makes this question difficult is there will be PGs going down with injury, PGs falling out of favor and getting traded etc. But here goes:
San Antonio, but only if Tony Parker either retires or decides to come off bench. I love the way Pop coaches. And since I’ve already said how similar Lin’s game is to Parker’s, it would be an easy transition for Pop. But it’s not a likely scenario. In a perfect world? Yeah, starting for Pop.
My more realistic and also appealing teams would be the Bucks and Celtics. I do not believe Michael Carter-Williams is a natural point guard, and not someone you can build on. 76ers knew this and moved him. It would also be wonderful for Lin to play forJason Kidd, who could teach him so much with his vast knowledge. Kidd was a thinking man’s PG, a coach on the floor. Lin is obviously a thinking man’s PG, and has shown the ability to grow into a coach on the floor, too.
The Celtics because of two factors. First, I think Brad Stevens is going to be the next Pop. And Ainge is among the best GMs in league and will eventually build a top tier team. Celtics organization is also first class. I don’t think Marcus Smart is a starting PG you can build around. Fantastic defender, a real hardnosed gamer. But he hasn’t shown the ability in college or the NBA to shoot very well and doesn’t have Lin’s passing skills.
As for what single player I’d love to see Lin paired with, nobody jumps out as a perfect backcourt mate except maybe Klay Thompson, and there’s a guy on that team named Curry. Lillard and Kyrie Irving, if each of them played off ball with Lin as PG would be intriguing. But my real favorite pairing would be with a frontcourt player, first and foremost Anthony Davis. That would be PnR Heaven.
In reality, I never think in terms of pairing Lin with one player. I want most to see Lin paired with a team, a coach, and a front office that has a winning culture. Lin will excel on any team like that.