The Quiet Revival of Linsanity

Perhaps the heights of Linsanity were too bizarre and the situation too perfect to recreate. An expectation-laden Knicks team struggling with injuries to Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire suddenly found hope in the undrafted guy from Harvard. Jeremy Lin got 35 games of pure, ridiculous excitement as he put New York on his back and provided a little bit of magic before running into the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade-Chris Bosh buzzsaw in Miami.

Lin’s brilliance during that stretch briefly raised expectations for what his career could become. The big numbers in the box score (both good and bad) were somehow all positive indicators. The points and assists? Obviously All-Star caliber. The high turnover rate? Secretly a sign that he wasn’t even hitting his ceiling yet.

Only after the season, when he was poached by a crafty Rockets’ front office – leading to one of the most bizarre and desperate stories in free agency history as the Knicks, aware that they could not keep Lin, tried to hide from Rockets’ officials to avoid receiving his offer sheet – did the expectations wane. At the time of the signing, it was expected that Lin would be given the reins to the Houston offense, while fellow free agent signing Omer Asik was left to protect the rim and veteran Kevin Martin provided wing scoring.

Fortunately for the Rockets, but probably not Lin, they swung a deal to send Martin and several other pieces to Oklahoma City in the now-infamous James Harden deal. That left Lin as the secondary ball-handler in his own backcourt, and he never adequately adjusted to the role. This past offseason, after two years of mediocre numbers in Houston, he was shipped out to L.A. to create cap space for a Bosh signing that never came to pass.

With the Lakers he was again relegated to playing 2nd fiddle, this time to Kobe Bryant. With that, his slide into irrelevance became complete. No one gives a crap about the guy next to the guy making the headlines. And Kobe can make a headline. From his inefficient, shot-happy start to his kind-of tragic, left-handed finale, Kobe was, is, and will be the only reason anyone pays attention to the Lakers this season.

But maybe that’s all for the best. There, in the surprisingly obscure post-Kobe wasteland that is the Lakers’ roster, Lin can thrive. For the first time since Melo returned from injury to wrest control of a suddenly-surging Knicks team from Lin’s hands, he’ll have a shot at showing what he can accomplish as the primary ball handler on the wing. Sure, he’s going to be passing to Ed Davis, Robert Sacre, Jordan Hill, and a washed up Carlos Boozer, but at least he’ll have the ball…when he’s on the floor – he’s already coming off the bench behind Jordan Clarkson.

Hidden in his newfound obscurity is the fact that Lin is a pretty good point guard. He’s good for about 15 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes under normal circumstances, and with added responsibility he could easily eclipse those numbers. His shooting has steadily improved each season, with his 36% mark from long distance placing him right around the league average, an improvement from his bricky early days.

Lin is only 26, and this is his 5th season in the NBA. He probably won’t get much better than he is right now, but for the first time in ages he might at least have the opportunity to put his full talents on display. There are precious few reasons to tune in to a Lakers game these days; for my money, seeing Lin get his chance is probably the most compelling one.

Top of the East Has Teeth

The Western Conference grabs all of the headlines, and rightfully so, thanks to the number of teams competing for a playoff spot. Last season Phoenix failed to land a place in the top 8 despite a 48-34 record. That the West is the better of the two conferences in the NBA is not only taken for granted, it’s become a cause of concern for some around the league as ideas for balancing the playoff picture are floated around.

While the quality of depth in the Eastern Conference is pretty pathetic, let’s not use that as an excuse to rule out teams in the East from the championship picture. Due to Cleveland’s struggles in the first Kyrie Irving-LeBron James-Kevin Love season there’s an underlying sense that the Western Conference Finals could turn into something of a de facto championship matchup.

The top four teams in the East have something to say about that.

While Cleveland has faltered, Toronto, Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago have all been playing excellent basketball and sit atop the standings in the East, separated by a mere 2 games. Chicago, at the bottom of the tight pack, is 22-10, which would be good enough for 6th in the West.

Obviously the easier schedule an Eastern Conference team faces affects their record; playing the likes of Philadelphia and the Knicks is a bit easier than running up against a New Orleans team featuring Anthony Davis or DeMarcus Cousins and the Kings.

Even just focusing on the East elite’s record against current top-8 teams in the West shows their quality, though. Despite Toronto and Washington dropping games last night to Portland and Dallas, respectively, the top four in the East have fared very well against the top of the West.

