How To Measure An Athlete: Understanding Linmetrics

With eighteen seconds remaining in the 1982 NCAA Basketball Championship game, a scrawny freshman received the ball right of the free throw line and rose straight into the air.  The rest we know as remarkable history.  Michael Jordan would leave North Carolina his senior year (after playing on the 1984 Olympic Team) and become the best basketball player ever.  He won six NBA championships and made one of the most profound, seminal sports commercials of all time in which he recounted the number of last shots he had taken—26—and missed.  It was a quintessential statement not only about sports but life:  “I have failed over and over and over again in my life.  And that is why I succeed.”  Though you may remember success, essential to it has been repeated, potentially debilitating failure that would reduce others to putty.Lin 0212
Tempted as we might be to romanticize Jordan’s iconic winning shot as leading to everything else—as did Jordan’s influential father but not Jordan himself—we would be better off contemplating that much hard work preceded and followed that singular moment.  Many have taken and made the last shot of a big game not to become great players.  Many have also left college early to mediocre professional careers.  As important as that shot may have been for us, and even him, Michael Jordan was already on the extraordinary path that we eventually discovered him on, and only extraordinary determination kept him there.
The most interesting thing I personally remember Jordan saying—I have never felt much affinity towards him—was that there were many players in the league that had as much skill.  The difference was mental:  “Talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence win championships.” Jordan was renowned for a dogged work ethic during practice and the offseason and outspoken leadership on the court.  He insisted upon inserting a “For the Love of the Game Clause” into his first professional contract allowing him to play basketball during the summer which at the time was prohibited by union rules.  Jordan said that he could never have lived that way.  He would later say that preseason was a waste of time because he arrived ready to play.
There have been many distractions since Jeremy Lin skyrocketed to prominence.
For those who do not know the basic story, Lin was an unrecruited high school star who lead his undersized Palo Alto team to the state championship and went on to star at Harvard.  He was undrafted out of college, cut by his two previous NBA teams, and was squandering at the end of the Knick bench until injury and desperation forced that woeful team to use him.  Lin immediately caught fire scoring over 20 points a game for the first six games of a seven-game win streak, while amassing a franchise leading number of assists.  Since Lin’s emergence, the Knicks have won 10 and lost 4.  Integral to the Lin narrative is that he is Asian-American, the second to play in the NBA, the first being in the 1950s.
For its part, the press has charged unabashedly into rote mythmaking.  The nonstop, over-the-top coverage that accompanies the emergence of a potential anointed one would lead you to believe that Jeremy Lin fell out of the sky.  And that his apparent differences explain his success and might instigate a breach from the current standard of selfish play and immodest personas.  For sure, Lin perfectly fits the mold of a consensus sports hero:  articulate and thoughtful, humble and gracious, religious, good-enough looking.  He is the proverbial outsider with good values; a marketable divergence from the dreg of the league’s perceived physical and cultural monotony.  The problem with mythmaking, however, is that reality is often an inconvenience that must be jettisoned or ignored.
Truth is, a number of people have been writing about Lin for some time.  A couple years ago, web blogger Jay Caspian Kang smartly wrote, “Lin’s story has already been taken over by writers, bloggers and fans who feel the need to distort, tweak and primp him up into a perfect metaphor.”  Presciently describing the current spectacle, Kang added, “Through no fault of his own, Lin stands at a bombed-out intersection of expected narratives, bodies, perceived genes, the Church, the vocabulary of destinations and YouTube.”  For some time, Lin has embodied the pent-up frustrations and hopes of those resisting the demeaning narratives of others.
More debilitating than inspiring or celebratory, the media’s standard mythologizing is often near folly.  We cannot, it seems, take extraordinary achievement for what it is but must distort and mythologize it in an attempt to hype it.  To make us cheer or cry.  We turn everything into a movie.  In this, we belittle our own humanity, our own real and ordinary struggles, which cannot compete with testosterone fantasy.  It is enough that our movies fail us this way; we would hope for more from those charged with reporting facts.
