Is Jeremy Lin Losing the 6th-Man Spot for Houston Rockets?

John WilmesContributor IMarch 26, 2014

Houston Rockets guard Jeremy Lin (7) drives to the basket as Chicago Bulls guard D.J. Augustin (14) guards during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Chicago on Thursday, March 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

After a rough February, Jeremy Lin has had his work cut out for him down the home stretch of the Houston Rockets' season. He’s had to re-prove himself as the team’s go-to reserve.

Thankfully, some Lindication has followed. Shooting 47 percent from the field in March while averaging 11.3 points and 3.3 assists in 22.9 minutes per game, Lin is playing his most efficient ball of the year lately. Better luck with recurring back spasms likely helps to explain the up-down of Lin’s game.

But as short a time ago as January, Lin was clocking a noticeably larger 32.9 minutes per game; he was an essential enough part of the rotation to get a starter’s minutes.

When Lin’s game sagged, the Rockets took it as an opportunity to try out other bench pieces, even trading for a new one in the person of Jordan Hamilton.

Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

As it stands, the Rockets give the same minutes to Lin that subs Donatas Motiejunas and Omer Asik receive. Lin’s play may have picked up again—it may even be the best it has been all season—but for better or worse coach Kevin McHale’s lineup tinkerings seem to have led to a rotation that features Lin less centrally.

But are the Rockets better for it? Motiejunas is a fascinating talent but a raw youngster whose worth in the postseason is questionable. His dynamic ball movement and maneuvering in the post might not translate against playoff defense.

And lineups featuring both Asik and Dwight Howard have still fielded mixed returns, so Asik's minutes may take a dip in the playoffs as well. It still looks as though Lin is a starter-from-the-bench for the Rockets, ready to provide the essential extra fuel to their relentless full-court attack.

If Lin’s usage rate does indeed escalate for the journey into the beastly Western Conference playoffs, his play may be a tryout for his future with the team.

The Rockets’ front office is known for its splashy moves, and the franchise could go after the allure of a Big Three featuring Howard, James Harden and the impending free agent Carmelo Anthony.

Whether it’s for Anthony or another player, the Rockets have shown a willingness to trade Lin, as tweeted by Bleacher Report's Howard Beck.

His best shot at reversing his team’s appraisal of him and making himself indispensable lies in providing productive minutes for the team in the playoffs. He missed out on the opportunity to do so with injuries late last year and will have to capitalize on this second chance. Otherwise, it may just be his ornery poison-pill contract that keeps him in Houston.

His opportunity to do so will depend on who the Rockets draw, but more than likely Lin will be needed. “You’ve got to get 48 minutes of at least solid play from the point guard position,” as suggested on CSN Houston's The Pulse. “Because [the Rockets’ competitors] are going to have at least 36 minutes of outstanding play from those star point guards. You can’t ask Patrick Beverley to do it all. Jeremy Lin needs to play better.”

Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Chris Paul, Steph Curry—the odds are high that the Rockets will face an elite point guard in a playoff opponent, needing Lin next to Beverley, Harden and Chandler Parsons to help match the speed and creativity of these stars.

If Jeremy Lin isn’t the Rockets’ clear-cut sixth man right now, it’s only because they don’t have one. They’re toggling with different lineups in anticipation of high-stakes games, and Lin’s usage is suffering through that process even if he looks sharper than ever. In all likelihood, the team will come to depend on him again in the playoffs.

The Rockets need his singular flair to help them win games. Lin is their true microwave man.