Between Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley, the Houston Rockets have a pair of viable starting point guard options. As Marlo Stanfield from The Wire would say, "That sounds like one of them good problems."
Yes it does, Marlo. Yes it does.
Houston has two good-but-not-great players that have proved capable of producing at league-average levels over extended minutes. That's nothing to scoff at. But only one of them will earn the distinction of being officially named to the first unit.
Figuring out which player deserves a starting nod is going to require a detailed look at numbers, chemistry and fit. Here we go.
The Harden Effect
It might seem strange to start our analysis with a comparison of how Lin and Beverley work alongside James Harden, but everyone knows that the Rockets can only go as far as the Beard takes them. So it makes sense to see which guard pairs best with Houston's No. 1 option.
As a jumping-off point, Lin's presence on the court had little effect on Harden's individual numbers last season. Harden's true-shooting percentage, assist ratio, rebound rate and effective field-goal percentage didn't appreciably change whether Lin was on the floor or not.
|Harden w/ Lin||.510||18.5||12.7||.599|
|Harden w/o Lin||.490||19.0||10.6||.602|
But the Rockets were notably better as a team when Harden took the court without Lin. Per 100 possessions, Houston's net rating improved from plus-2.1 with Lin on the floor to plus-4.6 without him, per NBA.com. That might seem like a small difference, but in comparing Lin and Beverley, you'll soon see that we're not going to come across much that indicates one is vastly superior to the other.
Having said that, the positive effect of pairing Beverley with Harden on the Rockets' overall efficiency is probably the most compelling argument in his favor.
As was the case with Lin, Beverley's presence on the court didn't have a significant effect on Harden's individual efficiency. But when he played with Harden, the Rockets were downright scary as a team.
With Beverley and Harden in the backcourt together, Houston posted an offensive rating of 107.4 and a defensive rating of 100.1. The resultant net rating of plus-7.3 points per 100 possessions would have been good enough to rank third in the NBA last season, per NBA.com.
When we remove Beverley from the equation, leaving Harden out there alone (or with Lin), Houston's net rating dipped to just plus-1.1 points per 100 possessions.
It's not a great idea to conclude from the foregoing stats that Beverley is obviously a better fit alongside Harden than Lin is. Sure, there's some pretty good evidence there, but context is important, too. There are plenty of variables (namely, the other three players rounding out the Rockets' on-court grouping) that could prove the Beverley-Harden duo's excellence to be more coincidental than causal.
So let's uncomplicate things by simply looking at Lin's individual statistics against Beverley's.
That's a landslide victory for Beverley, folks.
The most important takeaway from that statistical comparison is the major advantage Beverley has in defensive efficiency. Houston scored at an almost equally efficient rate whether Lin or Beverley was manning the point but was more than five points per 100 possessions better on D with Beverley in the lineup.
With Lin on the court, Houston defended at a level that would have ranked 21st in the NBA last season. With Beverley, its defensive rating would have been good enough to rank third, per ESPN.
The Rockets coaching staff took notice of that fact at an early juncture in 2012-13, benching Lin during fourth quarters in November because of his substandard defense.
So far, the scales are tipping in Beverley's favor. But more information is always a good thing, so let's include some key stats from Synergy to really isolate the values of Lin and Beverley in specific situations.
As a preliminary matter, Synergy rates Lin and Beverley nearly equally on defense (subscription required). Beverley checked out as a better defender in isolation sets and against the pick-and-roll last year but was much worse than Lin in defending spot-up shots. As a result, Lin's overall ranking was slightly higher than Beverley's.
It's difficult to pinpoint why Beverley was such a poor defender against standstill shooters. Perhaps his height disadvantage played a role. More likely, though, his aggressive tendency to help left him too far off of his own assignment to recover in time. That's something he'll have to correct.
On offense, Synergy gives a decided edge to Beverley, ranking him 90 spots ahead of Lin overall. Notably, Beverley was excellent in isolation and right on par with Lin as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (though both were very good in that area).
The key distinction that favors Beverley is his spot-up shooting. Per Synergy, Lin ranked as a slightly above-average spot-up threat, averaging .96 points per play. But Beverley was elite, ranking in the top 10 percent of all NBA players with a whopping 1.16 points per play on spot-up chances.
When he has his feet set, there aren't many better shooters than Beverley.
Good news, everyone: We're leaving the numbers behind. But don't forget Beverley's massive advantage in spot-up shooting just yet.
Fit, Chemistry and Sense
Stepping back a bit, the 2012-13 Rockets were a team built around Harden's isolation plays, lots of run-and-gun action and plenty of pick-and-roll sets. With Dwight Howard on board this season, expect a slightly slower pace, more inside-out ball movement and a heavy dose of Harden-Howard pick-and-rolls.
As you might imagine, the value of a spot-up shooter alongside Harden is only going to grow this season. For that reason alone, Beverley should probably be the starter.
But there's more.
Lin is a ball-dominant player who thrives with a high usage rate. With Harden on the floor, though, Lin is simply never going to get to be that kind of guard. Using the streaky Lin as a spot-up option on the weak side is a waste of his talents as a penetrator and distributor. Even worse, it robs the second unit of a guy who has shown in the past that he's best used as a floor general.
By starting Lin alongside Harden, the Rockets can't get maximum value out of their backcourt. Fit matters, and Lin fits better as a backup who controls the offense.
Beverley, by contrast, isn't a conventional ball-handling point guard. He's much better as a secondary scorer who can also make life very difficult for lead guards on the other end. As a weak-side shooter, he's dynamite.
But he can't run a second unit as well as Lin can. So where does that leave the Rockets?
Lin isn't what the Rockets need in the starting lineup. Beverley is statistically superior in a few key areas and is a much better fit with the first unit. I know we said we'd leave numbers behind, but you can do that math here.
It comes down to this: If you want to make a case for Lin as the starter, you can. But to do so, you have to decide that the numbers don't matter and that there's some reason to believe that he'll somehow make major improvements in his game.
Making the case for Beverley basically consists of saying, "Look at the numbers." They make the argument for him and are really only subject to the typical small-sample-size rebuttal. But watching film and thinking about the team's chemistry certainly makes it seem like Beverley's 41-game sample last season is a good representation of what he'll do over a full year.
Ultimately, both Lin and Beverley are net-positive NBA players. The Rockets won't be doing themselves any harm by starting either of them. That's a good problem.
But if Houston wants to get the most out of both of its point guards, Beverley should be the starter.