The basketball reasons given for not starting Jeremy Lin doesn’t hold water for me, however, when you look at the situation from Hornets’s front office, it makes sense why Hornets appear to be adamant about not starting Lin.
BASKETBALL REASONS FOR NOT STARTING LIN DON’T HOLD UP UNDER SCRUTINY
Some of the basketball reasons for not starting Lin are well-meaning, but they just don’t hold up under scrutiny–especially if you’re a close observer of Jeremy Lin and really understand what he brings to the table. The typical reasons given for not starting Lin is that he is needed to run the second unit, both Lin and Kemba need the ball in their hands, you’d rather have Lin play PG than SG, Lin can be the spark off the bench, Lin may have trouble matching up against SGs, Lin meshes better with the second unit, etc.
If you’re a close observer of Lin, then it actually makes less sense for Lin to come off the bench this season than in previous seasons for a number of reasons. I’ll just highlight a few here:
- Unlike Lin’s previous teams, the Hornets are deep. Even without Lin, the Hornets’s 2nd unit can compete against most 2nd units in the league, whereas without Lin, the Hornets’s 1st unit is pretty weak and will likely struggle against most 1st units in the league. So Lin is actually needed more on the 1st unit than on the 2nd unit.
- Unlike Lin’s previous teams, the Hornets have a lot of unselfish players and skilled passers. Thus, Lin isn’t needed as much to run the second unit, since you’ve got a lot of guys on the 2nd unit (Hawes, Kaminsky, Roberts, Zeller, etc.) who are pretty skilled passers and willing to share the ball.
- Unlike Lin’s previous teams the starting guard in the Hornets is not an egomaniac, so Lin can mesh better with Kemba Walker than with any of Lin’s previous starting back court mates. Kemba and Lin have shown to be pretty effective together on the court in the limited time they’ve spent together in the preseason. So there is not much of a need to keep them in different units. In fact, they may be even better off playing together, because they each can benefit from the defense keying in on one of them.
- After really working on his shooting and SG skills for several seasons, Lin is now more ready than ever to excel at the SG position. Lin’s got a deadly jumper and can play off the ball now more than ever. As a result, Lin doesn’t need the ball in his hands as much as he did in the past in order to succeed. Also, Lin now has a coach who will actually run plays for him off the ball as a SG.
- Lin is actually better at guarding bigger players than small PGs, like Nate Robinson. So Lin might actually match up better, from a defensive standpoint, against opposing shooting guards. So it wouldn’t be too much of a match up issue to start Lin at SG.
- Lin coming off the bench does not guarantee that he’ll play PG. In fact, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll be sharing ball handling duties with Brian Roberts and, more likely, Brian Roberts will be the one handling the ball more of the time, since Lin is more skilled at the SG position. So Lin will likely be coming off the bench sharing ball-handling duties with a backup PG.
- Lin does appear to have good chemistry with Zeller and Hawes, but that’s probably because he’s had a lot of practices with them. Lin can basically mesh with a lot of players and is someone who can create instant chemistry. He showed that he could do this during Linsanity when he got a group of guys he hadn’t even practiced with to sing in unison on the court. So Lin basically meshes with any players, no need to relegate him to the bench because you think he fits better with the bench unit. If he had more practices with the starters, he’d fit just as well. Also, in the limited run with Walker/Lin/Batum, Lin has shown to mesh well with those guys even though he hasn’t had much practices with them.
- Of course, Lin will be a spark off the bench, but ANY top player on your team can be a spark off the bench. Does that mean it makes basketball sense to bring your best player off the bench, just because you need a spark off the bench? In previous teams, Lin was not CLEARLY the number one player on the team, but on this Hornets team, Lin is, so the idea of bringing Lin (the Hornets’s best player) off the bench is absurd from a basketball standpoint. There are no examples of this in the league, because it is so insane. Yet, that’s exactly what the Hornets are doing, because it’s not for basketball reasons.
There are a host of reasons why it doesn’t make basketball sense to bring Lin off the bench. So why are the Hornets doing it? Well, I think it’s because there are legitimate non-basketball reasons to not start Lin from a front office standpoint.
