What Jeremy Lin's Arrival Means for the Houston Rockets' Offense
The Jeremy Lin story, regardless of how the coverage may tilt, is no longer one made in New York. The right to manufacture Linsanity by the gallon-full has been signed away and exported, making Houston the new home of one of the most gripping sporting narratives in recent memory.
It also makes Houston the new home of a young, up-and-coming point guard. So much emphasis has been placed on Lin's marketing value and rise to prominence that it almost seems lost in the shuffle that the Rockets have acquired a good, growing player to run their offense.
Plenty of extracurricular opportunities will come along with that, but Lin more pragmatically serves as the replacement for Goran Dragic and Kyle Lowry that Houston very much needed.
Those two make for a tough act to follow, and yet if Kevin McHale maintains the same basic offensive system that was in place last season, Lin should be primed for success. One would think that McHale might run a plodding, post-centric offense that would reflect his sensibilities as a player, and yet last season, McHale put the ball in Dragic's hands and let him go to work.
In fact, Houston was a fair bit more point guard-centric than New York was; the Rockets didn't (and don't) have any players in the Carmelo Anthony mold who both stop the ball and warrant touches, empowering Dragic—and now Lin—to not only initiate the offense, but fully control it.
That emphasis should only grow with Luis Scola now in Phoenix, as Houston will lean on Lin to be an anchor, a creator, and—given the Rockets' overnight youth movement—a leader. Houston has just two players who have played more than two seasons in the NBA: Rocket mainstay Kevin Martin (an eight-year vet who will almost certainly start with Lin in Houston's backcourt) and former Knick Toney Douglas, who only has three years of NBA experience to his name.
There's some interesting potential up and down the Rockets' roster, but so much of is untested and imprecise. One could say the same about Lin, and yet the 26-game savior will be tasked with making sense of all of Houston's raw, unassembled talents this season by way of standout production, however brief.
We may not have an adequate sample size to fully understand the specific quality of Lin's overall performance, but there are still plenty of trends to draw on and ample ground to make comparisons. In fact, the Rockets' outgoing point makes it easy; Dragic may be among the closest the NBA has to a Lin analogue.
Both are committed drivers and clever finishers with underrated athleticism, and though Dragic has more experience working off the ball, Lin isn't likely to be put in that position much in the season to come. There's no Kyle Lowry around to take the ball out of Lin's hands, thus negating the differential in off-ball comfort and shifting all focus onto the ball-handling similarities between Rocket point guards past and present.
Much of their mirrored performance comes in the pick and roll, where both Lin and Dragic attack the defense with the same initial burst and ability to counter with dribble hesitation. It was those two basic components that put Lin—who scored 0.80 points per possession on his attempts in the pick-and-roll last season, per Synergy Sports Technology— and Dragic—who managed 0.81 points per possession in such scenarios—in the same tier of execution.
Neither is an elite pick and roll practitioner, but Lin and Dragic both balance shooting and passing well in those sequences and are patient enough to circle out (Dragic) or pass out (Lin) to reset the offense.
Lin's viability in pick-and-roll situations is largely derivative of his ability to get to the rim:
It's from there that passing lanes open up, double teams come and opposing defenders hesitate. All of that said, Lin's success in straight-line drives to the basket was complemented beautifully by a more developed intermediate game last season:
That part of Lin's game had been noticeably absent previously, but Lin converted 49 percent of his shots that were attempted eight-to-16 feet away from the rim last season, according to NBA.com. Maybe his efficiency from that range will plummet as the sample increases, but his floater is balanced and his mid-range attempts appear calculated.
Lin is getting where he wants to go on the floor, and for the moment, there seems to be no reason to doubt his ability to convert intermediate looks.
For comparison's sake, here's a look at how Dragic navigates a series of similar scenarios:
With Dragic's career year as a convenient precedent, we should fully expect to again see Lin work in a ball-dominant capacity in Houston—a saving grace considering the fact that spot-up shooting is still one of the shakier aspects of Lin's game.
