James Harden and Jeremy Lin both need the ball in their hands, but only one has "superstar" as a part of his NBA ceiling.
The summer of 2012 was a big one for Houston. The procurement of both Lin and Harden created a buzz around Clutch City that was unmatched in most NBA regions, and the truth is that the team found success. Nobody quite knew what to expect following the Rockets’ rebuild, but the addition of Harden to the core created a team that was both fun to watch and productive on the floor
But while that core was able to make the playoffs in its first year together, the team has redefined what success will mean with the signing of Howard. The big man has a star to play alongside, and for Harden to reach his full potential, Lin might be the one sacrificed along the way.
It’s no secret that the Rockets struggle defensively from the perimeter. Ridding the roster of Lin won’t make Harden a better defender, but it will get the 2-guard another helper in Patrick Beverley—or a more defensive-oriented guard the team can acquire.
Although Lin is active on that side of the floor—he picked up 1.6 steals during the 2012-13 season—Beverley provides more energy and enthusiasm. He isn’t known as an elite defender, but he has an aggressiveness on the perimeter that helped him collect 0.9 steals in just 17.4 minutes per game.
In a situation where Lin is traded, Beverley has the ability to body up today’s ultra-athletic point guards. His willingness to fight for rebounds and find blocks makes him a more efficient option, which could ultimately lead to more transition opportunities for the team as a whole.
While Beverley offers more in the sense of defensive versatility, his upside is questionable compared to Lin’s. The man formerly known as Linsanity has more star potential when looking at the immediate future, but while we saw what he can do with the New York Knicks, the problem is that he’s not going to be given that chance behind Harden.
Lin is actually quite good at getting to the rim and setting up his teammates. As we saw during his healthy days, he can get past his man and get his teammates involved out on the perimeter.
The problem is this: That’s what James Harden is for, which makes Lin expendable.
Like Lin, Harden needs the ball in his hands. Both players can be effective in pick-and-roll situations, but letting Lin create doesn’t produce nearly as many points as letting Harden take over.
The Rockets love to isolate Harden, and while the arrival of Howard will certainly change the scheme, the man at the 2-guard spot will remain the primary ball controller.
Per Hoopdata, Harden’s usage rate was 28.95 during his first season in Houston, which was just one spot outside the league’s top 10. That’s a lot of time for your typical shooting guard to have the ball, but when he’s also a top-five scorer, it’s tough to argue against giving him the rock.
Aside from the stats, there’s the good old-fashioned eye test. When watching the Rockets play, Harden isolates his defender, creates his own opportunity and looks to score late in the shot clock—when the fast break is unsuccessful, that is.
When Harden is unable to create his own shot, he utilizes his ability to draw double-teams. Chandler Parsons has proven he can shoot in off-ball situations, as has Francisco Garcia.
Harden needs shooters around him, and simply put, Lin’s same need becomes redundant.
Lin’s three-point percentage was just 33.9 percent during 2012-13. That number dropped to just 16.7 percent in the postseason, and while you can argue that his health had something to do with it, he still took an ill-advised three attempts per game from long range.
The two players both need to control an offense in order to be effective, but it goes without saying that Harden has the higher ceiling.
The other aspect of all of this that can’t be ignored is the fact Lin can be a distraction.
To Lin’s credit, very little of this is his fault. He’s not someone who begs for attention, and it’s the combination of his race, his faith and his loyal following that have combined to create Linsanity whether it is in New York City or The Bayou City.
Is it time for the Houston Rockets to trade Jeremy Lin?
But while Lin’s spot on the Rockets has resulted in jersey sales and a growing popularity both domestically and internationally, there’s a bit of a Tim Tebow effect that comes along with having Lin on your team.
It’s been said ad nauseam that no publicity is bad publicity, but if the team underwhelms in its first year together, Lin is going to be an easy scapegoat for anything that hasn't gone according to plan.
When it comes down to it, one overarching theme simply can’t be ignored: The Rockets must maximize the investment they’ve made at the 2-guard spot.
Harden is a max-contract player, and up to this point, he’s been treated as one. But with the incoming presence of Howard and the company of a ball-dominating point guard, Harden’s existence on the floor has a chance to hold less meaning as this team grows.
If Lin can be a traditional point guard who gets Harden the ball out of certain sets, the Rockets are in good shape. However, if Kevin McHale continues to run isolation sets with Howard in the middle, Lin is going to take away opportunities for Harden to shine brighter than he already has.
The Rockets are officially Harden and Howard’s team, and while complementary players are going to be crucial, it’s possible that Lin won’t be one of them moving forward.