Airsanity: Lin and the Rockets Struggle with More Than Airballs
I once interviewed MLB writer and former Astro social media maven Alyson Footer for a story about sports radio and she gave me a fantastic quote about the media in general. "The news cycle used to be 24 hours and now it's 24 seconds," she told me. The impact that has on sports coverage means that only the most audacious takes and the most epic moments make the highlight reels and the talk show discussion circuit. Those moments can be wonderful or they can be embarrassing.
Photo by Groovehouse Heroes and goats.
Enter Jeremy Lin and his airball Monday night against the NBA champion Miami Heat. It wasn't that he missed a shot or that he missed it so badly. It was that it came during a time when the Rockets went from 11 points up to three points down in a matter of minutes during a fourth quarter run that cinched a victory for the Heat and put yet another dent into the young Rockets season.
Unfortunately, Lin is going to get the lion's share of the blame for this one -- I've already seen numerous tweets, Facebook posts and bulletin board threads calling for his head -- but, as usual, fans, and pundits, are missing the point.
Lin's airball was ugly and it came at a critical time in the game. Having the opportunity to be hero or goat is a tough spot. Young players often spit the bit when the game is on the line. For those who forget, a very young Kobe Bryant threw up three massive airball bricks during a playoff game against Utah in 1997. The Jazz won the series, but Bryant ultimately won the war. This is not to say I think Lin is even in the same stratosphere with Bryant. But it does underscore the point that you have to take the shot to have an opportunity to miss in the first place.
Lin is having a tough start to his first season in Houston. He's shooting under 40 percent from the floor and just over 30 percent from the three point line. His plus-minus rating is an abysmal -13. Still, he leads the team in assists (6.4) and is one of the best in the NBA thus far in steals with just under three per game. But his struggles shooting, particularly for such a dynamic player, make him an easy target. It is likely that he is still getting into shape from off-season knee surgery, but neither he nor anyone else will make excuses for him.
James Harden, after the torrid start, has cooled off substantially, but he is still second in the league in scoring over the last five games. Yet, against the Heat, he was as much to blame as Lin, pulling up for an ill-advised, contested three in the waning moments and driving into a double team to essentially seal the loss.
The bigger problem is that the entire team is struggling. The Rockets as a team lead the league in turnovers. They are near the bottom of the league in multiple categories including three point shooting (27th) field goal percentage (28th), blocks (25th) and opponent three point percentage (25th). They are mediocre in a number of other categories and only rank in the top half of the league in rebounding and assists. Once you get past Lin and Harden, it's hard to see where consistent scoring will emerge even with Chandler Parson's career scoring night on Monday.
This is what happens when your team is loaded with young players and the coaching staff is disjointed due to the unfortunate absence of Kevin McHale, who is reportedly dealing with his daughter's illness. The Rockets will stay in games with the Heat and other upper echelon teams, but they will struggle to beat them. Falling apart down the stretch will likely be a reoccurring theme and blown opportunities will play a prominent role in the narrative of this season.
It will be easy to make a guy like Lin the scapegoat for the team's problems and he most certainly carries a more significant share of the responsibility given his role, but there is plenty of blame to go around in a season that will do more to frustrate than thrill. It can be hard to remember that, but it is best to try. Last year, the team blew its playoff chances and, arguably, had a fairly dim future. This team may be frustrating, but it is equally fascinating and allowing the youngsters the occasional airball is going to be a necessity this year.