Jeremy Lin found out he’d be the Lakers’ starting point guard in peculiar fashion. Magic Johnson vouched for Lin last Wednesday, shortly after Steve Nash was ruled out for the season with a back injury. And yet coach Byron Scott, Johnson’s Showtime backcourt partner, delayed his decision until after Ronnie Price bruised his right knee in the preseason finale on Friday. Once Scott was ready to choose Lin as the starter for Tuesday’s opener against the Rockets in Los Angeles, he informed reporters before telling Lin or his teammates.
Many NBA players might be taken aback by not receiving a direct show of support or a team-wide pronouncement, but the world learned at the beginning of Linsanity in 2012 that Lin isn’t easily included in the group of many NBA players. In less than eight months he went from the D-League, to the toast of the Big Apple and global superstardom, to a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet with Houston that went unmatched by the Knicks. During his first year with the Rockets, Lin transitioned quickly from presumptive No. 1 option to second fiddle behind James Harden, who was acquired on the eve of the ’12-13 season. In his second season in Houston, Lin lost his starting job to Patrick Beverley, and then his jersey number to Carmelo Anthony during an offseason recruiting pitch. Those hard, fast turns of fortune have left Lin sounding cautious, too aware of what might happen next to bother celebrating.
“[Being named starter] is more like a game-to-game thing than a permanent thing,” Lin told SI.com by telephone on Sunday, a few hours after learning the news from the media. “I know how fast things can change. … If [coming off the bench] is what the team needs, I’ve shown I’ll make sacrifices.”
Don’t mistake his humble hesitancy for a lack of desire. Lin has admitted deep disappointment about his struggles in Houston, and those feelings are a prime motivator this season. He is also not afraid to stake his claim to the starting job, even if that means sharing minutes and touches with Kobe Bryant.
“Starting has always been a goal for any team that I’ve been on,” said Lin, who expressed his appreciation for Johnson’s public endorsement. “Part of me is like, Wow, Magic knows who I am. The fact that he thinks what he thinks, I’m blown away by it.”
That L.A.’s point guard spot remained in question for so long is somewhat surprising. By any objective analysis, Lin is easily the team’s best floor leader. Nash, 40, was set to be the league’s oldest player after appearing in only 15 games last season. Price, 31, hasn’t posted a Player Efficiency Rating above 10.0 since 2009-10 and he is on his fifth team in five years. Rookie Jordan Clarkson has potential, but he wasn’t selected until No. 46. Lin, 26, is far from perfect, but he averaged 12.5 points and 4.1 assists last season, shot a respectable 35.8 percent from three-point range and posted a PER (14.3) just below the league average of 15.0.
Scott’s indecision throughout the preseason, though, stemmed from two major factors: injuries and roster fit. In early October, before Nash and Price were injured, Los Angeles lost its premier bench scorer, shooting guard Nick Young, for eight weeks because of right-thumb surgery. Assorted other Lakers — including shooting guard Wayne Ellington, swingman Xavier Henry and power forward Ryan Kelly — are also banged up. Using Lin and Bryant together, then, could leave the Lakers with a feeble second unit. Spacing out their minutes, on the other hand, could provide stability over 48 minutes.
But the fit question loomed larger. Are Bryant and Lin redundant as scoring guards, or can they be complementary? Would using a stand-in starter such as Price allow Scott to maximize the offensive abilities of Bryant and Lin by staggering more of their minutes?
Lin faced the same question about sharing the ball in both New York, with Anthony, and Houston, with Harden. Last season Rockets coach Kevin McHale paired Harden with the defensive-minded Beverley in the first unit (Lin ended up starting 33 games because of injuries to Beverley), a duo that posted an excellent plus-10.4 net rating in 1,245 minutes, topping the strong plus-7.6 net rating achieved by Harden/Lin in 1,339 minutes.
“The Rockets were on to something using Lin as a third guard because he needs the ball to be effective,” a rival scout said. “He’s not a bad shooter and he plays with such good pace. His biggest strength is putting pressure on the defense off the dribble and in transition. His challenge will be to play off Kobe. He has to grow his offensive game for that to work.”
Lin believes his time with Harden has prepared him for life with Bryant.
“I challenged myself to become a multidimensional player because James was ball-dominant,” Lin said. “I became a better spot shooter, a better cutter, and I got better at moving without the ball.”