Jeremy Lin: An Analysis

This Sunday I watched the Knicks-Mavericks game, which the Knicks won 104-97. The Jeremy Lin Phenomenon continued—28 pts, 14 assists, 5 steals, 7 turnovers.

I have been hating on this guy for two weeks, for no good reason. Maybe I’m a self-hating Asian person. Maybe, after being exposed to Asians playing basketball for almost twenty years I simply can’t reconcile my ingrained notions of how good an Asian person can be at playing basketball with a Taiwanese-American point guard lighting up the NBA. But I’m getting over it.

So I thought I’d dissect his game a little bit. I live in Brooklyn and have Optimum Cable instead of Time Warner, so I’ve seen every game he’s played since the winning streak started. What makes this guy tick?

 

ATHLETICISM

Lin is 6-3, with a good basketball build—slim in the midsection and legs with long arms, but broad shoulders which can absorb contact and create space.

He is a perfectly average NBA athlete. He is neither freakishly athletic like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, nor is he as gravity-limited as Steve Nash.

For a point guard he actually doesn’t possess very good top-end speed—watch him running down the court on a break and compare it to cheetahs like Westbrook or Ty Lawson, who look like they’re covering end line-to-end line in about two seconds. This puts him at somewhat of a disadvantage, in that defenders can either catch up to him if they’re behind, or have time to prepare for his move when they’re ahead. Lin does possess very good change-of-direction and an excellent first step, which is the key to his game—he has shown the ability, like the best modern point guards, to get into the paint at will.

He isn’t the most balanced or coordinated person, as he tends to trip or fall down a lot when someone interrupts his momentum. This causes some of those really awful-looking turnovers when he gets caught up in traffic and someone ties him up—I’m thinking Chris Paul would be able to recover from the majority of those with his low center of balance. When it happens to Lin it’s usually a layup coming the other way.

GRADE: B  (Gold standard: Russell Westbrook, A+)

 

HANDLE

Well, if you’re a point guard you have to basically excel at ball-handling or you’re dead in the water (Lindsey Hunter, anyone?). Lin’s handle is good in that he can shift to a very low dribble and keep it away from long-armed defenders. He also has that crucial sixth sense about where the defensive help is coming when he gets in the paint, which lets him do something very important which I’ll get to in the Scoring section. But he has a tendency to expose the ball in traffic, and also a bad habit of giving up his dribble halfway to the basket.

There was a lot of hubbub about how he could only go right, but I think that’s overblown. Sure, he likes to go to his dominant hand, as most players do. And he does seem much more confident finishing with his right hand on the right side of the basket. But he can go left.

GRADE: B+ (Gold standard: Chris Paul, A+)

 

SHOOTING

I thought he was a bad shooter initially, but I’ve come around. He is pretty good.  When he gets his feet set he is an above-average three-point shooter. His pull-up off the dribble is effective, but weird-looking, and it’s not quite as good as the elite point guards like Paul, Nash, and Deron Williams. Those guys can stop on a dime and pull up for a perfectly squared jumper anywhere on the floor. Lin takes a split second longer to set his feet—when he tries to stop too quickly he can’t square himself, and ends up taking an ugly shot.

GRADE: B (Gold standard: Steve Nash A+, Deron Williams A)


PASSING

Lin was never a pure point guard at any stage of his career. In high school he was sort of a jack-of-all-trades combo guard, averaging 7.1 assists as a senior, and he played off-guard at Harvard, never averaging more than 4.5 assists a game.

Which makes it all the more surprising that he’s such a sweet passer. He has full vision of the court and the right point sensibility for a point guard, constantly looking up court to find someone who’s broken open. He has that passing intuition which lets him deliver the ball a split-second earlier than most players do, allowing his teammates open lanes to the basket. And he puts the ball right on the money—some of those lobs he’s been throwing to Tyson Chandler and Landry Fields are fit in truly tiny windows between defenders’ outstretched arms and Chandler and Fields’ absolute limits as leapers.

He gets in trouble sometimes because he often barrels into the paint looking to score, but changes his mind at the last second. He’ll often get caught in the air trying to deliver an impossible pass, or take an awkward and difficult shot. This is something he can probably learn, though.

