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A compliment sandwich is when you say two nice things about someone, and sandwich the criticism inside. So first thing’s first: Jeremy Lin is super awesome to watch and the last four Knicks games have been incredibly fun and this is a great story.
But lost in the hysteria of Linsanity is the fact that halfway through the Laker game Friday night, the Knicks trotted out possibly their worst-ever lineup of the last decade. Lin, Iman Shumpert, Mike Bibby, Steve Novak and Jarred Jeffries may be, collectively, the worst five players to take the floor at Madison Square Garden since the heydays of Othella Harrington or Jerome James.
Did this squad manage to pull away from greatest active player Kobe Bryant and his band of disgruntled mates? Yes, they did. Were the Lakers coming off a draining playoff-style overtime win in Boston? Well, yeah. Did Lin torch the corpse of Derek Fisher, Bad Devin Harris, dancing turnstile John Wall and dreaming-of-a-Knicks-uniform Deron Williams? Yeah… Not exactly a murderer’s row of guard play, and not exactly four teams with championship potential.
Lin went to Harvard, so he should know a little about regression to the mean. Trust me, worse players than Lin have gone on hot streaks – Bobby Simmons, Wesley Matthews, the aforementioned Jerome James – and they have all regressed because of various reasons. Hey, how about another undrafted, unconventional player from a school in Massachusetts: JJ Barea, who set the world on fire in the playoffs last year and has nary been heard from since.
This is not to detract from Lin, who is a full-fledged sensation and has people more excited about Knicks basketball than they were during the Carmelo trade. But Lin is bad for the Knicks – terrible, I would argue. His emergence creates myriad problems for a team that was pretty much lost and will now be even more muddled following the return of its two superstars.
Oh right, remember? The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony, “best scorer alive,” and Amar’e Stoudemire, noted superstar. Where exactly does the Asian Sensation fit in with these two ball-stopping, isolation machines?
He probably doesn’t. And herein lies the problem with Lin. He is a really fun player to watch for so many reasons, both culturally and socially and from a pure basketball standpoint. He is somewhere between a more athletic Steve Nash and a tiny LeBron, and I feel totally not ridiculous for saying that. He splits defenders, he drives with reckless abandon, he shoots the lights out, and he has lovely court vision. He has reinvigorated Tyson Chandler, a man with limited offensive capabilities who is suddenly a pick-and-roll beast. He has reinvigorated his teammates, who are mostly castoffs and undesirables. He has electrified the Garden, which certainly counts for something.
But Lin’s greatest asset right now is his confidence. He will take any shot at any time, he will drive to the basket with the slightest window open, and he feeds off of crowd energy like none other. He’s having an excellent time right now, as anyone in his position would.
What happens to that confidence when Carmelo returns? Melo needs the ball to score, because he simply refuses to come off a screen or cut to the hoop or do anything proactive without the ball in his hands. Amar’e is capable of rolling, and posting up, and several other Lin-friendly moves. But Melo essentially believes that crossing half court with the ball in his hands means he has to drive 1-on-5, or pull up, or throw an alley-oop.
How does that fit with a shoot-first point guard like Lin? Not well, I’d imagine. In a way, the ideal point guard for this team would be 2002 Jason Kidd – a guy who distributes, plays tough defense, and can knock down an open shot in a pinch. Remember, in those four wins, the Knicks still allowed 40 combined points to Williams and Jordan Farmar, and 29 points to John Wall. That’s only winning basketball against terrible teams.
Furthermore, the better Lin plays, the more indispensable he becomes from a marketing standpoint. I guarantee that if the Nets said “screw it, we’re not competing this year and he’s leaving anyway,” then offered Deron Williams to the Knicks for Lin, it would cause a near-riot outside of MSG. Fine, that’s not so realistic. But how about Williams for Amar’e? It’s an untenable position – how can the Knicks push Linsanity and then bench the kid in favor of a much better option? What happens when Baron Davis’s back finally heals?
More importantly, what happens when Lin comes back to earth? I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer – just realistic. He’s stupendously fun to watch, and he’s playing out of his mind, and there is just no way he sustains this for much longer than a week or two. The Knicks have a cupcake schedule coming up, but the team dynamic will change in a few days when the big boys return. You don’t beat Dallas and Miami with an undrafted point guard careening into the lane and launching up prayers. You certainly don’t win with the dual backcourt of “Harvard” Lin and “Stanford” Landry Fields trying to guard Dwyane Wade, or Jason Terry, or even Tyreke Evans or Joe Johnson. Those four guards have much better supporting casts than, say, Kobe. And they will be licking their chops to get a shot at the Knicks Academic All-Star backcourt.
I hate to rain on the parade, I really do. But unless Lin reinvents his game during practice over the next few weeks and finds magic with Melo and STAT, he is doomed to sit once Baron Davis decides to put on a uniform and contribute. Lin might find a niche as a second-unit scorer, or the point guard when Mike D’Antoni wants to push the tempo. He might need to play against track meet teams or teams chock full of athletes like Philadelphia. But the 2012 Knicks mortgaged their future for Carmelo Anthony, and they are not going to change DNA because some guy is selling a ton of t-shirts.
Now for the other piece of bread in this compliment sandwich: Until Lin flames out, I will continue to watch every night because dammit, he’s fun. I just hope I get to watch him on Time Warner Cable before Linsanity dies.