He may not be running Mike D'Antoni's offense (in which 42.8 percent of Lin's scoring attempts came off of pick and rolls) anymore, but McHale's system is just as friendly and just as accommodating. There's potential for Lin to do quite well in Houston, supposing he comes back healthy and remains aggressive off the dribble.
Yet given the turnover among Houston's supporting cast, there's also still much to be determined. Lowry, Scola, Courtney Lee, Chase Budinger, Marcus Camby and Samuel Dalembert's playing time will be replaced with amalgamated minutes from many young players, leaving only Martin, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson to bridge the two seasons of Rockets basketball.
We can reliably predict that Lin will be at the helm and use high screens to open up the offense, but the performance of every other element of Houston's offense—from the rolling bigs to the spot-up shooters—is a bit of a mystery.
Martin is by far the most accomplished Rocket and a theoretically deadly spot-up shooter. There's just one problem: If Lin really is a fairly close replacement for Dragic, it should spark some concern that the Rockets were outscored by 8.4 points per 100 possessions with Martin and Dragic on the floor together last season, relative to outscoring opponents by 3.2 points when Martin was on the floor without Dragic.
Lee—who is a much more intuitive off-ball wing than Martin at this stage—made for a far more fitting Dragic counterpart; Martin's game has developed in a way that can stall the offense if he's not careful, and though he's still one of the game's best isolation scorers, he was never able to find a productive rhythm while playing alongside the freewheeling Dragic.
If Martin can settle in as a late-possession iso option and a more regular spot-up threat, the Rockets could have a very potent combination. If not, something may have to give, and I doubt that it would be Houston's shiny new toy.
Parsons, for his part, could very well end up playing the role of a Houston-based Landry Fields. It went unnoticed last season that a Fields long-range rut coincided with Lin's emergence, largely because Fields is a smart enough player to work over defenses on back-door and weak-side cuts.
The 17.8-percent mark that Fields put up on three-point attempts while Lin was on the floor last season seemed almost inconsequential; the Knicks were better with Lin and Fields playing off of one another, and I suspect Parsons—who converted an underwhelming 34 percent of his looks from beyond the arc—might find the same value given his kinetic flair.
Patterson is a far more curious case, if only because he's a far more curious player. The 23-year-old has very obvious appeal as a fill-in-the-gaps big, but he's merely solid as a pick-and-roll finisher and a far cry from Scola as a spot-up, mid-range shooter.
Houston invested a bit in Patterson's post game last season, and given the Rockets' built-in lack of urgency to compete at an elite level, it shouldn't surprise anyone to see Houston continue to bring Patterson along gradually. He's a promising player still evolving by the game, and though the thought of him as (potentially) Lin's best pick-and-roll partner may be underwhelming, he remains a very useful option for a developing team.
But beyond those three, it's hard to estimate how Lin's arrival might impact the functioning of the offense—if only because we haven't the foggiest clue of how the Rockets might opt to distribute minutes.
Donatas Motiejunas appears ready for regular season burn, but does McHale agree with that estimation? And between Patterson, Royce White, and Josh Harrellson, who plays when and how much? Where does that leave Terrence Jones and Marcus Morris? And what of Jeremy Lamb?
There are simply far too many scenarios and new additions involved to try to pin down the exact workings of Houston's rotation at the moment. But what we do know is this: The Rockets ranked 12th in the league last season in points per possession, and even after succumbing to a three-year bout of Linsanity, they're not likely to improve on that mark in the short term.
And that's okay. Houston has excavated its own roster, and Lin has left a team that's ready-made. There's going to be a period of growth and adjustment, as is the case with most every franchise reboot.
Lin's every move will nonetheless be remarked upon by those who have no regard for the long game, but it's out of fairness that we should fully expect a slight regression in the Rockets' offense.
After all, Lin wasn't signed to bring Houston to the promised land in 2012; this is an experiment and experience unto itself, and as captivating as Lin's dramatic arrival really was, the magic involved isn't nearly as sustainable as his impressive (but sub-elite) basketball skill.
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