Friday, March 16, 2012

Can Linsanity survive?

When coach Mike D'Antoni left the Knicks earlier this week, it was an abrupt and mostly unseen change. Many had thought that D'Antoni was on his way out of New York, as the Knicks struggled to perform to the level of their talent. But many did not see D'Antoni leaving when he did, and choosing to resign himself. Many have said that D'Antoni's departure was likely the right move for the team, and even interim general manager, Glen Grunwald, felt it was a "selfless move" by D'Antoni.

The Knicks saw their potential following the coaching change during that night's game. Mike Woodson led them as they beat up on the struggling Trailblazers. The Knicks will likely be a better team in the new offensive system. But the one player who may be most affected by D'Antoni's resignation is Jeremy Lin.

Lin saw his meteoric rise after being inserted into the D'Antoni offense just over a month ago. In nine games, he wowed New York, and started a huge bandwagon movement comparable to Tebowmania. Averaging twenty-five points and over nine assists during this stretch made him the talk of the town. Following the return of Anthony to the system, Lin's production saw a decrease. During his first game under Woodson, Lin played his least amount of minutes (23) since being inserted into the starting line-up and only scored six points with six assists and just as many turnovers. It is now looking like Baron Davis will see a bigger role within the Mike Woodson system. He may even supplant Lin as starter despite Woodson claiming Lin will remain in his role.

Lin excelled in the D'Antoni pick and roll based offense that has made stars out of overlooked point guards like Steve Nash, Chris Duhon, and Raymond Felton. The system has been know for making all-star caliber players out of average talent. D'Antoni turned Steve Nash from a good point guard on the high tempo Mavs into a two time MVP in his first couple of seasons in his system (and Nash's ninth year in the league). Nash continued with his great production and could have won another third or fourth award in 2006-07 or 2007-08. His stats were the same or better than his MVP seasons but he didn't get the same respect from the league (who was unwilling to put him in the elite three-time MVP category). But after D'Antoni left, Nash saw a fall in production in Terry Porter's slower, defense oriented scheme. But when Porter left and another coach, Alvin Gentry, instituted a system comparable to D'Antoni's, Nash saw a return to his previous production.

In New York, D'Antoni worked wonders with struggling point guard, Chris Duhon. Duhon had been an average player in his first four seasons with Chicago. But in his first season with D'Antoni, Duhon had his best year of his career, scoring in double digits and averaging over seven assists a game. He was unable to keep up production the following season, and lost time in the system to younger players like Nate Robinson and Toney Douglas. Duhon left the team at the end of the season for Orlando.

D'Antoni performed wonders again in the 2010-11 season with Raymond Felton. Felton, a talented guard, like Nash, had been a good player with his former team (Bobcats). But had not been able to reach the next strata in his career. But in just over half a season with D'Antoni, Felton had his best career year. Felton averaged the most points, assists, and steals under D'Antoni. He was an All-Star candidate, and became a big part of the trade that brought in Carmelo Anthony (who would become a large part of the reason D'Antoni left New York). Felton did his best in the D'Antoni system and even came out in D'Antoni's defense recently.

Jeremy Lin was the latest product of D'Antoni system. Lin was an overlooked player out of Harvard that had struggled to get minutes with the Warriors and spent a lot of time in the D-League. Early in the season he was acquired and eventually cut by the Houston Rockets who were loaded at point guard. Lin was acquired off waivers by the Knicks after they used the amnesty clause on veteran Chauncey Billups, and their line-up was suffering from injuries. Lin was brought in as the third point guard at the time to help out Mike Bibby and Iman Shumpert until Baron Davis could heal. Davis was believed to be the savior for the Knicks at point guard. Lin turned out to be this savior.

In late January, Lin starting getting some minutes in the rotation as the Knicks continued to suffer from injuries. During a game against his former team, Houston, Lin played twenty minutes and was able to rack up nine points and six assist in those limited minutes. He then saw major minutes against New Jersey in early February, beginning the phenomenon know as Linsanity.

Lin excelled in the D'Antoni system because he was a good ball handler, distributor and finished well driving to the rim. But it was easier, earlier on, because of the spacing of the system. Lin would run a high pick and roll with Tyson Chandler and have plenty space to either drive or pass to Chandler or shooters like Novak, Fields, or Walker. When Stoudamire returned, it hurt the pick and roll for Lin, by bringing another body in the paint. But it was still managable. Stoudamire had a decent mid-range shot, and could work the pick and roll with Lin. But when Anthony returned it killed Lin's game, by bringing one more defender into the paint. This was exacerbated by the Knicks' bench, who were better built for D'Antoni's offense, playing at a higher level than the Knick starters.

Woodson's offense is based around the isolation, and screens. This takes the ball out of Lin's hands and forces him to be a strong player without the ball. This may bring an end to Linsanity, if he is unable to adjust. Woodson's offense puts the ball into the hands of the best scorer (Anthony) and gives the scorer the ability to decide the fate of the possession. Either beating his man one on one, or moving the ball to a teammate. Carmelo or Stoudamire will likely be featured in this system, and Lin will likely take a backseat to their production. Lin will still have a place as ball handler, but a player like Davis is indeed a better fit as a off-ball shooter.

Lin is on a small money contract, that expires at the end of the season. There has been no overt talk of signing an extension quite yet. Lin may decide that it would be in his best interest to move to a team with a system better fitting his game (perhaps where ever D'Antoni lands). The top candidate mentioned for a potential replacement to Woodson, Phil Jackson, has an offenses that doesn't emphasize the point guard either. So it might not matter who ends up in New York. Lin could fit in with John Calipari's dribble drive offense, but Calipari has said he will remain in Kentucky.

The future for Linsanity will depend on two things. His ability to adjust int he Woodson system, and where he goes following this season. Lin can still be a great player in the right system, but that system is not the Knicks' current or potential future systems. Woodson has supported Lin, and says he will remain the starter and could still be a great player if he develops his shot and learns to handle the ball more conservatively. The Knicks' defensive focus is good for Lin. He has shown he is a good defender and turnovers by the Knicks can give Lin has a ton of value as a ball handler on the break. But for now, fans will have to wait and see how Lin plays.

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