(Photo: REUTERS/Bill Waugh)
If you read most accounts of Jeremy Lin’s game from those that cover basketball, most of the praise, if not all, will be emphasized on the offensive side of the ball, such as his propensity and great ability to drive to the rim, good passing skills, high basketball IQ, great touch around the basket and above average outside shooting. When discussing Lin’s defense those same accounts would usually rate his defensive ability as below average. Most will not go as far to say he is horrible, although some do, but they will note that definitely lacking the lateral foot speed and overall quickness to defend his position well.
This idea of Lin being a below average defender was reinforced last season with the Houston Rockets when he lost his starting position to Patrick Beverley, some of the reasons were because he was a better fit with the starting unit and there was redundancy in skill set with Harden and Lin. The main reason however, was defense, not necessarily because Lin was sub par, but because Beverley was an elite defender; of course that was not how many assessed the situation and many did feel that Lin’s defense was in fact, sub par and what led to him losing his starting spot. In a Sheridan Hoops article from April of this year it stressed the point of Lin’s lackluster defense, following an injury to Beverley that would keep him out weeks, the headline read “Jeremy Lin won’t cut it for Rockets with Patrick Beverley out.” The article closed with the following line:
“Strong perimeter defense is going to be vital no matter what in the first round of the playoffs, but the Houston Rockets having Jeremy Lin in there defending the elite guards in the West just isn’t going to cut it.”
Lin not cutting it on defense was by and large, the consensus opinion, but when we look at many of the defensive statistics that most reference from last year’s Houston Rocket team it would seem that the difference in the Rockets defensive ability with Jeremy Lin on the court versus when having Beverly on the court was nominal.
*stats source: Basketball-Reference.com
While the defensive numbers from last season do reflect a defensive improvement with Beverley on the court, it is slight and nowhere near the picture of huge disparity that many have painted.
What might influence people’s judgement regarding the impact of Beverley’s defensive versus that of Lin’s is the good old eyeball test. The energy and intensity with which Beverley exerts on defense is starkly different to that of Lin as you can see from the following video:
Active hands, active feet, picking up the ball handler full court, staying in defensive position, constantly staying involved even when his defender doesn’t have the ball and tremendous energy is what you see from Beverly on a nightly basis and is why it is understandable that he receives such high praise around the league for his defense; it is also why by comparison Lin appears sub par. To be fair, most guards in the NBA would look sub par if we compare game film side by side with Beverly, but setting the bar at his level does a disservice to Lin’s defensive ability which is actually very good. Here is a 9 minute video but I focus on just the first 3 minutes:
What you notice within the first two plays of the video is that Lin does not move well laterally which allows Tony Parker to get a step on him but because Lin does not give up on the play, chasing Parker, he is able to recover and Parker has to give up the ball.
In the 3rd play, you see Lin chase his man who is playing off the ball, fighting through screens and catching up to meet his man when he receives the ball.
At the 1:20 mark in the video you see how Lin drops to the level of the ball when it goes below the free throw line and then when the ball goes back out to the perimeter he darts back to guard his man, Kendall Marshall, in time to meet him when he receives the ball and defends him all the way to the basket, ultimately causing the turnover.
The following play, you see Lin, who is 6’3 and 200 lbs, guard the 6’8 forward, Trevor Ariza, and stands his ground in the post, inducing a charging foul.
The constant theme of the 9 minute video, and any other bit of game film you’ll review, is Lin consistently working hard on defense and making plays. That is Lin on the defensive end, a tireless worker who makes up what he lacks in quickness and lateral movement with effort, size and smarts. No, he doesn’t move with the fleetness and tenacity of Beverly, but not many do and should not be considered a knock on Lin.
Going back to the numbers
While our eyes tell us that Beverley is the superior defender, as with the numbers we looked at earlier, the statistics don’t reflect the disparity that we see in the visual evidence.
*Stats source: Synergy Sports
Beverley possessing the greater defensive physical tools to Lin, we see how that translates to performing better defensively when placed in isolation. Beverly ranked 18th in the entire NBA in opponents points per possession when defending in isolation sets, compared to Lin who ranked 109th. What should be noted is that defending isolation plays account for less than 12 percent in either Lin or Beverly’s case; therefore, Beverley’s advantage in this area does not have a big impact overall.
By far the type of play that both Lin and Beverley are involved in most frequently is defending the ball handler in the pick and roll. In the case with Beverley, he spent 51.7 percent of time defending the ball handler in pick and roll sets and his man shot 40.4 percent and scored 0.82 points per possession. Lin defending the same type of play 42.3 percent of the time, did better by limiting his defender to shooting 38.8 percent from the field and scoring 0.80 points per possession.
