Linsanity Wanes: Why Are Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony Struggling?

Howard Wolfson of CBS Sports breaks down the recent struggles of the New York Knicks, led by Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony.  Here’s a snatch:

The idea that gets pushed around is that he’s selfish, which is hyper-simplistic and off-base. Anthony is not out there lustily chasing after field-goal attempts. He wants to win, but he also has a very specific skill set he feels helps his teams win. Operating in isolation, taking his man and scoring, is part of that skill set. OK, it’s about 80 percent of that skill set. With Lin taking over, Melo made a very strong showing of saying how this was Lin’s team to run, and that he was willing to adjust his game however necessary, despite Kobe Bryant pushing him to do the opposite, to keep gunning, essentially.

It hasn’t worked out great. Since returning from injury, Anthony has scored 125 points on 120 shots. Efficient that ain’t. He’s shot 40.8 percent from the field. He’s averaging 17 shots per game, which is down over one shot per game from his 2012 average, and down nearly three from this high last season of 19.9. To review, he’s taking fewer shots, hitting fewer and barely scoring more points than his number of attempts.

Read the whole thing.

I like Wolfson’s detailed analysis, but I diverge with him in his assessment of Anthony’s attitude.  It’s not that Carmelo doesn’t play hard; he does.  But he plays hard when he has the best change of shining.  He puts a good deal of effort into his “isos” (his beloved, and disastrous, isolation plays on the wing), and he loves to shoot whenever possible.  He is a ballstopper, in short, and that is terrible news for a player like Lin, who works best when the offense is moving and the team shares the ball.

Carmelo is extremely–extraordinarily–skilled at something I don’t think he likes that much: off-the-ball movement.  I don’t get to watch many of the Knicks’ games, but in those I’ve seen since Anthony returned, my breath has been taken away by his cuts.  I don’t know that there’s a more devastating off-ball player in the NBA.  Carmelo is quick, he’s strong enough to knock his defender off his route, and he finishes at the rim.  So that’s the funny thing: the part of his game that is the strongest is not necessarily his favorite part.

Kobe Bryant, I think, has changed the NBA.  Your elite superstar no longer wants to share the ball as even Michael Jordan did (Jordan’s assist numbers were very good and higher than Bryant’s), but rather wants to show his single-handed dominance, his ability to destroy any defender that dares guard him one-on-one.  And make no mistake about it–Kobe Bryant is the best one-on-one player in the NBA, and probably in NBA history.  He has mastered the jumper under pressure, he gets to the rim when he wants (still!), and he has more moves than his defenders know what to do with (unrelated but fascinating fact: when my wife was a student at Moody Bible Institute, Bryant worked out at their gym and then attended a class at the school).

All this to make this point: Carmelo, as so many stars do, wants to be Kobe.  He wants to prove his dominance on the wing, to show that he is an incredible one-on-one player.  In his mind, in fact, I think he thinks he is this.  But he is not.  He is an okay “iso” player.  He gets much better when he lets the game flow, the ball move, and when he cuts with devastating quickness and strength to the basket.

The problems with the Knicks are not Lin’s fault.  He has an impossible task: to help steer a team whose best player misreads his weaknesses as strengths.  I’m personally hoping that Lin finds a team that will give him the ball, surround him shooters and agile big men, and let him go to work.  Give him a year and he will be a Nash-like point guard.

But keep pairing him with a ball-hogging shooter and he’ll struggle.  Remember, psychology matters hugely in sports.  Anthony is supposed to be a superstar.  He feels that pressure, and he is clearly affecting Lin by putting pressure on him.  Lin thrived because Anthony’s injury allowed him to play without pressure.  He needs a healthier environment to flourish, because he’s going to be tempted to defer and hesitate around players like Anthony.

Long live Linsanity–and could someone please forward this to Carmelo?


  • Wisdomforlife

    Good analysis! A truth for life. Know and adjust based on your strengths and weaknesses and you’ll probably make those around you better.

  • owenstrachan

    Thanks, wisdom. Appreciate your thoughts. You’re exactly right: this has direct application to church life. If you try to do it all (and many pastors do), you will fall on your face. Pastors and churches need teams of elders.

    Josh McClure just pointed out this terrific article on “Hero Ball” by ESPN’s Henry Abbott. It makes something of the same point that I was trying to make in this blog. Great read, and quite right:

  • hobojarpen

    I think statistics show that no one is obviously perfect in crunch time. But as a Lakers fan, what matters to me isn’t Kobe’s imperfections, but his bravado, will-to-win, and willingness to play through injuries. I think there is a truth in life to learn in Kobe’s singular drive to win – to be passionate about what we love and to live it out daily!

    • owenstrachan

      Maybe so. His will to win is indomitable. That’s for sure. And he’s a tough dude. He gets respect for that.

