Who Has the Brighter NBA Future, Jeremy Lin or James Harden?

Marshall Zweig@ihavethewriteContributor IIJanuary 29, 2013

Harden and Lin, way back in 2013.  Source: sportscity.com
Harden and Lin, way back in 2013. Source: sportscity.com

Houston, Jan. 29, 2028

It's a perfect day to revisit the NBA careers of Jeremy Lin and James Harden.

After all, today the NBA revealed its plans to use Houston's Johnson Space Center to launch the NBA Hall of Fame into space, as part of this year's induction ceremonies.

Both men are on this year's ballot. Both are former Houston Rockets. Both shone brightly in their NBA tenures.

But only one will go into orbit.

Which one?

Let's start the analysis by going back to a time before robots babysat our kids, before airports were replaced by teleports and cars were replaced by hovercrafts. Way, way back to 2012-2013, both players' first years with the Rockets.

Harden, drafted third overall by the former Oklahoma City Thunder (now known as the Singapore Storm), was the NBA's reigning Sixth Man Of The Year when he was dealt to Houston in a blockbuster season-opening 2012 trade.

Lin went undrafted and bounced from team to team, until emerging spectacularly for the New York Knicks in February 2012 with a statistically remarkable phenomenon called Linsanity, which had a half-life of about a month, but which inspired millions around the globe. In the offseason, Lin was acquired by the Rockets.

In that first Houston season, Harden emerged as one of the NBA's top scorers, averaging over 26 points a game. In addition, Harden quickly became one of the NBA's best one-on-one players.

Lin, still learning the point-guard game and adjusting his skill set to fit Harden's, reduced his turnovers and improved his defense, but struggled with consistency offensively.

It was clear that Harden was the focal point of the offense, and the team's star on-court. Among NBA audiences worldwide, Lin was still the bigger star.

Harden was selected by coaches as an NBA All-Star; Lin just missed being voted in by fans.

After an extended January 2013 losing streak, Harden and Lin helped the Rockets return to their strengths—transition basketball, attacking the rim, and involving their bigs in the scoring—starting with a three-game winning streak at the end of January against the New Orleans Hornets (now the Johannesburg Killer Bees), the Utah Jazz (now the Ibiza Technos), and the Brooklyn Nets (now the Brooklyn Russian Spies And Rappers).

Lin was delish with the dish in that winning streak, scoring seven against the Jazz, nine vs. the Nets, and eight opposite the Hornets.

Harden was roaring with the scoring: 25 against the Jazz; 29 vs. the Nets; 30 on the Hornets.

In addition, both men, who had struggled with efficiency, started shooting lights-out. Harden shot 51 percent from the floor in the three-game streak, including .385 from three-point range. Lin shot 52 percent, going .500 from beyond the arc.

That win streak set the stage for what was to come as the future unfolded.

Harden was wise enough and unselfish enough to realize that his playing style—crashing into defenders to draw fouls, focusing on the rim rather than all his options—would sap his stamina and shorten his career.

He began perfecting his step-back jumper. He started focusing on starting drives and drawing collapsing covers, then finding an open man on the wing for a high-percentage jumper.

Harden's scoring remained at over 25 PPG, and yet he took fewer shots per game. 

Lin, by contrast, began to embrace his own role in Houston's offense. He saw that the Rockets' bread-and-butter scheme—transition play—was actually right in his wheelhouse.

He focused on creating as much in transition, both as a playmaker and as a scoring option, as possible. And in half-court sets, he concentrated on creating space so he could drain open outside shots.

Though Houston's offense was never perfectly suited for him, Lin found ways to suit himself to Houston. He attacked the basket whenever it was right for him to do so—with a grace and acceleration seldom seen before or since in the league. In addition, he made himself a valuable threat from the outside.

How did the future unfold for the Rockets? They made the second round of the playoffs in 2013 after adding J.J. Hickson to their frontcourt at the trade deadline; once Paul Millsap joined the squad in the offseason, the Rockets went to the NBA Finals in 2014, then won back-to-back championships in 2015 and 2016.

That's where the future stopped being sublime and started getting ridiculous. And I'm not just talking about our newly sworn-in President Snooki and Vice President JWOWW.

In 2017, Lin decided to test free agency. He was hoping to find a team willing to build around him. No one was—but the New York Knicks wanted him back to run the point. That offseason the Knicks, stating they were willing to incur any luxury tax up to $1 billion, also signed Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and O.J. Mayo.

Lin became an assist machine, dishing out dimes like they were gumballs, as the Knicks won the next ten Larry O'Brien trophies. Many remember his legendary "mugbreaker" assist against the Seattle Somethings (formerly the Sacramento Kings) in 2017, a pass so quick and unexpected it actually hit 3D glasses-wearers in the face, shattering noses worldwide.

Lin currently roams the sidelines as coach of the Rockets, where he emphasizes teamwork, ball movement, and good essay skills.

Harden remained a Rocket his entire career, and become one of the league's all-time top scorers, finishing fifth on the all-time NBA scoring list. In doing so, he passed former Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who retired in 2015 to become an ankle insurance salesman.

Bryant was prompted to leave the game prematurely after a particularly vicious shake and bake move by Harden snapped both his anklebones like twigs.

Harden's biggest challenge after 2013 was his beard. Because he was committed to never cutting it, the beard grew to Rumpelstiltskinian proportions. Harden was constantly getting tripping penalties which, by all rights, should have been called on his facial hair.

In 2017, he shaved off his bristles, giving them to a transplant company who used Harden's plentiful fuzz to cover the bald spots of fellow NBA players Chris Kamen, Manu Ginobili and Deron Williams.

But we digress. Knowing what we know now, in 2028, whose career was the brightest?

Houston's offense was never perfectly suited for him, but Lin found ways to suit himself to Houston. He attacked the basket whenever it was right for him to do so—with a grace and acceleration seldom seen before or since in the league. In addition, he made himself a valuable threat from the outside.

Lin was never the best player on any of his teams. But he was a guy with the talent, teamwork ethic and attitude to realize that his greatest skill lay in making good players better.

He understood that Linsanity happened not just because of his ability, but also because the Knicks' two best players were sidelined, leaving Lin as the best remaining option.

In Houston, Lin rightly deferred to Harden because he saw that between the two men, Harden was simply the guy who, on any given offensive set, had the best chance of getting his team points.

Once he embraced that reality, Lin maximized his usefulness.

Harden, like Lin, became a superstar the moment he became a starter. The difference is, Harden maintained his superstardom. A consistent 25-point man is something the NBA does not often see. Harden made sure to get his points night in and night out, one way or another, and there is no more valuable commodity in an NBA player.

He incorporated a step-back jumper and hit his shots with regularity.

All Harden had to learn was how to relinquish responsibility, how to look for the open man when the lane was clogged, and not keep everything on his shoulders in a half-court set. He did. And the rest is history.

Lin will get some consideration. But only Harden will get the 75 percent required for election.

Houston, we're about to have another Hall of Famer. And James Harden, you're about to be the first Rocket to actually be on a rocket.

Our advice to you while you're up in space: do a layup.

You won't believe the hang time zero gravity will give ya.


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