Jeremy Lin exploded on Monday night, scoring 29 points in 31 minutes to lead the Charlotte Hornets all the way back from a seven-point first quarter and a 23-point deficit to stun a San Antonio Spurs team just two nights removed from beating the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. He made 11 of his 18 shots, including all four of his 3-point tries, and poured in 15 in the fourth quarter alone, nearly outscoring Gregg Popovich's crew by himself in the final 12 minutes. He was amazing in a fashion that reminded viewers of the 2012 breakthrough that made "Linsanity" a household term; it was really cool to watch.
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Here's what I wrote when I shared the post I wrote about Lin's performance and Charlotte's win on the Ball Don't Lie Facebook page: "Jeremy Lin has settled into life as a role player, but on Monday night, the Charlotte Hornets needed him to play like a star to author a historic comeback against the San Antonio Spurs ... and he did just that." That teaser copy prompted a rebuke from a commenter who called it a "very stupid statement" to suggest that Lin has "settled into life as a role player," arguing that the former Warriors, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers guard remains one of the league's most effective pick-and-roll operators, and that he has played at an All-Star level when he's gotten the opportunity to take over for Kemba Walker and dominate the ball for Steve Clifford's club.
Here's the thing, though: Both of those statements can be true. We don't have to view the term "role player" as an insult.
Lin's overall production for the Hornets this season doesn't necessarily leap off the page. He's averaging about 12 points, three rebounds and three assists in 26 minutes per game, posting his worst shooting percentage since his 2012 breakout and making a subpar 33.5 percent of his 3s, and assisting on a lower share of his teammates' shots than ever. He's been closer to average than elite in the pick-and-roll, ranking 60th in points per possession among 112 players who have finished at least 100 plays as a screen-game ball-handler, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data. In some respects, he's having a pretty similar season to the one that went largely unremarked upon last year in Los Angeles.
A lot of that's due to the context in which he's playing, though. Lin's working off the ball more than he has in his NBA career, spending nearly two-thirds of his minutes at shooting guard, according to Basketball-Reference.com's positional breakdowns. Lin has spent the bulk of that off-guard time — 1,004 of his 1,737 total minutes this season — alongside Walker, giving Clifford a backcourt in which both guards can handle the ball, run pick-and-roll, get to the basket, space the floor, create off the bounce and get to the foul line.
The results have been damn good, with Charlotte's offense humming a tick above its season average in Walker-Lin minutes (104.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to to 104.3 points-per-100) while outscoring opponents by a strong 4.7-per-100, equivalent to the Toronto Raptors' fifth-best-in-the-NBA full-season net rating. In those minutes, though, Walker's the clear primary operator.
The UConn product has commandeered 225 more plays than Lin in their shared minutes and finished nearly 28 percent of Charlotte's possessions with a field-goal attempt, foul drawn or turnover committed, compared to a "usage rate" of just over 19 percent for Lin, according to NBAwowy.com. While roles can shift and evolve over the course of a possession, by and large, in that alignment, Kemba's the point man and Jeremy's working the wing.
When Lin's on the floor without Walker, though, that's when he gets more of an opportunity to create ... and, by and large, he's done quite a bit with it.
His usage rate spikes to 27.2 percent, according to NBAwowy, and he averages about 3 1/2 more field-goal attempts and two more 3-point tries per 36 minutes of non-Kemba floor time, per NBA.com's stat tool. His field-goal and 3-point accuracy have jumped by about 4 percent when he's running the show, and his statistical production — 19.2 points, 5.2 assists and 4.3 rebounds per-36 without Walker — would put him in pretty impressive company. Only 11 players this season are averaging at least 19-5-4 per-36, including All-Stars Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry, LeBron James, Chris Paul, James Harden, John Wall and Dwyane Wade.
One of those 11, though, is Walker, who has largely carried Charlotte's offense since the All-Star break and who, by just about any objective measure, has been the more productive player this season. The prioritization of Walker over Lin in the Hornets' structure is not a misappropriation of resources; it's an earned hierarchy, entirely justified by what the two players have done on the court this season.
And that's no slam on Lin, whose ability to act as a source of instant offense off the pine will likely earn him some Sixth Man of the Year consideration. If anything, it only highlights the significant step forward Walker has taken as a shooter and overall offensive force, which has been one of the most significant contributing factors to the Hornets' rise from the lottery to a 40-30 mark that has them fighting for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs and hoping to make some noise thereafter.
What we have, then, is a player who's capable of working within a team concept that doesn't include him being the primary playmaker and offensive focal point, but who can also do damage while running the show against opposing second units and — as he showed on Monday night against the Spurs — who can act as a top gun for stretches when circumstances require it. We have a player who understands his place in the team's pecking order and who contributes within it, who isn't called on to carry the load on a nightly basis but who executes his responsibilities consistently and effectively. That's a role player! There's nothing wrong or dirty about that.
In the context of the Charlotte Hornets, Walker is the top dog, the primary scoring threat and top ball-handler; Nicolas Batum is the jack-of-all-trades secondary scorer and distributor; and everybody else is skating their lane, filling their niche, and looking to give the club whatever it needs on a night-to-night basis. Most of the time, all Charlotte needs from Lin is for him to be part of the larger playmaking and shot-creating whole, and unlike in Houston and L.A., this team and this coach seem to understand how best to maximize his contributions within that specific definition. That he's still capable of getting everything flowing and hanging 29 on the best defense in the league is a wonderful bonus, but it's not something Clifford, general manager Rich Cho and owner Michael Jordan count on. That's what separates stars from role players, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with being the latter.
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