      But I do wonder about where the glorification of self comes in. In other words, what’s behind his drive to win? I would contend there’s a pretty healthy dose of ego there. Scratch that–a very healthy dose.

      It’s been interesting to watch the newest alpha dog, LeBron James. He has preternatural gifting like Kobe and Jordan. But he genuinely wants to involve his teammates, and he seems to have something slightly less of what’s called “killer instinct.” Kobe, MJ, Dwayne Wade–those guys would slit your throat to win. Winning is an idol and a god for them, the means of self-fulfillment they possess. But LeBron? He’s weird. He’s got his faults for sure, and he’s a sinner in desperate need of Christ like the rest of us. But he seems like kind of a nice guy, and the whole “to play is to kill” thing doesn’t seem to fit him. If he needs to pass, he’ll pass.

      Which brings me to a question my buddy Doug Hankins insightfully asked me a while back: do you have to be a selfish killer to win a championship? I don’t necessarily think you do, but there does need to be an incredibly strong will to win, and there are not a ton of nice guys who seem to fall in the champions’ circle. David Robinson and a few others come to mind, but there are more killers in that club than good guys.

      Anyway, this will end the overheated speculation portion of programming.

      • hobojarpen

        Ah, you definitely struck a tension there with Kobe. As a Christian first and Lakers fan second, I admire a lot of NBA players (especially Kobe) for their toughness and drive. However, at times I do find myself asking “to what end is their drive?” To be honest, a dirty little secret of mine is that while I love Kobe’s fire and toughness, I do feel rather ambivalent and even uneasy about a lot of other things about him – not that I’m flawless myself or anything. Even as a Lakers fan, I find him polarizing!

        Anyways, something that you point out that I agree with is that there must be some level self-gratification present within his drive to win. Consequently, a follow up question I end up asking myself is, in an NBA game, what does gratification of self (through scoring, winning games, etc) look like versus enjoying basketball as a gift of God? Is the latter only evidenced through clear thanksgivings and praises to God above a la Jeremy Lin? Or do you think it manifests itself in other ways?

        Maybe I’m splitting hairs and thinking about unnecessary things, but as a passionate NBA fan, I can’t help but wonder how much of a struggle it is to be a Christian pro-athlete and a celebrity in general. In any case, I just wanted to say how much of a blessing your blog is, Owen. I originally came across your blog through your Atlantic article on Tim Tebow. At the time, there were a bazillion articles on Tim Tebow. But I found your article refreshing because though it did pay attention to superficial details, I LOVED how you ended the article by sharing about the gospel. Anyways, just wanted to say that I’ve been blessed by your heart behind your posts as well as being sharpened by your insight.
        God bless!

        - Brian

        PS – I think it’s awesome that you’re a huge sports fan!

  • KM

    As truth falls from the heavens….lol. I can’t agree more on every single fact. Melo has taken a lot of criticism but he is a beast when playing off the ball. I think Jeremy Lin would do much better on a more well-rounded team. I think the Knicks are a great team but whenever they lose, you hear “oh, we need a PG…we need a SG”. No, you need players that can co-exist in the same system. Melo has issues with that.

    • owenstrachan

      Yes, Lin would do better on a team that, um, actually functioned like a team.

      Melo has trouble on those “kind” of teams (pardon the irony dropping like a hammer).

  • owenstrachan

    Hobojarpen–my blog won’t let me reply to your reply. Here it is, though–thank you for those kind words which I do not deserve. The Tebow piece was a real blessing to do. I think I’m still a bit surprised that I got to share the gospel with readers of The Atlantic. Only God can contrive these things. We just try to be faithful.

    You ask good questions. I think a player like Kobe does honor the creational intent and common grace gift of God by his skilled, enthusiastic play. But he dishonors God from what I can see by his selfish motives. We watch sports as Christians as very much citizens of two kingdoms. We can appreciate all the athletic artistry and fortitude on display. But we also witness the selfishness, the self-glorification, the unnecessary violence, and we’re repulsed, as we should be.

    So I can’t celebrate Kobe’s winning ways as some can. He’s incredibly gifted. But he uses those gifts for selfish purposes, as we all do in our sin. We can appreciate the selfish artist, I think, but our appreciation is limited.

    That’s my quick stab at answering your questions. Good thoughts, dude. For the record, I used to pay way too much attention to sports. I try to limit myself now, and typically only watch a game or two per week. They are fun, though, and they have an unusual way of displaying something of the drama of our humanity.

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  • Sinan

    I like this game alot better than the nba live 10 demo i tried. just got ps3 thisx-mas and got nba2k9 used and I like it alot . Its way in depth and is full of moves!! I am trniyg my best to learn all the damn controls and plays and everything tho. its easy in practice to do a play but a bitch to pull off in the game!! lol Also iso motion is harder than it looks! Guess ya just got to practice alot to get it down! I still say its good and its only the 09 version! I bet nba2k10 is the shit!

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