The media frenzy has brought expected backlash.  A sports blog writer has been fired and an on-air personality suspended for characterizing recent Lin missteps as “A Chink in the Armor.”  There is a compelling counternarrative there about whether a gracious and charitable twenty-something Latino kid would be sufficiently familiar with the fading slur in the first place much less would intentionally use one if he were.  Indeed, the idiom’s use by the suspended older on-air personality, whose wife is Asian, would seem to indicate a significant obscurity or at least a growing irrelevance.  Given that being an Asian-American is such an integral part of Lin’s narrative, and given the exceptionally sincere chagrin and remorse shown by otherwise pretty good people at a mainstream sports outlet (ESPN is not The National Review and neither individual is Rush Limbaugh), a knowing use of a blatantly racist epithet seems dubious.Lin 2 0212
Some have also questioned whether Lin would have received the same press if he were African-American.  Well, no.  And there is nothing surprising or wrong in this.  Lin carries the understandable glee and hopes of not only his own community but all those who cheer for someone unlikely and seemingly so improbable—the underdog.  Spike Lee’s trademark, awkwardly oversized t-shirts visible from his prominent sideline seat at recent Knick and All-Star games feature wonderfully imaginative Lin imagery.  The collective reaction to Lin is not dissimilar to having a black golfer suddenly dominate the sport.  Or a black president.  Indeed, the circumstances giving rise to the obsession with Lin only confirm the cultural and institutional dominance of basketball’s most numerous group.
To be fair, some in the press have raised the truly interesting question posed by Lin’s success:  how do we assess and value talent?
Many have been quick to suggest that Lin’s race accounted for him being overlooked.  (Maybe the obsession with Lin’s race explains the reaction to the Armor comments.)  After Lin propelled the Knicks into their first win against the Lakers since 2007, Kobe Bryant said plainly, “Players don’t usually come out of nowhere.  If you can go back and take a look, his skill level was probably there from the beginning.  But no one ever noticed.”  But Lin was far from overlooked.  Several teams, including the Lakers, reported that Lin was on their radar screens.  The Lakers, for one, were outmaneuvered twice—first by Golden State, then by Dallas—attempting to sign Lin.
While the “overlooked because of this race” narrative does not hold up, we are still left with both Golden State and Dallas’ seemingly inexplicable decision to cut Lin.  Remarkably articulate Kobe again frames the issue well (you have to understand that Bryant is being prompted into these timely sound bites by the mythologizing press):  “The biggest thing to me is how everybody missed it.  They all would be fired if I was owning a team.  I hear this stuff, ‘It came out of nowhere.’  I think it’s a load of [garbage]. You can’t play that well and just come out of nowhere. There has to be something there and everybody missed it.  So heads would roll.”
The reason Lin was cut and the cause of his recent emergence may be rather simple, although belying the narrative of exclusion and ignorance.  All-Star Steve Nash (Canadian Nash is also a media darling), to whom Lin is usually compared, matter-of-factly provides the obvious explanation:  “I don’t think anyone saw it.  He’s improved a lot.  Last year I thought he had potential to be a good player but was still learning, still developing.  He’s improved his skills as a good playmaker on pick-and-rolls and getting to the foul line, finishing, finding openings for shots but also making his teammates better.  He’s a good fit, but he could be a good fit whoever needs him.’’
Yep, Lin may just have gotten a whole lot better and found the right team, according to one of the most thoughtful, premier point guards in the league.  Bill Holden, who recruited Lin to Harvard, would agree.  Holden believes that Lin’s work ethic transformed the 155 lbs and 6’1” high school toothpick into his current 205 lbs and 6’3” power and explosiveness.  Holden also believes that Lin actually benefited from not being recruited by the top basketball programs but instead going to Harvard where he got much more playing time and was able to excel in the less powerful Ivy League:  “If he goes to Stanford then it could have been just like it was at the beginning of his NBA career.  He may have never gotten off the bench and never been able to develop as a player.”
Holden also reflects on the “very team oriented” Lin’s natural talent:  “The thing that really drew me to Jeremy is that he just had some natural basketball instincts that you can’t coach.  He just has a good way to read the game, a good vision of the game, a good understanding of the game . .  .  . he had an ability to get to the basket, to get into the lane and score.  That’s something that he would always be able to do.”
So, Holden identifies the same indicia of long-term and broader success described by Jordan:  work ethic, basketball intelligence and sacrifice for the team.
