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It's Time for the Lakers to Turn to Jeremy Lin

Posted by JLin


The Los Angeles Lakers have entered the post-Kobe Bryant part of the schedule again this season, as the All-Star shooting guard prepares for shoulder surgery that likely will end his season. Yet they still have 37 games to play.

Leave it to Nick Young to present an easy solution, the one you’d expect Nick Young to suggest: Nick Young. He’s an easy option, a player popular enough to make all the losing tenable enough for fans who can look forward to a top-five draft pick. (The Lakers owe their 2015 first-rounder to the Phoenix Suns if it falls out of the top five, but they are building a good lead on the fourth-worst record in the NBA.)

Then there’s the other option for replacement-star, the one whose fan base dwarfs even the “Swaggy P” hordes and who has shown magic in a lead role in the past. There’s Jeremy Lin.

Lakers coach Byron Scott chose not to play Lin against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday, in the first game after Bryant tore his rotator cuff. He didn’t explain much, and Lin left the locker room in a hurry after not playing for the first time in three years, according to The Associated Press. But Lin was back in the rotation Sunday at the Houston Rockets.

And here’s the thing: He was good. Lin put up 14 points and six assists, playing aggressively and helping the Lakers stay plus 2 in 28 minutes with with him on the court, while they were minus 14 in the other 20 minutes with rookie Jordan Clarkson and journeyman Ronnie Price running the offense.

Lin is better than Clarkson and Price. It’s not even debatable. Price has been in the NBA for nine years but never played as much as he has this season, averaging 22.9 minutes a game despite shooting 35.2% from the field. He’s a lifelong third-stringer, a great guy to have on your team as long as you don’t have to rely on him. And Clarkson is a rookie, a second-round pick who had first-round talent but needs to improve his decision-making and shooting.

But we’re three years removed from “Linsanity,” the devolving circus that hit Madison Square Garden with fury in February 2012. Lin was an unknown for the New York Knicks then, thrust into the star role by a rash of injuries and doing what came naturally. Defenses since have adjusted, not let him use his natural size and strength advantages against point guards. He hasn’t been great in the years since, be it with the Houston Rockets for two years or the Lakers this season.

Lin was never meant to be a role player. He was never meant to play off a ball-dominant star, such as Bryant or James Harden or Carmelo Anthony. His drives during “Linsanity” were reckless and dynamic and didn’t often involve lifting his head up to find an open teammate. But they were thrilling and successful for some of those same reasons. Put next to star shooting guards the past three seasons, he has faded into the bench behind less talented but more stable point guards.

He’s a smarter player now. (There’s a Harvard joke to be made here.) Lin has greatly improved his shooting range (career-best 36.3% on threes this season) and reduced his turnover rate (from 21.4% in 2011-12 to 19.2% this season). He probably is taking too many midrange jump shots this season, but that’s a function of Scott’s offensive philosophy more than anything.

Lin is the player the Lakers need right now, need if they’re going to stay competitive with a roster that looks like a No. 8 seed’s bench. He’s not Bryant, but he is more amenable and humble, and letting him run the show could open things up for big men Jordan Hill, Ed Davis and Tarik Black.

And Young will get his. That’s never an issue, really. He’s taking the shot whenever he touches the ball, and he could play well off of Lin if defenses collapse. The Lakers actually have a handful of useful shooters in that role, and a Lin-centered offense could benefit Wayne Ellington and Wesley Johnson quite a bit. Moreover, Young as the focal point is a recipe for havoc and contention. Lin won’t ever be mistaken for Kendall Marshall, but he does pass.

Of course all of this asks Scott to think like Mike D’Antoni, the coach he replaced in Los Angeles who also was Lin’s coach with for that magic run with the Knicks. Lakers fans didn’t much care for D’Antoni, with reason: He didn’t fit what they had (Pau Gasol, in particular). That’s where Lin has been for most of this season, a player who simply made no sense running with Bryant.

But Bryant likely is done for the season.

And the Lakers need an identity.

And Lin’s been waiting, for three years.

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