As of today, these teams are 11-9 against their playoff counterparts in the West. Only the Wizards have posted a losing record in these games for the East, and they sit 2-3 after losing to the Mavericks twice, beating Houston and the Clippers, and dropping a contest to Phoenix. The other three teams have all at least broken even against the best of the West.

Obviously the sample size is small, but it’s encouraging that even as the East’s most consistent performer for the past decade falters for the first time there are teams waiting to pick up the slack. There’s even reason to believe that they can improve. The Raptors have been operating without DeMar DeRozan, Washington started the season without Bradley Beal (and until recently were starting Kris Humphries), and Derrick Rose is still working himself into shape for Chicago. Only Atlanta has featured a more or less healthy lineup, and they have won big games without Jeff Teague and with Al Horford struggling to regain form after missing most of last season.

Basically, there are 11-14 legitimately good teams in the league, depending on Kevin Durant’s health and how you feel about Cleveland and Phoenix, and four of the locks are in the East. As it stands now, after the 1st round of the playoffs both conferences will feature good teams locked in a slugfest. Unlike in previous seasons in the East, anyone at the top can beat anyone else. Barring injuries, this should be fun.

The Kanter Conundrum

The Jazz are in an interesting position as a lot of their young talent begins to hit restricted free agency before the team has managed to turn that talent into wins. Derrick Favors, Alec Burks, and Gordon Hayward have all received extensions from Utah; the next in line is Enes Kanter.

The Turkish big has shown some useful skills during his 3-plus years in the league. His offensive game in particular has been productive, even as he’s drifted farther from the basket. He shoots well at the rim, as one would expect from a 6’11” center, but it’s his numbers out to 16 feet that are the real indicators of his solid offensive play. He doesn’t fall apart in the paint outside of the restricted area, as some players do, and he can shoot short jumpers effectively. Outside of that 16 ft. mark things become a little more dicey, especially beyond the arc.

Kanter added the 3-pointer to his arsenal this season with the approval of his new coach, the 3-loving Quin Snyder. That was intended to offer a little space for big man pairings featuring Kanter alongside Favors, but he’s only converting one third of these shots on a little over one attempt per game. There are some signs that Kanter can provide spacing eventually – he has hit a respectable number of his shots from 16-23 ft. in each of the prior two seasons – but the shot just isn’t there yet.

That makes the partnership with Favors, who himself isn’t a threat outside of 16 ft., very tenuous. It would help if the offensive struggles that come with playing these two together were offset by elite defense. That’s not the case though, and Kanter is a big reason why. The starting lineup, which features approximately zero above average perimeter defenders, gets slaughtered defensively on a nightly basis. Bench units that feature giant shot-blocker Rudy Gobert fare much, much better, because the lack of perimeter defense is covered up.

Favors is a decent rim protector, but Kanter can’t block shots and doesn’t get steals. He has to rely on positioning, but doesn’t have the instincts that someone like Marc Gasol has to wall off the paint consistently in spite of a limited vertical. That leaves him as a liability, especially considering the support his backup offers. Gobert has seen increased minutes this season, and it’s no surprise why.

Utah has to make a decision, and quickly, about what they want to do with the frontcourt rotation. Gobert has played very well as a shot-blocker and rebounder who can finish effectively at the rim. Even Favors would be better suited to playing as the lone big for stretches to open up his rolls to the rim. A very good three-man big rotation could feature those two with a decent shooting power forward coming off the bench. Of course, that would leave Kanter out to dry.

Maybe the Jazz should consider that option. So far they’ve made it a point to re-sign their young players no matter the cost, but that can’t continue forever. Commitments to Burks and Hayward have the wing spots set for the foreseeable future, and Trey Burke and Dante Exum will be given ample opportunity to prove they can man the point. The frontcourt is where the questions lie, and the problems facing the team aren’t going to go away.

Snyder values shooting, which the current roster is sorely lacking, and there are precious few opportunities to add it given the pieces already in place. Trading Kanter now would offer one opportunity to clear up a logjam at center and potentially bring in someone who can hit from deep.

Kanter has value, and some team may take a flyer on him for the rest of the season to see what he can offer. That team would then have the right to match any offer he gets in restricted free agency over the summer. Someone like the Knicks or Celtics could benefit from the influx of talent, and would be able to let him work out things like a burgeoning 3-point shot without the risk of losing playing time.

Utah would shed itself of the decision of whether or not to re-sign the center, plus could get some solid compensation in the form of picks lower in the draft or additional players (who can hopefully spread the floor a bit). Sometimes teams need to make the tough calls. For the Jazz, that time is now.