Coincidentally, the recent Academy Awards ceremony has returned attention to Moneyball, which depicted the revolution in baseball’s analysis and assessment of talent and success.  Before the 2002 Oakland Athletics, teams relied on statistics that focused on individual achievement such as batting average and runs batted in.  Trying to compete with teams having three times its payroll, the A’s looked for alternative ways to identify talent that were overlooked by other teams.  Instead of statistics stressing the individual, the A’s focused on statistics that more directly correlated to team wins, such as on-base and slugging percentage.  As a result, the relatively impoverished A’s were able to identify overlooked and undervalued players and successfully compete with teams such as the Yankees.  Now several teams use the Oakland approach.
Sabermetrics—the specialized analysis of baseball largely through statistics that measure in-game activity—has its expected corollary in basketball.  Basketball’s in-game statistics include Successful Possession Rate, Turnover-Adjusted Points per Shot, and Turnovers per Touch.  The upshot of this analysis when applied to Lin is that while his recent performance shows some relation to the NBA’s storied point guards, it also shows some significant, umm, holes.  Lin does not rate as highly as those other point guards but may end up being very good.  That is to say, never say never.
So either basketball’s Sabermetricians have some more work to do or Lin will likely disappoint.  Only time will tell.  Knicks’ veteran center Tyson Chandler, however, knows now:  “He’s not a fluke.  You can tell when a guy isn’t really that skilled but is just having a good stretch.  This guy is skilled.  He’s fast.  He gives the defense a problem, and he’s really crafty at the rim.”
It seems likely that better Sabermetrics will be developed to assess talent and predict team success.  With our increasing over-analysis and micro-specialization has grown the pursuit of the minutiae.  Ripe for pursuit would be off-court indicators such as work ethic.  Maybe the Sabermetricians will eventually figure out how to accurately measure off-the-clock practice time or the amount of basketball film watched per week, the challenge, of course, being relying on something other than self-reporting.  (Perennial all-star Ray Allen famously gets to the gym 3.5 hours prior to game time.)  Or maybe the Sabermetricians will develop a test to measure basketball intelligence (notice how Tiger Woods can tell you every golf hole he has played and many of his idol Jack Nicholas), or develop better Sabermetrics to measure contribution to the team.
But it is as likely that there will remain crucial characteristics that will remain immeasurable.  Michael Jordan’s ability to miss 26 last shots and still remain the indomitable Michael Jordan is not measurable.  Many players who take the last shot—because in their minds that is what great players do—seem selfish and do not have the same quality of success.  Measuring heart and a positive belief system, whether that belief is in the player himself or something greater, does not seem possible.  Holden, Lin’s high school recruiter, understands such intangibles:  “As a recruiter, I learned a long time ago that you can’t measure what’s in a guy’s head; you can’t measure what’s in a guy’s heart; and you can’t measure what’s below his belt.  And that was the unique thing about Jeremy:  He just measures off the charts in all three categories.  He gets into that [big game] environment and he can just compete.  He did in high school, he’s done it in college and now he’s proving he can do it in the NBA.”
Chemistry also seems immeasurable and unpredictable:  the reality that a lesser player (Derek Fisher) can add more value than a more skilled one (Carmelo Anthony), whose presence may even disrupt a team.  Chemistry, like sacrifice to the team, is more important to team success than individual talent.  Dwayne Wade and LeBron James could cancel one another out; success has only been possible when one defers to the other or both defer to the team.  Like marriage, successful and sustainable unions are not guaranteed by the presence of accomplished individuals alone.  There is much more, it is relatively minor, and it is not measurable: communication, unequivocal support, positivity, loyalty, trust.
For Nash, again, the entire Lin phenomenon is not overly complicated:  “It’s a perfect storm.  He’s a guy who is in some ways a late bloomer and an overachiever, and you can tell that he’s worked extremely hard and he’s also smart so he’s learned how to be effective. Then maybe the biggest part of the story is he joined a struggling Knicks team in the media capital of the world, so it’s just an awesome confluence of things and it’s been exciting to watch.”
We may look to a host of numbers, and combinations of numbers, and theories, to confirm the presence of talent and to predict success.  In the end, however, the true measure of an athlete, like the true measure of a life, is the immeasurable heart.Lin 3 0212

©Copyright TW Matters™ 2012 (except photos)

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