Commentary

Jeremy Lin's success and the system

Originally Published: February 15, 2012
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

Jeremy LinNathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeremy Lin has found a system that fits him and a coach that believes in him ... and he has exploded.

The purest moment in this Jeremy Lin saga came as Friday night transitioned into Saturday morning in a Madison Square Garden that still charged ions from the way Lin outshined Kobe Bryant that night:

"What happened?"

In other words, how did this guy from a school that has produced twice as many United States presidents as NBA players, a guy who was jettisoned to the D-League last month, take the league by storm?

The answer was as honest as the question.

"It's a combination of the system, being able to fit into the system, being comfortable, being able to play through some mistakes, and then building confidence," Lin said.

And there you have it. Notice the only noun that appeared twice in Lin's statement was "system." This story might serve as the ultimate testament to how a coach and his system can make all the difference in a player's effectiveness. We talk all the time of the importance of chemistry in the NBA, but usually in regard to the personalities in the locker room. We underestimate how the alchemy of a coach's system and a player can elicit results we couldn't have imagined.

No NBA team drafted Lin out of Harvard. The Golden State Warriors signed him and then waived him after one year; the Houston Rockets waived him after two weeks. And that's how he wound up playing in New York, in the wide-open offense of Mike D'Antoni. And that's why, more than anything else, you know Lin's name.

"In any other system in the world he wouldn't flourish," said an NBA scout. "In a Mike D'Antoni system, he flourishes."

Think of the implications. It's not that this happened. It's that this can happen. There's probably another Lin sitting near the end of a bench somewhere, waiting to be matched with the right coach.

[+] EnlargeMike D'Antoni
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesMike D'Antoni's confidence in Jeremy Lin is going a long way.

"I think about 75 percent of the players in the league are dependent on circumstance, whether it's the coach, the system, teammates," said Steve Kerr, the sharpshooter turned TNT analyst. "For the majority of the league, there's a lot of luck involved and a lot of circumstance. Sometimes it's just a matter of finding the right spot. No question, Jeremy has found the right situation. It's a perfect fit for him.

"It makes you wonder how many guys have slipped through the cracks and not gotten their opportunity."

Kerr would know. He was on the fringes of the rotation in Cleveland and Orlando before landing in Phil Jackson's triangle offense in Chicago. He had the four highest-scoring seasons of his career with the Bulls, played on three championship teams highlighted by his Finals-winning shot in 1997, then wound up with two more championships in San Antonio.

"I wasn't really a point guard," Kerr said. "I wasn't quick enough to handle on-ball pressure. And the triangle, it doesn't demand the point guard to run the offense. The offense was based on moving the ball. And I was a good passer and could recognize the game well. The triangle took the ball out of my hands but let me make decisions."

Kerr left out one key attribute: He could shoot. He hit 3-pointers with greater accuracy than anyone else in NBA history.

"I wasn't big enough to be a 2-guard and I wasn't quick enough to be a point," Kerr said. "In a point guard-dominated offense I couldn't thrive. You see the same thing with Derek Fisher, B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson. Those guys were smart players and good shooters."

In Lin's case, the Knicks' offense suits him because it spreads the players around the perimeter in a setup scout calls "an open donut." Defenders must stay outside the lane, within arm's reach of an offensive player, to avoid a defensive three-seconds violation, creating plenty of driving avenues once Lin comes off one of the innumerable screens set by Tyson Chandler. ("With him being undersized I have to keep guards off him," Chandler said via text message. "That's why I 'pick' him so much.")

The trait Lin possesses that D'Antoni discovered once he began playing him is court vision. It's something that can't be tested for in a physical examination or discovered during individual workouts.

"You don't know until it happens," D'Antoni said. "You don't know if he can read every situation, but he has proven that."

Lin calls D'Antoni "an absolute offensive genius."

"The way that he creates a system and, every single game, during walkthrough he does something different, and he'll do it to adjust to that specific team's defense," Lin said. "He makes us look good ... but it's pretty fun."

Sometimes fun is an important part of the mix. Or, at least, comfort and confidence.

Matt Barnes saw Don Nelson help the Golden State Warriors, a team of castoffs, beat the top-seeded defending conference champion Dallas Mavericks in the 2007 playoffs.

"When you know your coach believes in you, that's really all the confidence you need," Barnes said.

"Just to know when I missed a few shots, he told me to continue to shoot. When your coach has your back like that, as long as you're playing smart there's nothing you can do wrong. I definitely see that's what's going on [in New York], with D'Antoni having confidence in him and his teammates believing in him."

Lin might very well have saved D'Antoni's job. At the very least he quelled talk of D'Antoni's dismissal. Sometimes a player can save a coach just as much as a coach saves a player.

Barnes When your coach has your back like that, as long as you're playing smart there's nothing you can do wrong. I definitely see that's what's going on [in New York], with D'Antoni having confidence in him and his teammates believing in him.

-- Lakers forward Matt Barnes

San Antonio's Gregg Popovich would be the first to tell you that he wouldn't be the longest-tenured coach in the NBA if it weren't for Tim Duncan. But Popovich maximized his status to create a culture, one that wound up being perfect for Bruce Bowen.

Bowen had unsuccessful tryouts with Golden State and Phoenix, bounced from the CBA to France to a chaotic Rick Pitino-era Celtics team that Bowen said was "literally, fend for yourself." He wound up at the bottom of the Philadelphia 76ers' roster, then was waived and claimed by the Miami Heat.

Bowen flourished in Miami, starting 72 games in his first full season with the team. He played well enough to attract the attention of the Spurs the next year ... and by his second season in San Antonio he had tripled his salary and played on the first of three championship teams. If defense is your thing, the Spurs are your team. Their rotations were so excellent that you didn't have to worry about looking bad because someone else wasn't where he was supposed to be. Bow was the perimeter defender to go with the dual big men of Duncan and David Robinson inside, and their interior prowess allowed him to be more aggressive because they could handle anything that got past him. Bowen was the escape hatch on offense, able to knock down 3-pointers when the opposition focused on Duncan or Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker. It took three leagues and four NBA jerseys, but Bowen found a home.

"I always had the confidence," Bowen said. "It was the matter of getting an opportunity. You get cut, it should create a drive in you.

"It's key to make sure you still have faith in your own ability. Because if you don't, who will?"

Bowen's point raises an interesting aspect of the Lin saga: Is it possible that his early struggles to catch on don't just make it a better story, but are the reasons for the story? Would he have improved at the same rate if he were a first-round pick with a guaranteed contract?

Is it also possible that being Asian-American didn't just feed the post-starting hype, it helped create the player? An NBA talent evaluator told me one reason Lin went undrafted was because "he was a victim of racial profiling because of his ethnicity." Scouts hadn't seen Asian-American guards succeed in the NBA, thus they had a hard time envisioning it for Lin.

Let's just say Lin didn't have to spend a lot of time driving around looking for a gas station to fill up his motivational tank.

Time for one last review. A highly determined player given additional incentive placed in a system that perfectly suits his skills. We've seen it before, with the likes of Kerr and Bowen. Lin is just the latest. Surely there are other players out there who could fit the equation ... if only the right team would solve for x.