5 Scariest Places for Josh Smith to Land

Josh Smith may be the most useful player to hit the buyout market in several years. He takes ill-advised jumpers all the damn time, but he can score at the rim, is an excellent passer, and is still a quality weak-side defender. There may not have been a notable trade market for Smith’s services thanks to his massive contract, but he’s going to attract a lot of attention now that he’s unattached.

Smith’s struggles in Detroit can be attributed to a number of factors: spending a lot of time out of position at small forward, playing in an offense without any spacing, and declining athleticism. The expectation was that he would bounce back with Stan Van Gundy’s arrival as coach. Van Gundy planned to break up the lineups featuring all three of Smith, Greg Monroe, and Andre Drummond, creating more space and keeping Smith at his natural power forward spot.

That…hasn’t quite worked. Smith is hitting less than 40% from the field, and more worryingly is hitting only 58% at the rim after years in the high 60s per basketball-reference.com. So the athleticism decline would appear to be very real, but his steal and block numbers are consistent with past seasons, and it appears subjectively that he’s looking to pass from under the rim more than in previous seasons (which is backed up by his career-high assist numbers). That leaves him making more reads under duress, and potentially waiting too long to take his shot. He is certainly less athletic than he used to be, but it’s not as huge of an issue given his skill in other areas and the high level that he’s falling from.

Several teams are looking to sign the enigmatic forward, warts and all. Sacramento and Houston have expressed interest, as have a few others. Smith can be a dangerous player in the right situation; certain teams landing him would scare the rest of their conference, at least a little bit. Here’s a look at the scariest places for him to land, even if some of these teams wouldn’t touch Smith with a 10-foot pole.

5. Memphis

The Grizzlies have been having a killer season so far. They’re built around their two big post players, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the strong play of Mike Conley, and impeccable defense. The only hole on the team is at the backup power forward spot, where Jon Leuer is the only option at the moment. The Grizzlies are adept at creating space with two post players on the floor, in large part thanks to Gasol’s shooting and passing. Smith would augment that passing, and Gasol has a lot of similarities to Al Horford, who Smith thrived next to in Atlanta. Smith probably needs Memphis more than Memphis needs him, but it’s an interesting fit, and one that would add to the Grizzlies’ misfit motif.

4. Cleveland

The Cavs have problems, most of which are on the defensive end. That will happen when the only rim protector in the rotation is Anderson Varejao, who can only play about 30 minutes per game, and will eventually miss time. LeBron James could cover for a lot of those issues a year or two ago, but he doesn’t seem to have the same spring in his step anymore. These days other solutions are necessary.

Smith can still protect the rim, and he could partner with Kevin Love, who can handle post-up bullies while Smith squashes drives at the rim. The offense wouldn’t suffer anymore than it already does with Varejao or Tristan Thompson, especially given Smith’s incisive passing. The narrowed role might even help him cut out some of his less-favorable habits. Plus, if everything clicked, he and James would form a hellacious duo at forward (or in crazy smallball lineups) for short stretches.

3. Miami

Chris Bosh is a sweet-shooting center who could use some assistance covering up the mistakes of his guards defensively. That’s not enough though – Miami needs more firepower too. The spacing might get a little dicey with Dwyane Wade on the floor, but this is one of the few places where Smith could jump into the starting lineup and instantly pair well with a star center. With Josh McRoberts out for the year (and Miami picking up an exception they can use to sign another player because of it), this could be the mostly likely scenario on this list, and while the ceiling of the Heat with Smith isn’t “contender” it would be the situation that would probably get the most from him.

2. Oklahoma City

This isn’t going to happen, but it should. A frontcourt pairing of Serge Ibaka and Smith would be devastating defensively, and Ibaka could provide the space Smith needs in the paint. Throw in the spacing Kevin Durant provides when healthy and Russell Westbrook’s playmaking and suddenly the Thunder have an X-factor for what has thus far been their most difficult season in years. The extra passing would open up some crazy high-low stuff with any player in the rotation, and anything that reduces the minutes being soaked up by Kendrick Perkins and Steven Adams is a plus. Those guys have value, and Adams in particular is expected to improve, but a reasonably locked-in Smith has so much more to offer.

1. Dallas

Jermaine O’Neal hasn’t been the answer for any team for the better part of a decade now. After trading for Rajon Rondo, the rim protection on this team has basically dropped to Tyson Chandler alone. Smith could handle those duties better than O’Neal, and could be a potentially lethal fit in this offense. He would instantly fit into one of the best-passing rotations in the league, and he could work as something of a backup to Chandler in smallball groups surrounded by shooters. Big teams would necessitate a center play alongside him, but no other team offers the tantalizing potential to set Smith free to do exactly what he’s good at.

