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The Linsanity Sham: Why Jeremy Lin Really Can't Play

I'm sad that Linsanity turned out to be a sham. The truth is that Jeremy Lin can't play. At least not at the highest levels. And no amount of "Linsanity" can change that.
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Houston Rockets' Jeremy Lin (7) drives the ball around Memphis Grizzlies' Mike Conley Jr. during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Houston Rockets' Jeremy Lin (7) drives the ball around Memphis Grizzlies' Mike Conley Jr. during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Last year, the entire world was captivated by NBA point guard Jeremy Lin. After being cut by two NBA teams and sent to the Developmental League three times, Lin was signed off the street by the New York Knicks. After months of barely playing, Lin was dropped into the starting lineup and proceeded to run off a streak of amazing performances that placed him on the same list as Hall of Famers like Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal. Literally overnight, "Linsanity" become a worldwide phenomenon that confounded experts, captivated the media, and inspired the world.

This season, despite ditching New York for Houston, Lin remains a big deal to fans, media, and marketeers. From his all-star votes to his jersey sales to his high number of nationally televised games, Jeremy Lin continues to receive superstar-level attention.

There's only one problem: Jeremy Lin can't play.

To be clear, I'm not saying that Jeremy Lin isn't an NBA level player. Even before Linsanity took hold, Lin proved that he deserves to be in the league. Furthermore, no one puts up the record-setting numbers that Lin did over those 14 games last year and doesn't have a place in the league.

The question, however, is what that place is.

Yes, Jeremy Lin is better than the undrafted journeyman that we understood him to be a year ago. But he's nowhere near the player that the Houston Rockets thought they were signing when they gave him what Carmelo Anthony properly called a "ridiculous" three-year $25 million contract. Lin definitely belongs on an NBA team, but he should be nowhere near anyone's starting lineup.

Why do I say this? Well... because I've actually watched him play.

Hype aside, Jeremy Lin has many glaring flaws in his game. While he excels when he's beating defenders to the basket, Lin can only get dribble penetration when going to his right. When forced to put the ball in his left hand, Lin typically makes a few perfunctory dribbles before passing the ball or, worse, committing a turnover.

Oh yeah, about those turnovers.

Since playing regular minutes, Jeremy Lin has been a virtual turnover machine. Even during his peak level of play last year, Lin turned the ball over in historically unprecedented fashion. (And in case you think I'm being hyperbolic, check out this stat: Lin's 45 turnovers over his first 7 starts are the most of any player in the history of the NBA since the stat was recorded) This season, Lin has managed to give the ball away less, but still averages an alarming 4.1 turnovers per 48 minutes. While it's tempting to attribute to the slight improvement to Lin's maturation as a player, it's more likely that he simply handles the ball less now that he's playing next to superior playmaker James Harden.

Lin has also proven that he is a below-average shooter. This season, Lin is shooting a dismal 35% from the field, which is the lowest average in the entire league for a starting guard. From three-point range, Lin is shooting a disastrous 24%. On shots beyond 9 feet, which account for nearly 50% of his total shots taken, Lin is shooting a shameful 26%. Lin's offensive effectiveness is further hampered by his inability to move left. To date, Lin has only taken 17 shots from the left side of the court, connecting on only 29% of them.

Making things worse, Jeremy Lin is a dreadful defender. He has terrible footwork, struggles to stay in front of quick ball handlers, and can't cut left (notice a pattern here?). Other than cheating the passing lanes, which explains his misleading 1.8 steals per game, Lin is little more than a human turnstile for the league's point guards.

So... Let's recap. In comparison to his peers, Jeremy Lin can't dribble, shoot, make plays, or guard anyone. His stat line (10.2 points, 6.1 assists, 4.6 rebounds on 35% shooting) accurately reflect what he is: a slightly below-average NBA point guard who, if he works extremely hard and squeezes out every drop of his ability, will become nothing more than a slightly above-average point guard.

At this point, you may be asking, "If he's so bad, how do you explain last year?" Great question.

First, there's plain old dumb luck. Lin was saved from the Knicks cutting block because coach Mike D'Antoni was desperate to save an unexpectedly bad season. Luck. He got a chance to thrive because of Carmelo Anthony's injury and the tragic death of Amar'e Stoudemire's brother. Luck. Once he was in a position to thrive, Lin played better than he did at any moment of his life. Luck. Of course, Lin shouldn't be criticized for making the most of his lucky circumstances. But he also couldn't be expected to be lucky for ever.

More important, for much of Lin's white-hot streak, opposing teams weren't guarding him. From the lack of on-the-ball pressure to the endless steak of wide open shots, opposing teams were focusing on the Knicks other offensive threats and essentially daring Lin to beat them. Of course, Lin still had to make the shots, but there are few NBA guards who couldn't average 20-plus points if they were fed a steady diet of 10-15 wide open Js.

This unusual level of openness is largely due to the fact that many teams and players simply didn't take Lin seriously. Even when he was promoted to the Knicks' starting spot, teams weren't exactly poring through game film and scouting reports to figure out how to stop an undrafted benchwarmer from Harvard. Instead, they assumed that Lin's performances were statistical aberrations and his play would eventually return to Earth.

Then there's the thorny issue of race. As many players have privately told me, it was difficult to accept that an Asian player under seven feet could dominate an NBA game. As a result, they simply let him play with little resistance, allowing him to temporarily thrive on the "soft bigotry of low expectations."

It wasn't until Lin's humiliating outing against the Miami Heat last February that he began to be treated as an actual peer. The Heat decided to defend Lin, guarding him closely the whole game and exposing his many flaws. Other teams began to watch game footage of Lin, studying his weaknesses and designing defenses to counter them. Needless to say, Linsanity died a quick death.

In all honesty, I'm sad that Linsanity turned out to be a sham. Like many people, I wanted to buy into the idea of a Cinderella hoops story. I wanted to believe that everyone -- the coaches, the scouts, the executives, and even the cold hard statistics-- were wrong. I wanted Jeremy Lin to be next big thing.

But the truth is the truth.

And in this case, the truth is that Jeremy Lin can't play. At least not at the highest levels. And no amount of "Linsanity" can change that.