Re: ESPN Article Request: "Don't give up on Jeremy Lin yet"
We're a month into the 2012-13 NBA season, so it's a good time to analyze players going through slow starts. While a poor first month doesn't mean a whole lot in a sport like, say, baseball, individual stats tend to stabilize more quickly in basketball.
Explanations for poor starts abound, many of the "convenient narrative" variety, but there may be a kernel of truth in each. So what's myth, and what's reality? Is it just a matter of going through an ill-timed slump -- a little bad luck in a small sample? Or is there something real behind the disappointing starts we're seeing from a handful of players thus far?
Let's dig into the numbers and try to solve three slow starts. No one can deny the following players have been performing at a much lower level than we would have expected before the season, especially considering their solid campaigns in 2011-12, but do the casual conclusions and observations used to explain their struggles hold up to scrutiny? Here are three players who most seem to think were hurt by the offseason. But were they really?
Conclusion No. 1: Jeremy Lin was a flash in the pan
Lin was the well-documented toast of New York a season ago, but this season he's been putting up numbers more in line with his short, unremarkable stint with the Golden State Warriors in 2010-11. Are Lin's struggles just the natural result of growing pains with his new team in Houston, or are they indicative that his amazing 2011-12 run was a mere fluke, a great run of play in an offense built to allow that to happen?
There's no question that Lin has had to alter his game to fit in with the Houston Rockets, especially in the wake of the team acquiring James Harden right before the beginning of the regular season. In terms of frequently having the ball in his hands, Lin had all of the statistical earmarks of an elite point guard last season, averaging an estimated 2.02 touches per minute (in an attacking position on the floor).
Only Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose and Tony Parker had a higher rate of ballhandling. According to Synergy, he also ranked seventh in the allotment of his plays handling the ball in a pick-and-roll (42.5 percent), another hallmark of an elite point guard.
Lin Better Without Harden?
Situation Pts Poss. ORtg Diff
Lin + Harden 896 876 102.3 --
Lin, no Harden 101 96 104.3 +2.0
Harden, no Lin 248 235 105.6 +3.3
Lin thrived in that facilitator role, proving an efficient pick-and-roll point guard and an elite isolation scorer. But this season, his touches per minute are down to 1.51, well below the level of Rondo, Williams and Paul, and he's handling the ball in a pick-and-roll on only 29 percent of his plays. Asking Lin to split ballhandling duty with Harden has been a big reason for his apparent decline; compared to lineups with Harden and Lin on the floor together, the Rockets' offensive efficiency is 2 points better per 100 possessions with Lin but no Harden, and 3.3 points better per 100 possessions with Harden but no Lin.
Lin's incredible run might have been a "flash in the pan" in the sense that his game can only thrive under a somewhat specific set of circumstances, but that's true of many on-ball-centric players who struggle when asked to move into an off-ball role. Lin also showed last season that he's better than most ball-dominant players when allowed to play his preferred style. And there's also the matter of Lin currently ranking in the bottom 1 percent of the league in isolation efficiency, a rate that he is too talented to maintain for long.
Verdict: Don't write Lin off as a one-hit wonder just yet.
Conclusion No. 2: Ersan Ilyasova can't play with Monta Ellis
On the heels of a breakout 2011-12 season, hopes were high that Ilyasova would build on that performance and continue to improve. Unfortunately, though, the Milwaukee Bucks forward has regressed badly in the early going, averaging a mere 7.3 points per game (on 35 percent shooting) and posting a ghastly 9.0 PER.
After asking him to log 30.5 minutes per game in the second half of last season, Milwaukee coach Scott Skiles has eased off on Ilyasova's playing time of late, limiting him to less than 22 minutes five times in the past two weeks and benching him for Monday's game against Chicago.
One theory is that Ilyasova's game isn't meshing well with Ellis in Ellis' first full season as a Buck. It's natural to wonder whether his gunning ways have impacted Ilyasova since other than Ekpe Udoh and the sparingly-used trio of Samuel Dalembert, Marquis Daniels and John Henson, Ellis is the only newcomer to Milwaukee's rotation from the beginning of last season.
There is some evidence to suggest Ilyasova's game is being impacted negatively by Ellis. Ilyasova was at his best as a spot-up shooter, offensive rebounder and cutter, but he's a surprisingly mediocre pick-and-roll player. He could still survive despite Brandon Jennings' game (as is the case with most point guards) being primarily predicated on the play, but the addition of an extra pick-and-roll-heavy player in Ellis has pushed those types of plays to nearly a third of Ilyasova's total possessions, per Synergy Sports.
Furthermore, the combination of Ilyasova and Ellis has been one of the Bucks' worst two-man combinations this season, according to NBA.com's stats tool. However, in a larger sample last season, the Ilyasova/Ellis combo was one of Milwaukee's best, and much of Ilyasova's uptick in playing time (and Skiles' confidence) last season came after the team acquired Ellis at the trade deadline.
In the end, Ilyasova's struggles come down more to missed jump shots than anything else. In retrospect, we probably will end up seeing his ridiculous 57.7 true shooting percentage (and 45.5 percent accuracy on 3s) last season as an unrepeatable outlier from a guy who's made only 33 percent of his career 3-pointers outside of the 2011-12 season.
Verdict: Somewhat true.
Conclusion No. 3: It was a mistake reverting Rodney Stuckey back to the 2
While he's playing better of late, Stuckey began the 2012-13 season with a horrific 17-for-72 (23.6 percent) shooting performance from the field -- including a 1-for-23 start that ranks among the worst in NBA history -- and his PER is still a dreadful 9.5. Like Ilyasova, he was also recently sent to the bench.
This is Stuckey's second consecutive season primarily playing at the shooting guard position, and the results have been mixed. His best-ever season by most metrics came in 2010-11, when he played almost all of his minutes at point guard, and it's hard to argue that Stuckey isn't a much better player when he mans the point and has the ball in his hands more often.
According to 82games.com, over the past three seasons Stuckey has a 19.9 PER while playing point guard, and a 13.9 PER while playing shooting guard, a huge split. It's not hard to see why -- when Stuckey plays point, he runs more isolations and pick-and-rolls (which he's good at), and spots up for fewer jumpers (at which he's average at best).
The Pistons were much better relative to the league's average offensive rating when Stuckey was their starting point guard in 2010-11 than in either season since, when Brandon Knight has been running the point. Knight has a career 11.9 PER and has been nearly as offensively inefficient as Stuckey this season despite the latter's horrific shooting start. It's not clear Detroit would be any better swapping Knight's minutes for Kim English, but it's pretty obvious that Stuckey is ill-suited to the shooting guard position.