His passing is spot-on but not that creative—he doesn’t have the flair for making fancy things work like Nash or Ricky Rubio. If he did have that flair he could complete some of the more high-degree-of-difficulty passes in the paint (like wrap-around and behind-the-back). Those things are generally discouraged by coaches teaching fundamentals, but in the NBA the defenders are so good that sometimes you have to resort to them to complete the pass. (I remember a couple of years ago in the Western Conference Finals, in a crucial Game Five with the score tied, Steve Nash got deep into the paint on the last possession of the game and whipped a no-look behind-the-back pass around Tim Duncan and Robert Horry to Amare Stoudemire for a game-winning layup. To resort to that in such a critical situation seems foolish, but it worked.)

GRADE: B+ (Gold standard: Steve Nash A+)

 

DRIVING

So this is where Lin, IMO, truly distinguishes himself. He can get into the paint at will—lots of guys who are bigger and more athletic can. But how does a 6-3 Taiwanese-American kid with only average hops keep finishing layups over multiple seven-footers in the NBA?

Point guard scoring in the paint is an art, and everyone has their own distinctive style. For the vast majority of small guards, they try to get their shot off before the help arrives. This either means a 10-foot floater, or a rushed lay-up attempt initiated fifteen feet away from the basket (that was how Lindsey Hunter tried to score when he had a lane. He ended up getting it blocked into the sixth row regardless).

The elite players have more options. Derrick Rose is so explosive and strong that he can actually leap over the help or absorb the contact and finish. Tony Parker has such terrific body control he can drop in a floater at full-speed, or stop, leap into the defender to keep him away, and deliver a beautiful lay-in with his body completely squared.

Lin isn’t at that level, but he’s close. And he does it very differently. His version of the floater is actually super-awkward looking (I can never believe it when it goes in, it looks so bad). I think this is because he only resorts to it when getting deeper paint penetration is totally closed off. He has a strong preference for getting all the way to the basket. But how does he do it?

Lin has a rare ability to make an initial move to beat the initial defender then make a second move to beat the help defender(s). It’s rare because of the Lindsey Hunter Syndrome—most guards don’t have enough control to create options once they get a lane. They’re on a straight line to the basket, and either need to attempt to finish at the rim or make a pass (smart defenders know this and set up to draw a charge or size up the incoming player for a block). Lin can sense the help coming, and he can either change direction on his dribble to beat the help, or set up the timing and direction of his leap so he will end up behind the help defender when he’s making his layup attempt. When he finally does get to the rim he has enough explosion to finish, and he is capable of doing so with either hand.

GRADE: A- (Gold Standard: Parker A+, Rose A+)

 

DEFENSE

This is hard to gauge. At some level I think opposing point guards are just fed-up with the Linsanity and go in to every Knicks game intending to tear the kid a new one.

The Knicks’ defensive philosophy is either unorthodox, or Lin is just a crappy defender. When screened Lin rarely tries to fight and come over; he often just crashes into the screener and absorbs the contact, taking him out of the play. He also has a weird habit of completely leaving his man and coming to help, sometimes when the help isn’t terribly necessary. He often loses his man off the ball when multiple picks are set, but the Knicks seem to want to switch almost everything, so that might not be his fault.

When put on an island he looks like he can stay in front of his guy, but he becomes a nonfactor in the paint, rarely putting himself in a position to challenge the shot. His best defensive maneuver is to strip the ball when the opposing player makes his move (which he’s pretty good at, averaging over two steals a game).

GRADE: C (Gold Standard: Rajon Rondo A+)

 

INTANGIBLES

All of the technical stuff aside, after watching Lin play for six games I can definitively say that the single factor most responsible for his success is his confidence. He seems to honestly believe he is the best player on the court when he walks out there, regardless of who he’s playing. This blows my mind—it’s so antithetical to my conception of what an Asian-American point guard from Harvard should be. Lin sounds humble and says all the right things, but he thinks he can ball with the best of them, and he isn’t backing down from anyone. He probably thinks he should have the ball in his hands at the end of the game, whether he’s playing with Bill Walker or Kobe Bryant.

I can’t help but wonder how this will play out on a team which also has, arguably, the NBA’s best individual scorer in Carmelo Anthony. I don’t know how good, in a long-term sense, Lin will turn out to be. He may end up settling down and being a perfectly good, but unspectacular, starting point guard. This D’Antoni team might not get anywhere, and Lin may end up with a coach who can’t handle all of those ugly turnovers, and he could end up being an energizer off the bench. But what if he gets even better? What if it becomes clear that he should have the ball at the end, just like Kobe and Michael and Isaiah did? Some part of me still wants him to settle down, be a team player, and defer to the guys who should be superstars. Asian-American Point Guard Makes Good sounds like a perfectly acceptable headline. Asian American Named NBA Most Valuable Player? I would be speechless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why We Don’t Build iPhones Here

The New York Times ran a story this morning about how high-tech manufacturing has largely become an Asian industry, using Apple as an example:

Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

The following exchange is recorded at a dinner this February, between President Obama and Steve Jobs:

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

Cheap labor is often cited as the reason so many manufacturing jobs are lost to overseas competitors, but in the case of Apple it is not the primary reason:

It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products.

