Are Rockets Better off Bringing Jeremy Lin Off the Bench in Sixth Man Role?
When Daryl Morey answered any and almost every question posed to him on Reddit.com in August, one in particular unleashed something just short of pent-up rage.
"Do you think it would be better for the team to relegate him [Jeremy Lin] to to a bench role with Omir Asik?" asked one Houston Rockets admirer.
Morey never actually answered the question, but his impassioned defense of Lin's 2012-13 campaign made up for it.
It is amazing to me that all the time I encounter people feeling negative about Jeremy's season with us. I have chalked this up to:
-- he started off slow, mostly do to getting 100% back from injury
-- very high, unrealistic expectations after his time in New York
-- had a rough ending in the playoffs, again due to injury
-- people generally remember starts & ends more than anything else
-- people generally compare things to their expectations when forming opinions versus look at the big picture
Last year was Jeremy's 1st full year in the league. Essentially his rookie year. If last season would have been his rookie year and he never would have played in New York, right now people would be appropriately talking about him incessantly as one of the top young rookie stars in the league. He was the starting point guard on a playoff team in West at age 24!!! Don't get me started on this. Too late...
That was Morey's longest response of the session, which makes it all the more surprising he somehow never addressed whether Lin would be better off the bench. It doesn't have to be an especially controversial question, and the answer certainly needn't undervalue what Lin accomplished last season.
Morey's logic on that point is pretty airtight, but none of it speaks to Lin's ideal role. That may be something no one can speak to until head coach Kevin McHale makes it through some training camp. Per Nate Taylor of the New York Times, he was sold on Lin's starting appeal coming into last season, and we should all be sold on his value in the fourth quarter.
But that doesn't mean Houston should keep him in the starting lineup.
Giving Harden Some MVP Breathing Room
There's no question Jeremy Lin's performance is an important barometer for how well the rest of the Rockets are playing. In games Houston won last season, Lin averaged 1.7 more points and 1.2 more assists than he did in the club's 37 losses according NBA.com. Most strikingly, he shot the ball nearly seven percentage points better.
As important as Lin is to this operation, the offense will remain James Harden's. His usage rate (per ESPN.com) matched Kevin Durant last season as the NBA's eighth highest, and the results were pretty stellar. With nearly seven more minutes per game than he received his final season in Oklahoma City, Harden raised his scoring average by over nine points and upped his assist total to a point guard-like 5.8 assists per game.
Already capable of dictating the offense as a scorer and distributor alike, Harden now has another weapon at his disposal thanks to Dwight Howard roaming the paint. With Harden and Chandler Parsons already ranking among the league's most productive duos, Howard means three All-Star caliber scorers in a starting lineup with only so many touches to go around.
Worry all you want about making the most of Lin, but the real disaster would be Harden having fewer opportunities to create. Though Lin's presence had marginal impact on Harden's individual game last season, according to B/R's Grant Hughes, "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."
With a legitimate MVP-caliber season suddenly within reach, Harden has to be the one setting Houston's tone early and often—not for his sake, but for everyone else's.
Running the Numbers on Lin
It shouldn't take too many numbers to convince you Lin does his best work when the ball's in his hands, but it's especially telling that nearly 61 percent of his field-goal attempts were unassisted (per NBA.com).
Only fitting for a couch-to-riches career that has "do-it-yourself" written all over it.
Just halfway through Harden and Lin's first December together, Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney made note of an astonishing trend with the limited data at hand. Per 36 minutes, Harden played much better without Lin, and Lin played much better without Harden.
A couple of months later, Dime's Felix Huang started breaking the relationship down even more, noting that Lin was performing better from behind the arc without Harden around but much better—16.7 percent vs. 29.3 percent—on floaters (and the like) just outside the restricted area: "The lower percentage from the paint (non-restricted area) likely stems from opposing defenses being able to collapse on Lin more with the threat of the paint-seeking Harden out."
Coexisting on the floor at the same time isn't impossible, and there's something to be said for having two guys who can drive-and-kick, testing perimeter defenses from different points of attack. The trick is finding the sweet spot where Lin's game adapts to life with and without Harden.
He'll probably remain a more valuable (if not effective) all-around asset when he's the focal point of Houston's offense, but that's not sustainable when it comes time for McHale to put all his best troops on the floor at the same time.
If anyone has the mindset and dedication to reformat his game and find a rhythm coming off the bench, it's Lin. He may even find that it's a home away from home.
Let's recall some of the lineups with which Lin had his most success in 2011-12 during a breakout campaign with the Knicks. His 38-point signature game against the Los Angeles Lakers in February was all the more surprising because a ragtag lineup of castaways upended a far superior lineup.
At Lin's side in the starting lineup: Tyson Chandler, Landry Fields, Jared Jeffries, Bill Walker.
Chandler was crucial against L.A's front line, and Fields was admittedly having a fine stretch of his own in comparison to what he did with the Toronto Raptors last season. But no matter how you spin it, that's a terrible starting lineup. There are bench units that pack more punch.
Lin twice dropped 28 that spring, once against the Utah Jazz (when Carmelo Anthony played just six minutes) and once versus the Dallas Mavericks alongside Chandler, Fields, Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert.
Keep in mind that New York didn't sign J.R. Smith until halfway through the Linsanity. Between Feb. 4 and Smith's first game on Feb. 19, Lin scored 20 or more points seven times (and an eighth time in that games against Dallas, J.R.'s first).
While we're ultimately looking at a small sample size, some of our most compelling empirical data suggests Lin's at his best playing with bench-caliber players, or at least reasonably capable role players who allow Lin the lion's share of ball-handling responsibilities.
That might have been Fields or Steve Novak in New York. In Houston—and in a sixth man role—it would be combinations of defense-first guys like Omer Asik or Ronnie Brewer and shooters like Omri Casspi, Francisco Garcia or Aaron Brooks.
Those aren't bad bench pieces by any means, but the best thing about them is that they can (and usually should) play without the ball in their hands—meaning it's more likely to stay in Lin's. So long as Houston's ball movement isn't lost in the translation, the Rockets will be better for it too.
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