NON-BASKETBALL REASONS WHY IT MAKES SENSE NOT TO START JEREMY LIN
Before I begin, let me clarify a little what I mean by the term “front office”. I’m using the term as a short hand for long-term, bigger picture, team strategies. So I’m not necessarily referring to any individuals in the front office. I’m also including the coaching staff when I use the term “front office”. So I don’t necessarily think that someone from the front office, like Michael Jordan, is coming to Coach Clifford and telling him specifically who to start, etc. I think there is somewhat of a separation between the front office and the coaching staff and the front office doesn’t micromanage what the coach does. It’s more about big picture strategies that the coach and the front office has agreed upon in, say the off-season, and the coach is free to implement that big picture strategy how he sees fit. Not sure if all of that makes sense. Hopefully, it’ll become clearer once I delve into the non-basketball reasons why it makes sense for Hornets not to start Lin from the point of view of the “front office”.
Despite what Jordan said in order to play up to the Chinese fans, Batum was the Hornets’s biggest acquisition over the summer from a front office perspective. He was the one that got the big contract and was promised a much bigger role. Batum is on a one-year contract, but the Hornets, as of now, want to entice Batum to stay. This is one of the reasons why they tell him that he’ll be a number 1 or 2 option. They’re hoping that a bigger role on their team is what is going to entice Batum to stick around. So Batum is someone the front office sees as a core guy for the Hornets’s future. The wrinkle is that Batum’s natural position is Small Forward, which is the same position that Hornets’s star Michael Kidd-Gilchrist plays. THIS is the main reason why Coach Clifford has been so adamant about playing Batum at the shooting guard position, a position that Batum has likely never played in his entire life.
From a basketball standpoint, when MKG went down, that was the perfect opportunity to have Batum essentially replace MKG and go back to his natural position at the 3. But that’s not happening, because the Hornets want to make sure that they train Batum at the 2 so that Batum and MKG can both start once MKG comes back. This is one of the reasons the Coach Cliff is likely going with the insane starting unit of Walker/Batum/Hairston/Williams/Jefferson. Since Batum is more skilled at passing and shooting than MKG, it makes more sense to force Batum to play the 2 than MKG. The problem is, Batum is not going to excel at Shooting Guard. He may be an okay passer and a good shooter, but Batum gets into trouble when he has to handle the ball too much. As a shooting guard, you need to be comfortable handling the ball and Batum isn’t. At least not at the moment and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. So the Hornets have Batum playing off position for non-basketball reasons.
The Hornets are gambling by playing Batum off position, because Batum may come to realize at the end of the season that he prefers to play his natural position at the 3 and decides to move on from the Hornets next season. So that’s something that the Hornets front office need to continue to monitor to make sure that Batum is not getting too frustrated playing off-position. I think right now, Batum relishes the challenge, because he fancies himself a play-maker. But I think Batum will soon realize that he’s better off going back to his natural position at Small Forward.
So why am I going on and on about Batum? This is a Lin blog, isn’t it? Well, I think the key reason why Lin isn’t starting is that they want Batum at the 2 so MKG can slide right back into the 3 once he gets back. The Hornets are hoping that by that time, Batum has acclimated into his new role at the 2 so that they can keep both Batum and MKG as their starters of the future.
From the perspective of the front office, Jeremy Lin is a cheap rental. He’s on a two year contract with the second being a player option. Hornets need a back up PG and they saw great potential in Lin to be a very good back up PG, so that’s why they signed Lin. I think the Hornets are surprised how well Lin has done in the pre-season. I don’t think it’s something they had expected or anticpated, despite what Jordan said about Lin being potentially their biggest acquisition in order to please Chinese fans. I think Lin playing so well and showing that he was clearly the best Hornets in the preseason, puts a bit of a wrinkle in the front office’s plans. But it takes time for the front office to adjust to new information, because they’re more focused on the long-term, bigger picture so it’s harder for them to turn on a dime.
From the perspective of the Front Office, it doesn’t make sense for Lin to start, because they need Batum to start at the 2 in order to accommodate MKG, their other star. Also, Lin is a player option next year, so it doesn’t make sense to integrate Lin into the starting lineup so much this year, since he may not stick around. Another small factor for Lin not starting is that the Hornets don’t want Lin putting up superstar numbers, making it even more challenging to keep him. I don’t think this is a big factor, though. The biggest factor is that they need Batum at the 2 and there’s no way they would risk starting Lin over Kemba at this stage, since Kemba may be disgruntled and look to get traded. If Lin also decides to leave, the Hornets are then left with no starting-caliber PGs on the team.
So that’s the real reason, to me, why Lin likely will never start for the Hornets if they keep the unit of Kemba/Batum/MKG in tact as their future core.