In the 2nd most frequent play that both Lin and Beverley defended last year was the spot up shot and again, Lin fared better, in this case, far better. In a little more than a quarter of the overall plays defended, Lin allowed his opponent to shoot 33.2 percent from the field and score at a clip of 0.87 points per possession. Beverley’s intensity wasn’t much help in defending the perimeter as his man shot 44.6 percent in spot up situations and gave up 1.13 points per possession which ranked 270th in the NBA. Shooters were especially efficient when shooting behind the 3 point line against Beverley, shooting a robust 45.1 percent.
Per Synergy Sports, Lin was actually the more effective defender with a total opponent points per possession of 0.86 and opponents shooting of 36.8 percent versus Beverley’s 0.88 points per possession and 40.7 opponent field goal percentage.
The difficulty with trying to make sense of individual defensive stats is that there are so many variables involved that skew the results, such as the offensive strength of the opponent and the other 4 players that help defend. While the presented statistics seem to say that Lin and Beverly have about equal impact defensively, I want to try to eliminate as many variables as possible and attempt to compare apples to apples. I take a look at the defensive rating of Lin and Beverley when lined up with the same four Rocket players. Luckily for this comparison, the two most frequently used line ups for the Rockets last season were the same four Rockets (Howard, Parsons, Harden and Terrence Jones), the only difference being Lin and Beverley as the point guard.
*Stat source: nba.com/stats
**The sample size for the Rockets four with Lin is 327 minutes and 620 minutes with Beverley.
When we we isolate Lin and Beverley with the same surrounding cast we see a little bit more separation in the defensive numbers, but still nothing that points to there being a huge disparity with the two players. While we see that the Rockets gave up 2.5 points less per 100 possessions with Beverley at the point there was only a net difference in +/- of 0.6 which is inconsequential.
Whether it is Lin’s physical appearance, demeanor or his style of play on defense in contrast to that of Beverley, something causes his defensive effectiveness and ability to be undervalued and underrated by the masses. Case in point, just posted in an article 5 days ago, NBA.com columnist, John Schuhmann, had thoughts about Lin’s defense which are inline with popular belief to this point.
“But the personnel won’t be any better this season. They’ve added noted defensive liabilities Jeremy Lin and Carlos Boozer to their rotation along with rookie Julius Randle and 36-year-old Kobe Bryant, who is coming off of two leg injuries and who played some pretty terrible weak-side defense the last time he was healthy. Bad defensive personnel and a coach with a bad defensive history. For the second straight season, opposing offenses are going to love facing the Lakers.”
As both the video and the actual results of Lin’s effectiveness on defense from last season will show, Lin is actually a very good NBA defender for his position and not a defensive liability as John Schuhmann will lead you to believe.
If the bar for elite defense at the point guard position is Patrick Beverley, a member of the 2014 All-Defensive 2nd team, Lin was comparable in many areas and the difference in the overall results were negligible. In fact, Lin was actually more effective on defense last season in the 2 type of plays that consisted of the mass majority of sets each player defended (Ball handler pick and roll, spot up shot.)
The conclusion based on the actual facts is that while it might not appear to our eyes at first glance, Lin is not only a very good, smart and hard working NBA defender at his position, he actually held his own against one of the best in the league in terms of actual results on the court. I too was guilty of making the same assessment as most having not sat down and studied the data and actually watched more than just an occasional game throughout the season, but when I did it was apparent. Even Lin’s new coach, Byron Scott, whose job as coach is to study and know about every player’s ability in the league was surprised at Lin’s defensive ability.
“Defensively, the thing that I thought was going to be his biggest downfall, was something that I thought that he really competed at, in the times I coached against him. I am a Jeremy Lin fan.” Scott stated in an interview with the Lakers network, Time Warner Cable Sportsnet.
Lin finally seems to have the perfect situation to dispel his reputation as a below average defender. He’ll have massive amount of exposure by way of playing for the most popular team in the NBA that gets the most national coverage of any team. More so than the national coverage, the local media in Los Angeles is expansive and meticulous, so Lin’s game will be comprehensively picked apart all season long by an every growing list of beat writers, analyst and bloggers. He will be led by a coach that preaches defense first which has escaped Lin in his career. As of right now it seems that he’ll have a starting position for the Lakers. The stage is set for Lin to turnaround the masses and the misconception of his defensive ability, like it was with Byron Scott and myself. you just need to pay close attention and him now being a Laker, he’ll definitely get that.
– Fern Rea
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