Think about the New York Knicks for a second and besides that couch surfing/Harvard grad point guard, you will probably think of offense. Forwards Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire are two of the best in the game. Coach Mike D’Antoni is one of the best offensive tacticians in the NBA (his Phoenix Suns ’04-’07 may be the gold standard for the next generation).
Yet before point guard Jeremy Lin entered the rotation, the Knicks were struggling on offense and what little winning they did was on the strength of their defense. When Lin arrived, suddenly the Knicks had a real point guard, rather than the converted shooting guards or well past their prime veteran that they had previously relied on. Since February 4th, the image of the Knicks is of Lin twisting his way to the basket or sinking big shots like his three to beat Toronto.
A cursory look at the highlight reel and you’d assume that the Knicks were now a ferocious powerhouse when they have the ball. Think about it, a good point in a D’Antoni system with Amar’e and Melo to distribute to.
Yeah, but, look at the numbers. The Knicks are actually not that much improved on offense. The real improvement aside from win column, public perception, and the like is on defense. In other words, for all the excitement about Lin’s offense, the real on court difference he’s made for the team is on the defensive end. Consider that the Knicks with Lin are averaging a little more than 97 points per 100 possessions, a mark that leaves them in the bottom third of the Association; that mark doesn’t vary significantly from their full season mark. OTOH, since Lin began playing major minutes, the Knicks D, already very good, about sixth in the NBA overall, has been GREAT! The Knicks D in the Lin era are giving up an average of just more than 94 points per 100 possessions. If they did this since Christmas Day, they’d be at the top with Philadelphia and Chicago.
In other words, a ridiculously good story, Linsanity, is getting even better, or at least even more counterintuitive. He’s helping a team coached by an offensive mastermind become one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Stranger than fiction indeed.
Martin Johnson wrote a weekly NBA column for the New York Sun from 2003-’08, and for http://www.theroot.com from 2008-’10. His sportswriting has also appeared in the NY Times, Wall St. Journal and the Atlantic Monthly.