China is able to put together massive, skilled, targeted pools of labor and put them to work on new tasks, in a fraction of the time it would take for a factory in the U.S. to do so.

Why?

Well, I guess because they’re Chinese. Workers are willing to live in dormitories, and be available 24 hours a day. The government has the power and inclination to take immediate and sweeping action (it has underwritten the cost for many new industries, as it interprets new demand in the market). You can find 8,000 engineers to oversee a new assembly line in a matter of days—a process which might take months in the U.S.

Are we just too lazy, stupid and entitled to do these kinds of things? Too many kids majoring in art history instead of electrical engineering (not to mention opting for careers in finance, medicine or law—prestigious and lucrative fields which have way too many people vying to get in, who might otherwise be helping push us along in a competitive technological marketplace)? Complaining about working on the weekends? Low SAT Math scores?

Maybe, for the time being, we are too stupid and entitled. There’s a whole mess of cultural and social issues which guarantee that America won’t be able to compete with Asia for high-tech manufacturing jobs any time in the near future. It’s something that needs to be addressed for the long-term. But something tells me the key to future American prosperity doesn’t involve putting workers in dormitories. We probably passed that point in the early 20th century. And Chinese workers aren’t going to live that way forever, either.

There’s an interesting subtext to the conversation: there is no immediate ideological advantage for any political party, when we try to interpret our envy for China’s booming economy—Republicans may celebrate the advantage of not having to deal with irritating labor issues, but they would be hard-pressed to explain the tremendous advantage of a government which steps in whenever it feels the need to. In lots of ways China exemplifies the worst fears of both of our political parties, and yet we envy their success.

Perhaps it makes sense to study their economy as a model for how to get away with doing things you find politically distasteful. Maybe we could take a stab at building a flexible, speedy manufacturing chain here—supported by smart government subsidy, unencumbered by labor issues and burdensome regulation, and ultimately fuelled by a labor force that still believes it can compete with anyone. I don’t think you have to put people in dormitories to accomplish that, do you?

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Private Equity Compensation

I have always been of the opinion that, as strange and ridiculous as the finance industry often proves itself to be, a complex financial system is a necessity for a modern economy. There are just too many massive projects requiring funding for us to rely on savings accounts at our local bank.

Hard-right Republicans detest societal engineering in any form, but the truth is that many of the advantages enjoyed by the financial industry occur due to economic engineering. Take the hubbub over what Mitt Romney made as a financial manager, for instance.

Mitt Romney was the manager of Bain Capital, a private-equity firm which generated profits by buying up companies with investor money, making changes to those companies which they hoped would cause the companies’ price to rise, and then selling the companies, often at an Initial Public Offering. (The nature of those changes has been a matter of some debate, but they’re not what I’m concerned with here. I suspect on the balance Bain attempted to do what most everyone in the corporate world tries to do—make companies leaner and more efficient, thus reducing overhead. People probably lost jobs as a result).

The investors in Bain Capital paid a 15% long-term capital gains tax on their profits, rather than the much higher rate assessed on ordinary income or short-term capital gains. It is a longstanding practice for the federal government to tax investment this way, because we believe it encourages people to invest in projects which will have long-term benefit for the economy.

But if Mitt Romney was collecting a salary similar to other equity managers, he was collecting 20% of the profits and paying an identical 15% tax rate, although none of the money invested was his own.

Is this fair?

It probably isn’t. Salespeople don’t pay 15% on their commissions, even though what they are doing is roughly equivalent in a low-level way to what Romney did. One of the best arguments for the 15% capital gains tax is that it avoids double-taxation—for most ordinary people, the money they use to make an investment comes from their own income, which is taxed at the normal rate. Doctors who buy stocks or buy a piece of a restaurant are using money from their salaries or private practice, all of which was taxed at either the ordinary income rate or business tax rates.

There are further complexities which I cannot decipher. Private equity exists in a fluid state. To me, it would make sense to let the investors collect all of the profits at the 15% rate then pay managers a 20% rate off of those profits, which would be taxed like ordinary income for the manager.

