Lucky Bounces

Illustration by Jacob Thomas

Over the past few years, the statistical revolution has made its way from baseball to basketball. Most NBA teams use advanced metrics to help make day-to-day decisions, and the league even has its own Billy Beane–type character in Houston Rockets general manager Daryl “Dork Elvis” Morey. Smart basketball fans have learned not to let our eyes deceive us, not to extrapolate too much from limited evidence: We know, for example, that the ability to make acrobatic drives isn’t more important than overall shooting percentage, that offensive efficiency is a better measure of a player’s value than total points scored.

But the more wins and losses can be predicted by algorithms, the more thrilling it is to be reminded that statistical likelihoods aren’t certainties. Luck still exists. And above all, that’s what’s driven the Jeremy Lin story: pure dumb luck.

Most observers have credited the hype around Lin to the fact that he’s a Harvard kid in a league packed with guys who didn’t finish college, that he’s an ex–minor leaguer when many of his co-workers earned millions in their teens, and that he’s an Asian-American in a league where that’s exceedingly rare. All of those things certainly contribute to Lin’s appeal—but they don’t tell half the story of how crazy these few weeks have been on the court itself.

Lin came into this season having hit one three-pointer—one!—in his NBA career. He wasn’t a good long-distance shooter, even against Ivy League competition. And yet fully four of his five signature highlight moments have been threes: his tongue-wag shot against Utah, his nails in the coffins of Los Angeles and Dallas, and of course his brain-melting isolation game-winner in Toronto. (We’d call the crossover of John Wall and subsequent dunk his other signature play.) When Lin started draining three-pointers in the clutch as if he were Larry Bird, the most unlikely thing about it wasn’t his skin color or alma mater: It’s the fact that a guy with his skills isn’t even supposed to be taking those shots. For two giddy, batshit, statistically anomalous weeks, we watched Jeremy Lin double down on sixteen over and over and win every time. The fun of it was knowing that this was the game when the joyride had to end … and then witnessing him draw yet another blackjack and act like it was the most normal thing in the world. The run finally came to a close last Thursday against the Heat, but he’s still way up, as gamblers might put it. Meanwhile, the Knicks had a seven-game winning streak, and Lin set a record for the most points scored in a player’s first five starts.

It was those unlikely events—the streak, the threes, the 38 points he put up (against Kobe!)—that awed NBA diehards and captivated the swing-voter fans. Your mom wouldn’t have called to ask you about that new pick-and-roll point guard who was putting up a great eFG% on an eighth-seed playoff team. But she did ask you about the guy who makes huge three-pointers and can’t lose. By the end, we all believed, those who didn’t know better and those who knew we should have. Never mind that the wins came during a fortuitously easy stretch in the schedule, and that Lin hasn’t played enough for the data to tell us what his real talent level is. We’ve rarely been happier to have our eyes deceive us.

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Lucky Bounces