It’s hard to exaggerate how woeful the Jazz point guard play was last year.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that even with such poor production at PG, the Jazz by the end of 2014-15 were a playoff-caliber team in the loaded West. Improvement at point guard — even to just league average — could be the key move that propels this young and improving team forward.
However, I’m skeptical that the next good Jazz point guard is currently on the Jazz roster. While I’d acknowledge that it would be absurd to dismiss Dante Exum after just one season, it’s basically impossible to find a successful NBA player who started out his career with such minimal production. (See this list of all guards who played at least 500 minutes as rookies but had a PER of 7 or under.) I’d love it if Exum broke that mold, but that may not be realistic.
Smart analysts have already identified intriguing potential trade targets at PG for the Jazz. If those don’t pan out, what about free agency? Free agent PG rankings (see HoopsHype and Basketball Insiders) start with several restricted free agents most likely to stay with their current rosters (Brandon Knight and Patrick Beverley), a coveted unrestricted free agent likely to choose Miami over anywhere else (Goren Dragic) and a few guys who the Jazz hopefully have no interest in (Rajon Rondo and Reggie Jackson).
But there, at #6, a name jumps out. What if I told you that a 26-year-old point guard with an above average career PER — despite playing on some highly dysfunctional teams — is available? A guy with decent shooting and assist numbers and the ability to create shots for himself and teammates? A guy who can likely be had on a good contract for not too much money or for too many years?
I think the Jazz should think long and hard about making a free agency offer to Jeremy Lin.
I’m going to delve into some pluses and minuses about the Jazz acquiring Lin below, but before I do, I’d urge everyone to read Pablo Torre’s amazing ESPN The Magazine’s profile of Lin from this past March. It’s a terrific story and puts Lin’s recent production into an important context.
Lin exploded on to the scene with seven excellent weeks of NBA basketball (Linsanity!) before a knee injury in March 2012 cut his Cinderella Knicks season short. It was brief, but it was fantastic:
Two up-and-down seasons with the Rockets followed, before last year’s frustrating run with the Lakers.
What’s interesting, though, is that while my perception of Lin is that he didn’t play very well in either Houston or Los Angeles, his numbers are actually pretty solid. Last year with the Lakers was widely characterized as disastrous — Kobe mocked him! Bryron Scott benched him! — but let’s compare a few of his key numbers to the Jazz PG production:
Those offensive numbers for Lin aren’t elite, but they’re solid. He remains an average PG on offense, even in a tumultuous season. Here’s a bit more detail:
Some key numbers for Lin are trending in the wrong direction. During that celebrated Knicks season, Lin’s game had a little Harden to it. He took mostly shots at the rim and from 3 and gave out a ton of assists. A few of those Moneyball ratios have shifted, unfavorably:
Now, while those trends are worrisome, it’s important to remember the widespread sense that the 2014-15 Lakers under Byron Scott weren’t well coached. The team famously shunned the 3-pointer, in an era when nearly every NBA team, including the Jazz, are taking more and more.
It’s reasonable to expect that with better coaching, Lin would take more shots at the rim and from 3, boosting his efficiency and production.
A couple other areas of concern for Lin:
Clearly, a trade for a young talent like Jrue Holiday would represent a stronger upgrade at point guard than signing Jeremy Lin. But if the Jazz strike out on the trade market, I believe that Lin at the right price would be a worthwhile gamble.
Lin’s value is low right now. What if the Jazz could get him for two years, $10 million? Signing Lin at such a modest price wouldn’t mean the Jazz were giving up on Dante Exum. Rather, Lin could step into the role that Trey Burke played late last year: coming off the bench to anchor the second unit offense. And on nights when the Jazz need more offense than Exum can offer, Lin could play more minutes and even close games. Lin is unlikely to play defense as well as Exum did by the end of his rookie season, but would be an upgrade over Burke.
The most likely scenario for Lin is that he never returns to his burst of success as Knick. However, even the Lin of the past three years would be a significant upgrade from the Jazz PG play the past few years.
Watching highlights of Lin also reminded me that he has a particular flair for passes to bigs — lobs and clever entry passes. Imagine Gobert and Favors on the receiving end of a few of those each night. Imagine a ball handling guard to take the pressure off Hayward on a few nights.
I also think it’s possible that Lin improves. I’m not one to put too much stock into intangibles, but after a rough season in the spotlight in Los Angeles, might mellow Salt Lake City and an improving Jazz team be a great environment to get back on track.