 Current System:

                $1000 Profit-      –> $200 collected by manager ($30 tax/ $170 to manager)

–> $800 collected by investors ($120 tax/ $680 to investors)

 My System:

$1000 Profit        –> $1000 collected by investors ($150 tax/ $850 to investors)

                |

                         $850       –> $680 kept by investors after-tax

–> $170 paid to manager ($110.50 kept by manager/ $59.50 tax)

The investors keep the exact same profits, and manager pay goes down by 35%. The government collects $59.50 more in tax.

The argument against such a change? Because private equity management becomes 35% less lucrative less “talented” people would want to become equity managers, and….what? Private equity firms become less effective? Well, I’ll believe it when I see it.

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Catching Up With ‘Idol,’ 10 Years Later

Oh, where have the years gone?

Has it really been a full decade since American Idol first graced us with a 20-year old Kelly Clarkson, almost shockingly confident in her initial audition?–

(Uh, is it just me or does it seem like Ms. Clarkson already thinks she’s got it in the bag? Did she know her primary competition would be Justin Guarini?)

Yahoo ran a story on what some of the more bizarre/entertaining contestants throughout Idol‘s history are up to these days.

Season 10 opens tonight. No Simon, no Paula, and probably no Kelly Clarkson, or even a rough equivalent. I will be watching though. Devout Idol fans probably gave up on seeing anything genuinely new years ago. They may try to tweak the formula a little bit every season, but the show has basically become an exercise in the pleasures of repetition (Outrageous auditions! Emotional back stories! Judges hiding their faces behind pieces of paper! Cranky sleep-deprived performers trying to find a group at Hollywood Week! and on and on and on…) Did you notice this video was taken from the CW Channel? Yes–the CW Channel runs the old seasons of Idol like they’re Seinfeld reruns. Which means all of this stuff is going into our collective time vault at an expedited pace.

I may be reaching the point where I’m watching to maintain some kind of weird nostalgic connect to myself in my early twenties. But who cares? Everything old is new again.

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House to Vote Against Payroll Tax Cut

So it looks like the House of Representatives is going to vote down the Senate’s payroll-tax cut extension today. House Majority Leader John Boehner (R., Ohio) said yesterday on Meet the Press that he objects to the extension because it is only for two months, and his party prefers a bill which extends it for a year.

Of course, the Democrats would happily extend it for a year. But the Republicans wanted too many spending cuts in exchange for a full-year plan. The two-month plan was a Senate compromise (which passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority) which everyone thought was going to pass both houses until Boehner presented it to his own party yesterday. Hard-right members of his own party may really prefer the tax to go back up, because they’re concerned about funding issues and government spending. The Democrats actually may have a perverse incentive to let House Republicans flounder on this, because it makes it seem like Republicans are all for raising taxes on the middle-class and lower-class. There’s some weird crap about an oil pipeline too which was thrown in as a sweetener for the Republicans—or was it? The Democrats are claiming the oil pipeline stuff is actually a deliberate attempt to sabotage the deal, because….

Oh, who cares.

Congress’ approval rating is at 9%. One poll has it at 6%, with a margin of error of +/- 7%. So it could be zero.

You know who I blame? I blame us. We got all hyped-up about Obama and Yes We Can in 2008 and two years later we were like, Throw Da Bums Out and elected a solid Republican majority to the House. What the hell did we expect? These people just do not get along.

We’ve done the same thing to the last two presidents. Bush got handed a House Democrat majority in 2006 and Clinton got a Republican one in 1994. Bush was already on his last legs when it happened for him—Iraq looked like a quagmire and the economy was already on its way into the nosedive. Clinton actually eventually emerged victorious, sexual indiscretions aside.

I hold out little hope that Obama wins AND Democrats regain the House in 2012. That would be too much to ask in the midst of 8.5% unemployment. At this point I’m almost willing to say I’d prefer Mitt Romney, should he win, get a majority in both houses, just so we get a chance to see what a non-dysfunctional government looks like.

Almost.

 

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Books: ‘All the Devils Are Here,’ ‘The Big Short’

 

Read two books on the financial crisis this month: All the Devils Are Here, by Bethany Mclean and Joseph Nocera (Penguin , 2008) and The Big Short, by Michael Lewis (Norton, 2010).

Both books are pretty good. They both go back to try and explain the origins of the subprime mortgage crisis. In that respect the stories are consistent with each other, but in another there seems to be a discrepancy. Short focuses on a few people who saw the crisis coming early. Implicit in Lewis’ decision to focus on these people is the idea that they are special in some way: outside-the-box thinkers who challenged convention. But All the Devils Are Here makes it seem as if it wouldn’t have taken anything beyond rudimentary common sense for those involved in creating the mess to see what was happening. They may have been deliberately practicing fraud, or were just being unimaginably greedy and/or stupid. It doesn’t really matter either way. We got screwed over just the same.