He can block shots. Dallas needs that. He can’t shoot. Don’t worry, everyone else can. The Mavs are going all in on this season; adding Smoove to the roster fits that plan perfectly. He can pair with Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler, or any other big on the roster, and would instantly legitimize the bench and depth of this team.

The Risks of Rondo

Let’s get this out of the way up front: seeing Rajon Rondo in anything other than a Celtics jersey will be jarring. The last mainstay of the 2008 championship team has been shipped out, and Dallas sent Boston a decent haul for the point guard: Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, and a couple of picks, one of which is expected to be in the late first round next year. It’s not the biggest bounty in the world, but for a point guard returning from injury who may not be able to score anymore it’s a lot.

The impact this season is pretty obvious. Rondo’s benefits are as clear as his flaws: he’ll grab steals, rack up assists, and brick 3s. His scoring at the basket isn’t as good as it once was, and without that Rondo’s offensive value is somewhat dubious, especially on this team. The backcourt pairing with Monta Ellis will be a bit tenuous, with Rondo likely taking a few pick and rolls away from Ellis, but it won’t be any worse that what the Mavs already had.

Neither player can hit 3s, but both are established midrange shooters, and if Rondo integrates into the offense well that won’t matter anyway. This system and the presence of Dirk Nowitzki cover for a lot of flaws from the guards.

As for the guys they gave up, Nelson and Crowder weren’t really offering much value on the court. The real loss is Wright, who was doing an excellent impression of Tyson Chandler offensively off the bench. Without him a gaping hole has opened up in the middle; there’s no springy backup center on the roster, a critical flaw given that Tyson only plays about 30 minutes a night and the offense relies on that role. Chandler’s minutes can be raised a little, but it’s obvious that another solution needs to be found.

This trade may signal a dedication to pure smallball off the bench, with any number of Rondo, Ellis, Devin Harris, and J.J. Barea manning the guard spots, Richard Jefferson, Chandler Parsons, and Al-Farouq Aminu at the forward spots, and either Dirk or Tyson in the middle. Those units would struggle mightily on defense, but then again they already do. Variations on the zone defense the Mavs leaned on during their title run will probably be these groups’ only saving grace.

Another option might be to dust off the deep bench bigs, Charlie Villanueva and Greg Smith. Villanueva probably doesn’t have a lot to offer except as a really cheap imitation Nowitzki, but Smith played well in Houston a few years ago before an injury took him out of their rotation, and he could slide into the backup center spot if he’s regained the form he had with the Rockets. He plays differently than Chandler, with more of a traditional back to the basket game, but at least he has proven he can handle backup minutes effectively before.

Basically, Dallas is banking on the upgrade at the starting point guard spot (which wasn’t tough to do given the mediocre play the team was already getting there) to overcome the lack of depth up front. It’s a bit of a risk, but with little in the way of tradeable assets and the knowledge that one day Dirk’s deal with the devil probably has to come to an end, now was the time to pull the trigger.

The real risk with this trade is the indication that Rondo is in the team’s future plans. Each season with Nowitzki playing at a high level is a gift at this point, and bringing in Parsons over the summer showed that the Mavs front office is aware that they need to get some younger talent for when Dirk is gone. Rondo doesn’t fit that mold. He’s already 28, has had injury problems, and will probably still demand a huge contract this summer. Teams don’t routinely give up talent and draft picks in a trade for a veteran with an expiring contract unless they intend to re-sign them.

Bringing Rondo in for three or four additional seasons after this one, even if some of that is unguaranteed, could be disastrous for a team always hoping to contend. A core of Parsons and Rondo isn’t going to get you anywhere, especially in the West, and even adding another quality player to that duo probably doesn’t make the team a contender once Dirk is gone.

A long-term Rondo contract wouldn’t be as bad assuming the salary cap rises in the next couple of years, but his presence would mean that the starting point guard would have declining athleticism, can’t shoot, and may chase arbitrary stats (*ahem* assists). His value this season is clear as one of the only upgrades available at point guard, but his value over the next few years is much more debatable.

Dallas is smart, and if Rondo plays poorly this season they likely won’t rush to sign him long-term over the summer. If he plays well, they appear to want him in the fold for several more seasons. In a league inundated with young, talented point guards, that could condemn the franchise to mediocrity for the beginning of the post-Dirk era.