SCENARIOS IN WHICH JEREMY LIN STARTS
Here are the only scenarios in which Jeremy Lin starts this season. Before I lay these scenarios out, I want to be clear that I don’t wish ill on any of Lin’s teammates. I’m just laying out scenarios for the sake of discussion, not as wishful thinking or anything like that:
- If Kemba gets injured, Lin definitely starts.
- If Batum gets injured, Lin very likely starts alongside Kemba.
- An pretty unlikely scenario in which Lin starts is if Kemba performs very poorly and Lin is putting up superstar numbers from the bench. This is a pretty unlikely scenario, because I don’t anticipate Kemba suddenly having a really awful season. In this scenario, the contrast between Lin and Kemba have to be pretty drastic. Lin can’t just be seen as better than Kemba, he needs to be drastically better than Kemba and I just don’t see that happening. But if it does happen, then this is how it’ll going to go down. The front office will have a discussion with Lin to gauge his level of interest of staying on with the team as their starting PG of the future. Once they are very confident that Lin plans to stick around and be their starting PG of the future, then Lin will start in place of Kemba and Hornets will look to trade Kemba since Kemba won’t be happy being a backup PG.
- A highly unlikely scenario in which Lin starts is if Batum really struggles at the SG position and they realize that it’s not going to work out with Batum at the 2. This is a highly unlikely scenario, because the Hornets really need Batum to work out at the 2 in order to accommodate MKG and keep their Kemba/Batum/MKG starting unit of the future in tact. So it would have to look really bad for the Hornets to admit defeat. But if they do accept defeat, then they’ll start Lin and figure that Batum may not stick around next season anyhow.
So the likelihood of Lin starting this season is not looking very good, even if Lin continues to show that he’s the best Hornets player, because the real reasons Lin isn’t starting have nothing to do with basketball or winning games. Sure, the Hornets want to win games, but they also want to keep their big-picture strategy of keeping Walker/Batum/MKG as their starting future core. So Coach Clifford’s task is to find ways to win as many games as possible while maintaining this overall big-picture strategy.
A somewhat likely scenario in which Lin can become a starter alongside Kemba next season is if Batum decides to move onto another team and Lin has really impressed by putting up near superstar stats from the bench. This is a somewhat likely scenario, because I think Batum will realize at the end of the season that he really is better off playing his natural position. So even if Lin doesn’t start this season, there is a chance Lin may still become a starter, but it will only happen if either Kemba or Batum are no longer on the team, unfortunately. Another scenario that is highly unlikely is that they trade MKG and keep Batum. In this scenario, Batum goes back to his natural position next season at the 3 and Lin starts at the 2. But I don’t see the Hornets wanting to trade MKG at all. So this is a highly unlikely scenario.
As for this season, the best scenario for Lin is that he achieves the nearly impossible feat of breaking the 30-minute mark from the bench. I have no doubt that Lin will close out nearly all if not all the games that aren’t blow outs. So I’m not worried about that. But, to me, the fate of the Hornets hinges on how many minutes Lin manages to get off the bench. If Lin gets around 25 minutes, the Hornets are fighting for the 7th or 8th spot. If Lin gets 28 minutes, the Hornets are looking at a 6th seed. If Lin breaks the 30-minute mark off the bench, then the Hornets have a shot at the 5th spot.
Jeremy Lin is likely going to have another tough decision ahead of him in the off-season. Does he stay with a team of unselfish players and a good coach and be the 6th man or does he look for a starting job elsewhere? It’s a tough call. Being the 6th man for a group of unselfish players and one of the few coaches in the league who understands your game might not be a bad thing, because it may still give you opportunities to shine. I mean, Iguodala did manage to win Finals MVP last year from the bench. But he was the only true season-long reserve to win such an honor. Technically, there have been others in the past who have won Finals MVP off the bench, but they include names like Larry Bird, James Worthy, Joe Dumars, Shaquille O’Neal, and Magic Johnson. These guys weren’t really true reserves in that they did not spend the ENTIRE SEASON coming off the bench. Thus, Igoudala is really the only true reserve who has managed such a high honor. So starting is still generally where you want to be as a star player if you want to be recognized in this league.
Of course, Lin’s “decision” is a long ways away. For now, just sit back and enjoy what is sure to be a very entertaining season for Hornets and Lin fans. Lin’s got a coach who understand his game and is finally free to be himself. Even though he’ll be coming off the bench, I’m sure we’ll have some Linsanity 2.0 moments this season.