Monday, April 23, 2012

The Unbearable Shortness of Linsanity, or, JL3's Claim to Most Improved Player

It appears all over but the shouting that Jeremy Lin will take home this year's Most Improved Player award. This is all well and good, because only a sour-faced curmudgeon could argue against or deny the total fucking awesomeness that was Linsanity. But if you will permit me, I would like to get my sour-faced curmudgeon on. 

Certainly on nearly all of the numbers, Lin has a rock-solid claim to the award. His PER jumped 5 points, he raised his TS% nearly 10 percentage points from this year to last, and per 36 min., his point and assist averages increased by 10 and 3, respectively. That type of improvement could go up against anyone's, in any year, and have a damn good shot of walking away with the MIP.

However, it seems relevant that Lin only played in 35 games total this year, and played only a meaningful role in 26 (the 25 he started, and the first game of Linsanity in which he came off the bench to torch New Jersey). Lin certainly made his presence felt in the games he played, but he played big minutes in under 40% of New York's games. It wasn't Lin's fault he didn't play in more games to start the season, but he's missed the entire last month with a knee injury, and it has to be mentioned that the Knicks haven't exactly struggled without him, going 10-5 on a schedule that included 9 Playoff teams. (In comparison, their 10-3 record during the opening blast of Linsanity featured at most 4 Playoff teams.) It appears as if Lin is about to receive an award for a season in which he played 6 weeks of meaningful basketball, and in which, lest we forget, during two of those 6 weeks, his team went 1-7.*

So if not Lin, then who? A lot of people might put in a brief for Ryan Anderson, but when you look at the numbers, you see a player who hasn't so much improved as finally gotten the proper amount of minutes that his production has long suggested he receive. You could actually make a damn good case for James Harden, but he's a shoo-in for the Sixth Man Award and there's been far too much consolidation of prestige in this country as is; we don't want the NBA pressing its finger down further on the scales in favor of inequality.

And indeed, it is in the spirit of thoughtful egalitarianism that we put forward the name of John Lucas III, a true MIP candidate for the 99 Percent. On its face, it might seem ridiculous, but delve deeper and there's a fair bit of there there. For starters, the man was barely in the league last year, and even then it seemed like the Bulls signed him out of some kind of affirmative action program for former players coached by Thibs (a.k.a., The Scalabrine Foundation for Locker Room Achievers). And yet this year, with Rose's myriad injuries, JL3 was pressed into regular service, and he not only stepped up to the challenge,  he outright excelled at times. Stats-wise, we're looking at a guy who played nearly twice as many minutes this year as he did during his three previous NBA seasons combined, and who ended up with a 15.3 PER. The man shot 39% on 133 three point attempts, had an assist : turnover ratio better than 2 to 1, and, even aside from his aforementioned mauling of Miami, had a number of signature games against good teams. 

In fact, given that the Bulls played without their MVP point guard for nearly 40 percent of the season and appear likely to finish with the same winning percentage as last year's 62-win team, and given that Lucas appears to have been as good as, if not better than, C.J. Watson this season, I think there's a case to be made that JL3's inspired play this season might be as important as any other factor when it comes to figuring out how the Bulls continued to play at such a high level without Rose. Check out the Bulls' top units of adjusted +/-, and you find that JL3 is part of a number of the better ones, including some with serious minutes played. (In particular, the Lucas-Korver-Deng-Taj-Omer is flat-out beastly, at +29.3 efficiency differential in 148 minutes. And especially so when compared to the otherwise similar Watson-Korver-Deng-Taj-Omer, which is -3.58 in 49 minutes played.)

Everyone fell in love with Lin this year because he rose from the D-League to play a role in reviving the Knicks' season. Well, JL3 has played in the D-League too (and Italy, and Spain, and fucking China), and if he didn't revive the Bulls season, he helped keep it from needing one. Lin's a great story and a great MIP candidate, but Lucas might have a better claim for both.**

*In fairness, this stretch had much more to do with Melo quitting on D'Antoni than with anything that Lin did or did not do. But the fact remains, Lin had trouble productively co-existing with Melo, and regardless of blame apportionment, that's hardly a point in his favor.

**I should admit, the argument for Lucas vs. Lin falls apart a bit when one looks at minutes played, in that Lin has more minutes this season than Lucas. But my response to that is, "Look, if Lin had been behind Derrick Rose and C.J. Watson instead of Mike Bibby and rookie Iman Shumpert, he'd have had trouble getting a lot of minutes too."

UPDATE: I have to admit, I completely forgot about DeMarcus Cousins, whose case for MIP seems pretty open-and-shut to me. Still, JL3 should be getting more recognition than he's received thus far.


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