Archive for February, 2012

The Jeremy Lin Era Begins! (Warning, sports writing)

While I’m generally sympathetic to critiques of racial stereotyping in sports, I just can’t agree with this (via a facebook friend):

I loved watching Jeremy’s aggression on the court and his enjoyment of the game.  I loved seeing his teammates’ celebration, since Jeremy has obviously won their hearts with his courage and kindness.  I did not love the belittling comments.  Now, I’m always reticent to cry “racism,” and I won’t cry “racism” in this case.  The commentators are not showing hatred of a race.  I won’t even call it bigotry — at least not bigotry outright.  If anything, they’re showing what President Bush famously called “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  Their astonishment at the sight of Jeremy Lin outperforming the other players, their consistent references to how exhausted he must be, and how “magical” a night he’s having (rather than a natural result of talent and hard work) suggests that they’ve bought into the stereotype of the physically inferior Asian-American male.

So let’s break this down, claim by claim:

Is calling Jeremy Lin’s night against the Nets “magical” condescending to the effort he’s put in and indicative of low expectations because he’s Asian? I’ve watched a fair number of NBA games, and hyperbole is pretty standard for NBA announcers when someone has a spectacular night. And I’m reasonably sure I’ve heard “magical” used with players of all ethnicities. More significantly, this would have been a special outing for many players below the superstar level, but especially so considering the Knicks had been losing the game up to Lin’s takeover of the game in the second half and the backstory of the team’s woes finding someone good to play point guard.  More on this later, but I don’t think “magical” by itself is really all that unusual or inappropriate in this context.

Did they have biased expectations of Lin’s stamina because of his Chinese heritage? Hmmm. What’s a fair way to evaluate this claim? Let’s start with a crude qualitative measure: did Lin actually look tired or are the announcers projecting their own preconceived narrative onto him in this case, facts be damned? I think he looked fairly tired on those free throws near the end of the 3rd quarter. He’s breathing rather heavily.

More meaningful perhaps: how logical is it to expect Lin to be tired? Lin played 36 minutes that night. For one game, that’s probably not particularly remarkable. But it’s still a lot of minutes. And it’s a certainly lot of minutes for any player coming off the bench at the bottom of the depth chart. Lin had never played more than about 20 minutes in an NBA game up to that point. So I don’t think it’s particularly off-the-wall to expect that this kind of effort would test his conditioning more than it had ever been tested before.

And Lin played almost 45 minutes tonight. Again, it’s just two games and hardly a good predictive sample, but if Lin somehow manages to keep up this pace (in a compressed season no less)  his performance won’t be remarkable – it’ll be completely unthinkable. Not a single NBA player currently averages 40 minutes a game. Look at the NBA minutes leaders. Most of the 20 players who average above 36 minutes are the best players in the entire game of basketball today, All-Star Game starters and probable future Hall of Famers. Kevin Love, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose.  Those guys. Not dudes who were warming the bench two games ago.

Is being surprised at Lin’s clear performance edge in this game unreasonable? Again, we are talking about a second-year player, coming off the bottom of the depth chart, relatively untested in the NBA, not especially strongly tested in college or in high school either (the Ivy League and Northern California high schools are not exactly known for fielding the world’s most competitive basketball teams at their respective levels). On a team whose main storyline promoted by ESPN for the last month is that they are so desperate for a point guard, any point guard, that they really can’t afford to wait for the relatively washed-up Baron Davis to come back from injury.

The possibility that he has been systematically underrated throughout his career aside, I really don’t think it’s so farfetched to expect that NBA players in Lin’s situation are not going to be putting up numbers like this so suddenly. The usual trajectory is for a player to gradually amp up his play over his first two or three years while coaches get comfortable with designing plays for him, rather than instantly putting up 25 points a game right off the bat. I saw announcers’ shock in a similar situation this year with another reserve, Ivan Johnson, against the Heat and so I don’t see why they shouldn’t be similarly surprised seeing Lin play like this.

Bottom line: Jeremy Lin’s PER is currently 25.07. That’s better than Wade, Steve Nash, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, and Andrew Bynum. It’s better than Dwight Howard. It’s better than all but seven players in the league. If this kind of performance is sustained through the whole season it won’t be good…for an Asian-American. It won’t be good…for a fairly scrawny player who’s obviously at a physical disadvantage compared to his peers.

It will be one of the greatest single-season performances by any player to ever play the game. Period. “Magical”? That’s the only way I can think of to describe it.