How Jeremy Lin Lost His Mojo

Anyone who watched the Rockets’ regular-season finale against the Lakers could see that Jeremy Lin is no longer the point guard who came off the bench to lead the broken Knicks back to respectability.

He’s also no longer the point guard who scored 39 points in a Harden-less battle against the Spurs last October. Sadly, Lin may even end up back on the bench unless he can reverses some disturbing trends that have become apparent lately.

Let’s start with the fact that Lin has been looking brawnier in the upper body than he did even mid-season. Standing next to opposing guards, he’s usually the beefier one. The added muscles on the shoulders, chest and arms are likely to be the cause of one of his emerging problems — sluggishness.

Strength training is imposed by NBA teams eager to protect their investments because muscle is seen as body armor that can enhance durability. Team trainers also believe, spuriously, that adding muscle mass will enhance athletic performance.

The opposite is more commonly true. Misguided muscle-building has the potential to nip the most promising sports careers in the bud. Examples of Asian American careers diminished by weight training include Michelle Wie, Tiger Woods, Anthony Kim and, yes, Jeremy Lin. I suspect all that added mass may have contributed to the persistent foot injuries suffered by former Rockets center Yao Ming.

Using weight training to focus metabolic resources on building muscle mass in the arms, shoulders, back and torso dampens the subtly-balanced, typically leg-powered motion needed to drive, putt or shoot a basketball into a small hoop at a great distance.

A gifted young athlete represents an optimal allocation of physical resources toward a very specific and limited objective. Building up upper-body mass is the surest way to throw that delicate machine off balance. The burden of building superfluous muscles can also rob the body of its capacity to repair daily wear-and-tear, as well as to keep the brain well nourished. Combine that with athletes’ natural tendency to compensate for the loss of touch, timing and balance with more brute effort and you end up with crippling injuries.

As soon as Michelle Wie turned pro at the age of 16 and signed huge contracts with sponsors like Nike and Samsung, she made the mistake of hiring an expensive coach. The first thing high-priced coaches do is bringing in trainers. The results have been dismal, as the world knows by now. The physiological and other changes to her body (and mind) destroyed her only real gift — a perfectly natural and balanced swing.

The same can be said for Anthony Kim who tried to build a more muscular swing and ended up crippling himself due to the inevitable cascade of adjustments. Tiger Woods too was getting too muscular from weightlifting. His extramarital tomcatting was blamed for the collapse that began in late 2009 but the beefing up compounded his inability to maintain his high level of play.

Lin has been packing on muscle since entering the NBA. To the extent that he was focusing on leg strength, the results were generally positive, adding to his explosive quickness and preparing him for his meteoric rise last February. But that same muscle-building push probably also contributed to the torn meniscus that ended his season in late March.

The pounds Lin has been packing onto his shoulders and arms recently are slowing him down and throwing off his shooting touch. It’s time to reduce the upper-body weight training to maintenance levels so he can become rebalanced. If he persists with the muscle-building, he’ll find himself out with another major injury, possibly even during the playoffs. The recent sluggishness may be an early warning sign that he’s heading toward injury.

Another dangerous habit Lin has fallen into is the focus on turnovers. He’s brought his turnovers down from over 4 per game to just over 2 during the final two months of the season. That’s way too few turnovers! The psychology that puts low turnovers above inspired playmaking is a prescription for what we’ve been seeing lately — too much passivity and too little hustle.

When Lin focuses on turnovers, he loses sight of the freewheeling high-intensity play that made him the league’s leading pickpocket early this season and the most exciting point guard of last season. No one is interested in watching a cautious Jeremy Lin who worries about turnovers. It’s time to remember what started Linsanity — his decision to stop worrying about turnovers and start playing his own game. That game isn’t about caution but about lust for the paint, the dish and the swish.

Last but not least is the sense that Lin is deferring too much to James Harden. It’s hard to buck the conventional wisdom that the Rockets have become Harden’s team because he’s played more aggressively than Lin the past season. But a Harden-centered team was neither originally intended nor mandated by the powers that be. It resulted largely because of Lin’s acquiescence to the perception that he needed to be something other than what he is.

That acquiescence hasn’t been good for the team. With all the talent the Rockets have — as well as the league’s highest-scoring offensive system — to end the season as the Western Conference’s 8th seed isn’t a triumph but a travesty. Much of the blame goes to coach Kevin McHale for failing to make better use of Lin’s playmaking skills. Lin himself also deserves much blame for not fighting for his proper role as the team’s court general.

Lin amply demonstrated that generalship not only at Harvard and during Lisanity days but in the Rockets’ preseason games and the handful of regular-season games missed by Harden, most of which the Rockets won. Yet in many of the games in which Harden played, Lin was content to be passive and wait for Harden to make rain. That has put on Harden a burden that has proven too heavy too often. No matter how many baskets Harden can squeeze out under pressure, over the course of a long season the Rockets will never match the potential of a team sparked by a true court general like Jeremy Lin.

If Lin can’t bring himself to buck the expectations that have emerged of a Harden-centric Rockets team, he owes it to himself to get traded to a team that will make full use of his core playmaking ability, even if means playing off the bench. Mark D’Antoni and the Lakers can use Jeremy Lin now more than ever with both Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash questionable for next season, because of their age as well as their injuries.

The first playoff round against the Thunder will be a brief one unless Lin reclaims his true gifts in time to make some thunder and rain for himself and for the rest of the young and hungry Rockets.