For James Harden and Jeremy Lin, this is just the beginning.
Though the season's inception was marked by Harden's dominance, Lin's struggles and their collective success playing away from one another, things have changed. Like really transformed.
Coming out of November, the Houston Rockets were 7-8 and the hope that this team could contend for a playoff spot was waning. Lin was averaging just 11.1 points on 39.5 percent shooting, and he had scored 15 or more points to complement a 20-point or more performance by Harden just once.
Beyond that, the Rockets as an aggregation were struggling immensely when the two were played simultaneously.
As Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today notes, it became clear that Harden's production, that the Rockets production, significantly worsened with both stars in the lineup:
With Lin and Harden on the court at the same time, the Rockets averaged 102.5 points per 100 possessions, allowed 104.2 points per 100 possessions and Harden was a minus-3. With Lin on the bench and Harden on the court, the Rockets averaged 104.9 points per 100 possessions, allowed 96.3 points per 100 possessions and Harden was a plus-20.
Drawing any brash conclusion after a mere 15 games is normally verboten, but when it came to Lin's attempt to prove himself worthy of such fame and Harden's quest to validate his self-worth, tolerance wasn't exactly prevalent.
But then December came, and with it, we saw a reformed dyad prepared to wreak havoc on opposing defenses—together.
Lin put up 15 or more points eight times during this span, and six of those performances coincided with 20-plus point outings for Harden. They also dished out five or more assists in the same game seven times as well.
The impact their heightened performances had on the team was undeniable, and as Zillgitt finds, they're efficiency alongside each other rose considerably:
With Lin and Harden on the court together, the Rockets averaged 106.8 points per 100 possessions, allowed 101.1 points per 100 possessions and Harden was a plus-54. With Lin on the bench and Harden on the court, Houston averaged 108.4 points per 100 possessions and allowed 110.2 points per 100 possessions and Harden was a minus-1.
Is this a coincidence?
Perhaps, but probably not.
This duo always had an incredible ceiling. Both are above-average playmakers who are deadly once they get inside the paint. This pairing had potential from the beginning—the same beginning that hindered their initial development.
Houston essentially acquired Harden on the fly, four days before their first game. That rendered any sense of purpose the Rockets had acquired in training camp inane. It also prevented Harden, Lin and their teammates from finding their niches alongside one another.
As Rockets head coach Kevin McHale acknowledged, pairings that consist of one or more superstars take time and patience. Per Zillgitt:
Rockets coach Kevin McHale understood it required time and patience, with patience being the most trying part.
"Until the team really understands how you play – every team has a style and a lot of teams are trying to find that style – but once you find out what works, you have to be dedicated to doing it," McHale said.
And Houston remained "dedicated to doing it." Even when it became clear that the numbers indicated both players performed at a higher level away from the other, McHale and company held strong.
There were points when the two were separated and yes, Lin was benched at crucial points on a number of occasions, but this pairing and this team has since persevered.
Lin is attacking with more confidence, he has learned how to play off the ball effectively and his field-goal percentage has climbed to a respectable 43.2. Harden himself has adjusted to Lin as well. He doesn't dominate the ball as much and has improved his off-ball movements.
Does Lin still have issues defensively? Yes, the Rockets continue to allow four points less per 100 possessions with him off the floor, but Harden also struggles on that end. Houston allows fewer points when's off the floor as well.
There's work to be done all around.
Yet that shouldn't prevent us from acknowledging just how far this coupling has come.
Even with Harden and Lin, the Rockets weren't supposed to be a playoff team. They were supposed to lie amongst the cellar-dwellars, all eyes fixated on next season, on the future.
But here they sit, in thick of the Western Conference playoff picture, defying what most postulated was fact.
This is a team that was supposed to be rebuilding, yet currently has a better record than alleged championship contenders such as the Lakers and Denver Nuggets.
This is a team who has left little doubt that the a prosperous future is not merely imminent, but has, in fact, arrived.
Have James Harden and Jeremy Lin reached their collective ceiling?
And Lin and Harden are now an effective combine prepared to pilot such a cause.
"It's a good example of what we can do," Lin had said about his and Harden's concurrent success.
Respectfully, I find that I must disagree with Lin.
Less than halfway through a season in which Harden and Lin weren't afforded the luxury of a training camp or the faith of the majority, they have procured success.
This is just the beginning.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of January 2, 2013.