One concept I’m still trying to wrap my head around: what eventually caused the financial crisis to reach the enormous proportions it did was the amplification of derivatives. I’m not a financial expert—for the sake of this argument, I will call a derivative a ‘bet’ between different parties, stating conditions under which one party has to pay the other. During the housing bubble banks created derivatives based on bundled mortgages—the bets were on how those mortgages would perform. For whatever reason mortgage-based derivatives turned out to be insanely profitable, so banks really wanted more mortgages to make bets on. So mortgage originators started giving mortgages to people who shouldn’t have gotten them. But that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy the banks’ appetites. So they started creating derivatives based on other derivatives (this is where it gets kind of fuzzy for me, so I’m not sure if my understanding is 100% accurate, but I think it captures the gist). This kind of amplification seemingly had no limit. You could create side-bets that were worth fifty times as much as the original mortgages.

Question 1: a bet involves someone making money and someone else losing money. But until the bubble burst it seems like everyone was making money. What gives?

  • Example: One party issues a derivative which states that it would pay a second party in the case that a certain mortgage-bundle’s price drops. In return for this insurance, the second party pays a steady fee to the first.
  • Wait, why would the second party keep paying this fee if the price never drops?
  • Well, it’s a hedge against a future price drop. So it’s insurance of a sort.
  • But actually the second party is likely to be involved in some kind of derivative-selling of its own, based on either the original mortgage bundle or its bet with the first party.

Question 2: But wait. Where’s all this money coming from?

  • Institutional investors, I guess. Neither book deals with that too much.

Question 3: What’s the point of all this?

  • I don’t think it provides any tangible benefit to society or economic productivity. Derivatives do allow banks to manage risk, by hedging against market changes. That’s the ironic thing, actually: the financial product that was supposed to control risk actually magnified that risk to astronomical levels.

As you can see, I am still no expert on the subject. There are holes in my story you could drive a Mac truck through. But a bubble’s a bubble, and for a short time a bubble can make it seem like everyone can magically create money without really doing anything. In the case of the mortgage crisis, the fact that home prices just kept going up and up every year propped up the bubble, and all of the profiteering based on it.

The lesson seems to be that it is literally impossible to stop something if enough people are making money off of it. If you could jump in a time-traveling DeLorean, go back to 1998 and get President Clinton to elect you Secretary of the Treasury, and you devoted your entire career to making sure the financial crisis never happens, you would fail.

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Penn State, Continued

Penn State assistant coach Mike McQueary testified at a preliminary hearing for athletic director Tim Curley and administrator Greg Schultz on Friday. His statement remained consistent with his earlier grand jury testimony:

I told them that I saw Jerry in the showers with a young boy and that what I had seen was extremely sexual and over the lines and it was wrong,” McQueary said. “I would have described that it was extremely sexual and I thought that some kind of intercourse was going on.”

Curley’s testimony:

… Curley disputed that conclusion, arguing that McQueary “did not indicate there was something of a sexual nature” between Sandusky and the boy during their meeting, and that he understood the incident as horsing around. At the time, he responded by telling Sandusky he was banned from coming into the building with children from his charity, The Second Mile, but otherwise did not restrict access. University president Graham Spanier signed off on the ban, according to the attorney general, “without any further inquiry.”

 Curley didn’t report the incident to the police, he testified Friday, because “I didn’t think it was a crime at the time.”  In Curley’s defense, attorney Caroline Roberto argued that McQueary failed to convey the seriousness of what he’d seen to Paterno, that the allegations subsequently came across as “not that serious” to Curley, and that it seemed to amount to a case of “he said, she said.

Schultz did not testify, but here’s some of his earlier grand jury testimony:

… he said he was under the impression (from his meeting with McQueary) that Sandusky and the boy were wrestling and Sandusky grabbed the boy’s genitals in  a “horsing around” type of way. This was consistent with Sandusky’s general demeanor, Schultz said, because “he would grab you on the arm, hit you on the back, grab you and put you in a headlock.”

Oh, good gracious. These two are going to jail for a long, long time.

(On the law school front: In at Berkeley, Georgetown, NYU. Waitlisted at Minnesota—withdrew. So I’m pretty much at the point where I’m in at all the places I expected to be. Rejection’s gonna be a bitch.)

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