BY ERIC PINCUS FOR THE LA TIMES
Jeremy Lin has been one of the Lakers’ best players during the preseason, averaging 10.8 points and 6.0 assists through four games.
Coming off the bench, Lin helped the Lakers overtake the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, 94-86, while scoring 13 points and dishing five assists.
During the game, Lakers Hall of Famer Magic Johnson tweeted, “JeremyJLin is going to be a good starting PG for the Lakers w/ his ability to get in the lane and create shots for himself & his teammates.”
Johnson, who was a vocal critic of the Lakers’ previous coach (Mike D’Antoni), may be giving a not-so-subtle hint to his former Showtime backcourt mate, Coach Byron Scott — Lin should start.
With Steve Nash struggling to get healthy (back), Scott has relied on veteran point guard Ronnie Price in recent games. Suffering through his own minor injuries, Lin sat out three exhibition games with a pair of sprained ankles.
An argument can be made for keeping Lin on the second unit, especially with high-scoring forward/guard Nick Young expected to miss 15 to 20 games with a thumb injury. Without Young, the Lakers’ bench is seriously lacking in scoring punch, with rookie Julius Randle looking like an All-Star one game, and like a 19-year-old newbie another.
With Lin on the floor, the Lakers’ second group plays with much greater purpose. The starters have the firepower with Kobe Bryant on the floor (19.0 points a game through the preseason), Carlos Boozer (12.6), Jordan Hill (9.5), Price (8.2) and Wesley Johnson (7.7).
Randle is averaging 8.3 points a night, third off the bench to Lin and rookie Jordan Clarkson (9.0), who has made just three appearances because of a strained calf.
If Nash does return to become the Lakers’ regular starter, Lin probably will continue to lead the second unit. It makes little sense to have the 40-year-old Nash loosen up through warmups, then sit for about 20 minutes waiting to check in for Lin.
Without Nash, Lin may step into the starting five — but that may have to wait until Young returns. Lacking the firepower in Young, or playmaking in Lin, the second unit would be a disaster with Price. While Price is a capable, scrappy veteran, he’s not going to be a high-volume scorer, or shot creator for others via penetration.
Through the course of a game, Scott will have plenty of time to mix and match, playing Lin with the starters, Bryant with the reserves and other combinations.
While Johnson is not wrong about Lin, he may be the Lakers’ second-best player this season, what’s of greater concern than starting is who closes out games in the fourth quarter.