Mid Range

Well, just like “Tebow Time” before it, “Linsanity” has forced my hand. While those of us who consume life- and work-debilitating quantities of ESPN and sports talk radio think that all the world must surely have heard of Jeremy Lin, most of the world does not consume life- and work-debilitating quantities of ESPN and sports talk radio and, therefore, aren’t under the working and erroneous assumption that everyone has. So, I’m sorry to 90% of you reading this who just don’t care.

So he’s Asian-American. A Harvard graduate. Played insignificantly for three NBA teams, including one in the D-League, the NBA’s equivalent to church league basketball. Gets an opportunity to start for the New York Knicks only because the Knicks had a junior varsity high school crew coxen running the point. He proceeds to set the record for most points averaged in the first five starts of any NBA career. ANY. The Knicks who were impossibly 8-15, when Lin was inserted, won 7 straight games, including two at the hands of game winners by Lin. Sound familiar?

By all accounts a stunning story for these three reasons. One: no one had EVER heard of him. Ever. Tebow had been heralded since around the pull-up/training pants stage. Two: Genuinely electric and historic basketball playing. Shooter. Scorer. Playmaker. Clutch. Three: He’s the first American of Asian descent to make the league.

Before I finish with Lin, I’d like to make two basketball points that no one else on the planet will really care about. But, they are massive pet peeves of mine and are moderately implicated by the Lin story.

First, if I hear another person decry the death of the mid-range jumpshot or jump shooting in general, I’m going to strap them to one of those Silence of the Lambs upright stretchers and allow Blake Griffin to repeatedly Mosgov them in the face. Larry Bird said it again the other day on Bill Simmons’ podcast. Saying it’s racist goes way too far but there is this weird bias against the modern game and in favor of the ancient game that is bothersome. Do you want to know why the modern game is characterized by dunks and three point shots? It’s not because black people are flashy or selfish or don’t know how to play “real” basketball. It’s because the dunk and the three are the two most efficient shots on the floor. Period.

What does every basketball coach and fan from this bygone era of on-the-top-of-the-ball dribbling and bankshots say about shooting? USE THE GLASS. Over and over. One of my high school basketball coaches looked and walked like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. As his feet slapped rhythmically through the lane he would loft this horrible shot off the glass that never seemed to go in. (I’ve never understood how the muscle motor skill calculation as to accuracy and velocity for a bank shot was necessarily less complex than directly in the basket, but anyway.) They wanted you to use the glass because by their estimation it was the most efficient and easy shot. They would say things like, “Who cares how it looks” and “who cares if you won’t get any prom dates shooting it.” All they cared about was the bucket. They weren’t preserving the heritage of the game or the purity of any particular type of shot.

So, why have things changed. Is there any more efficient and high percentage shot on the planet than the dunk?? Basketball players dunk because it is essentially guaranteed to go in. Why would you perfect a 15 foot jumper when you can reach your arm down through the iron with the basketball in your hand? What happened to all the bank shot enthusiasts that haunted my adolescence? Is it maybe because the bankshot busy bodies themselves can’t reach their arms down through the rim?

And, the three pointer. Have you seen high school players shoot this shot? Have you seen college and pros shoot it? The NBA line is so deep, I’ve seen Steph Curry accidentally toe it while eating nachos at the concession stand. How can any human watch modern basketball and think these kids can’t shoot? It’s mind boggling. But, people rejoin, “They can’t hit that 15-18 footer though, like ol’ Havlicek and Pistol Tight Wad Pants.” Well, why would you, when you can step back four feet and get a whole EXTRA point?? I don’t understand.

So, the dunk and the three point shot have made the 15-18 footer the poorest and most inefficient shot on the entire court. It’s not significantly more makable than the three, and you get the same amount of points as a, wait for it, . . . dunk! It’s a matter of simple economics. The modern basketball player is making the most logical and efficient choices about shot selection. Why can’t the bankshot bureaucrats, the traditional champions of shot efficiency, see this?

Point two, and the one that circles back to Lin. Just as there appears to be this bias by fans and analysts against the modern game, the modern game has developed some of its own barriers to entry and full acceptance. It’s pretty plain that at the highest level, black people play basketball better than any other group on the planet (whatever the word “black” precisely means; obviously we understand race is a fluid genetic spectrum). And, because professional athletics is such serious money and because talent scouting is such an unpredictable enterprise, it is always safest to pick the longest, quickest, highest jumping athlete you can find. That’s also just sound economics and business judgment. The laws of probability say that you are going to find higher quality performers picking along those metrics.

But, what someone like Lin suggests is that we are missing an entire roped off well of the talent pool. There are two explanations for someone like Lin. Either, that he is truly an aberrational talent and it just so happens that we are lucky that the coincidences of the cosmos aligned to reveal him where the system was designed to overlook OR that there are many more Jeremy Lin’s out there but only a few, by virtue of circumstances, are afforded an opportunity to perform and be recognized.

I’ve long been convinced of the latter school. You can’t tell me that the system is so good that it is catching every single nontraditional athletic talent that exists. Take Steve Nash for instance. It’s universally agreed that he is a freakish athlete. All of these guys are. But, are you telling me that Steve Nash is the only remaining anglo-saxon who is competent to run the point in the NBA? Is Lin the only asian? Surely there are 2 others. Or 10 others. It seems that there is some issue of opportunity.

There is no more unforgiving sport than basketball. Basketball coaches are the quickest to sit a player for physical mistake. Missed shots, turnovers. Coaches swear that the mental mistake is the only intolerable one. But, it’s just not true. And, it’s especially not true for athletes, like Lin, who maybe don’t fully “look” the part. Doubt already exists about their game and so the margin for performance error is razor thin.

But, here, Mike D’Antoni’s hand was essentially forced, by necessity and circumstance and maybe even at the instigation of Carmelo Anthony, to play Lin. Otherwise, he almost certainly would have been cut within days of when he made his actual first start. That’s a real fact. But, because the Knicks were playing so poorly and essentially had no other alternative, Lin was given his opportunity. More importantly that opportunity came with space to fail. Because you necessarily can’t get any worse than losing almost all your games, Lin had freedom to be aggressive and relaxed and natural. He’s averaged nearly 7-8 turnovers a game. That’s a lot of excused mistake that almost no other team would have tolerated from a no-name, asian point guard.

The short: There is a slight market correction to be made in professional athletics. On the margins, not at the top, more scrutiny probably ought to be paid to highly skilled athletes even where they occupy non-traditional bodies or come from non-traditional programs or have names that can be conjugated in crazy, non-traditional ways. Lindestructible!

Oh, and I also think dunks and threes are freaking awesome. So, shut up neighborhood dad with the undefendable baby hook/beer in the hand shot.

Performed by ipoetlaureate. Music produced by djcluich.

Today’s song blog here:

Grace to Fail