Does It Really Make Sense for the Rockets to Bring Jeremy Lin off the Bench?
If his most recent performance against the New York Knicks is any indication, the answer is a resounding "NO!"
Lin returned to Madison Square Garden to face the Knicks on December 17 on the heels of a funk of his own. He'd tallied a total of 22 points over his previous three games after piling up 38 points against the San Antonio Spurs while James Harden was sidelined.
So, naturally, the blogosphere began to wonder whether Lin and the Rockets might be better served with him in a reserve role. ESPN's Tom Haberstroh gave his two cents on the matter. So did yours truly.
Not without reason, of course. NBA.com's numbers suggested (for the most part) that Lin and Harden were more effective without one another than they were in tandem. Lin's clear decline in productivity from last season's spectacular stint to now even suggested that a change might benefit all concerned parties.
He wasn't shooting well from the perimeter, nor was he making his layups (45 percent, per ESPN Stats & Info). He wasn't doing much of anything off the ball, and his time on it had dropped precipitously; according to Lee Singer and Kenton Wong of ESPN, no player's usage rate (i.e., the percentage of a team's plays that end with a particular player shooting a field goal or free throws, or turning the ball over) had fallen as much between 2011-12 and now as had Lin's.
All signs pointed to Lin needing more time sans Harden, and that being best achieved by moving Houston's $25.1 million man to the pine.
But something unexpected happened at MSG. The Jeremy Lin of old returned—to an extent, anyway. He was aggressive and confident, a far cry from his tenuous performance in a loss to the Toronto Raptors on December 16. He attacked the basket with the same reckless abandon that made him a fan favorite in the Big Apple.
And, he converted his layups—a perfect 8-of-8, in fact. His jump shot was still off, but it was hardly a drag on the rest of his game.
Better yet, Lin and Harden blended as well as they have all season. Jeremy finished the night with 22 points, eight assists, four rebounds and two steals, while James tallied 28 points, 10 boards, three helpers and two thefts of his own.
They commanded nearly the same percentage of the Rockets' possessions—27.7 percent for Harden, 24.2 percent for Lin, per Basketball Reference—while engineering a 109-96 win over the Knicks that wasn't even that close. They controlled the paint, drawing fouls for themselves when they weren't setting up their teammates for easy shots.
Now, one game does not a reliable sample make, but there is plenty to take away from Lin's latest performance to suggest that a switch to the bench would be nothing if not premature at this point.
He finally looked comfortable, confident and in control next to Harden, for perhaps the first time all season. This may well have had something (if not everything) to do with the confines in which Lin found himself. Jeremy was no stranger to putting on a show at MSG, as he had on numerous occasions as a Knick. As he told reporters after the game (via Ian O'Connor of ESPNNewYork.com):
I was so comfortable in the game. I saw so many of the same people, all the season-ticket holders and people like that. It was crazy. It was like yesterday.
Perhaps, then, Lin should find a way to bottle that feeling and carry it with him to every other arena in which the Rockets play. Houston will need Jeremy to be his aggressive, assertive self if they're to maximize their considerable potential sooner rather than later.
Not that there's any rush. The Rockets came into the 2012-13 NBA season with the league's youngest roster and the sort of modest expectations that typically accompany the sort of makeover that general manager Daryl Morey undertook during the offseason.
The surprising acquisition of James Harden in late October might've upped the ante a bit, but it didn't settle the situation in Space City any. As Ian O'Connor mentioned, Lin expected to have the ball in his hands coming into the campaign, and Harden's arrival threw a considerable wrench into that.
Harden's All-Star-caliber play has lifted the Rockets to a surprising 12-12 start, even with Lin struggling to find himself more often than not. A winning record, much less a spot in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture, would presumably be gravy.
The bigger prize, though, would be a long-term solution to the Lin-Harden "problem" by season's end. Both players need the ball to be effective. Harden is a much better spot-up shooter off the ball, but also happens to be the more gifted creator of the two.
Which is to say, Harden is the superior player and, as such, the Rockets wouldn't necessarily be wise to sacrifice his touches for Lin's sake. In that case, it'll be up to Lin to tailor his game to fit alongside Harden's more so than the other way around.
Doing so will take patience, of which these Rockets should have plenty. They're still in the midst of a rebuild, with plenty of pieces made to move and tons of cap space soon to come.
There are no playoff expectations to live up to, no pressure to win right now. In the interim, it's up to Jeremy Lin and James Harden—with help from head coach Kevin McHale, who was recently absent on account of a family tragedy—to concoct a workable solution.
Should the Rockets bench Jeremy Lin?
They seemed to do just that in New York. There was clearly enough orange to go around—and should be going forward. The Rockets lead the NBA in possessions per game and employ only two players (Lin and Harden) who (almost) absolutely need the ball in their hands.
The circumstances are ripe for Lin to succeed, if only in due time. The transition to a new team in a new city with a fat new contract was never going to be easy.
Not after knee surgery, and certainly not after an unexpected relegation to second fiddle next to the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.
But there's every reason to believe that Lin will come around, assuming he hasn't already. And if it takes a while longer, then so be it. Title contention will have to wait, as it was always going to anyway.
The Rockets are a work-in-progress, as is Jeremy Lin, who's just 24 games into his tenure in Houston among his 88 in the NBA. He's still 24, still learning the ropes in the Association—a microcosm of the Rockets' roster unto himself.
It would seem, then, that a controversy concerning Lin's role on the Rockets—like most Linsanity-centric debates—is, indeed, contrived. The numbers may say it'd be better to split up James Harden and Jeremy Lin, but no calculations can account for the dynamism of that duo on which the future of the Rockets franchise will depend.
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