Is Jeremy Lin Holding James Harden Back?

Marshall Zweig@ihavethewriteContributor IIJanuary 18, 2013

Source: Bill Baptist/Getty Images
Source: Bill Baptist/Getty Images

On the heels of a six-game losing streak, fingers are bound to get pointed.

Leave it to Jeremy Lin to point the finger at himself.

In a typically classy and dignified move, the Houston Rockets point guard manned up, saying to nba.com that he is not deserving this year of an All-Star bid.

"I would say I’m doing OK,” Lin said. “But I know I’m capable of more, I know I’m better than what I’ve shown throughout the first half of the season.”

We in Houston believe that too. After all, we've seen proof: When backcourt mate James Harden missed a game, Lin asserted himself, leading the Rockets to overtime vs. the mighty San Antonio Spurs by scoring 38 points on 11-of-21 shooting, including 4-of-5 from three-point range.

Because Lin assumed full ball-handling duties for the game, as opposed to sharing control when Harden is in the game, it left many fans wondering what Lin could achieve by taking the ball up the court every time, as a point guard traditionally does.

But statistically, Lin's plus-minus ratio actually goes up considerably with Harden on the floor. Per 36 minutes, Lin's at plus-2.3 with Harden beside him, versus minus-3.4 with Harden taking a breather.

Further, James Harden is undeniably having a breakout, All-Star worthy, possibly even MVP-worthy season. Lin, whatever the reasons may be, has had his struggles.

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As an example, the losing streak has coincided with a recurrence of Lin's shooting woes.

Prior to his 4-of-4 fourth quarter against the Mavericks, Lin has shot .314 during the five losses, including .187 from behind the arc. Worse, his best shooting percentage is at the rim, which means Harden is less inclined to use Lin as a kickback option when a drive to the hoop is stymied.

Now, let me make it clear: I've said on numerous occasions that the unconventional Harden/Lin pairing can and has worked.

But out of curiosity, let's explore two questions.

Is Jeremy Lin holding back James Harden from even higher production?

And how would Harden do with a point guard who thrives on the catch-and-shoot or the spot-up jumper, like Jason Terry or Kyrie Irving (although I don't think Irving would cotton to giving up ball-handling duties)?

First question first.

Harden puts up 17.7 shots per game, tied for eighth in the league, and scores 26.3 points per game, good for fourth in the league.

Would either of these stats go up were Harden paired up with a different guard?

Let's check out Harden's stats when playing with Houston's other guards, whose jump shots this season are generally falling with more consistency than Lin's (.329 from 3-9 feet, .182 from 10-15 feet, .431 from 16-23 feet, and .276 from three-point range).

Per 36 minutes with Carlos Delfino on the floor, who's shooting .500 from 10-15 feet, .357 from 16-23 feet, and .381 from three-point range, Harden takes one more shot per game, scores 3.5 more points per game, and has a plus-minus almost 14 points higher than when Delfino's on the bench.

Per 36 minutes with Toney Douglas on the court, whose outside shooting is only good from 3-9 feet (.426) and three-point land (.409), Harden takes .5 more shots per game, scores 6.1 more points per game, and has a plus-minus ratio 5.5 points higher than when Douglas is on the bench.

Is it a fair comparison? Yes and no.

The stats don't lie. But they miss the fact that when on the floor, Lin is more of a threat than the other two guards, and looks for his shot more then either of those two do.

Thus, it would stand to reason that since Harden is the Rockets' primary option when Delfino or Douglas are on the floor, he would shoot and score more with either of those two on the floor than he would with Lin.

What if Lin were paired with a kickback specialist, like Steve Kerr used to be for Michael Jordan?

Well, Harden might certainly preserve his body. But perhaps the most amazing and reliable part of Harden's game is his uncanny ability to draw contact. With a kickback option, Harden's production might well go down.

So in this respect, Lin is not holding Harden back. In fact, Lin's inconsistent jumper probably acts as an impetus for Harden to score more.

No point in wondering how Harden would do with a traditional point guard. A, that's pretty much what Lin is, and B, Harden wants the ball in his hands.

OK then, what about if he were paired with a younger Jason Terry, a healthy Stephen Curry, or Kyrie Irving—all of whom have effective jumpers?

Despite better outside shooting per 36 minutes, Terry's stat lines back in the day were very similar to Lin's. Take Terry's 2004-2005 campaign for instance. Per 36 minutes, he scored about 1.5 more points than Lin, and had about .5 fewer assists.

He also played in Dallas' run-and-gun offense, which was similar to Houston's style now.

So though it could be either of the other players with good jump shots, let's use Terry as our example. How would Harden benefit from a player like Terry's sharpshooting?

Terry would probably draw more coverage farther from the basket. Harden would thus potentially have somewhat easier drives to the hoop. Again, that might preserve his body to a degree. But would it improve his production?

Harden has taken 20 or more shots nine times this season. In those games, his field-goal percentage is .437. His season average, by contrast, is .447—meaning in those games where Harden took 19 or fewer shots, his field-goal shooting was more than 15 percentage points higher.

Simply put, in those games where Harden takes more shots, he scores with less efficiency.

Could this be due to more of a defensive focus on Harden than Lin? Yes, it would be fair to assume that since Terry's outside shot would draw more coverage. It would also be fair to assume that some of Harden's drives to the rim would face less traffic, and be easier to complete.

So partnered with a better outside shooting threat, Harden's efficiency would likely increase.

Let's look at Harden's season last year in Oklahoma City. Harden per 36 minutes was far more efficient, with a field goal percentage of .491, versus .447 this year. He's taking more than five shots more per 36 minutes this year than last, which accounts for his increased scoring over last year.

Harden last year never took more than 17 shots in a game. But he was most efficient when taking between 13 and 17 shots, with a .591 field goal percentage.

What accounted for that increased efficiency?

Part of it was because Harden was not the primary option last year; obviously it was Kevin Durant. So it's likely that Harden's shots were higher-percentage in some way: open lanes, open looks.

Part of it was also undoubtedly due to Russell Westbrook's outside shooting last year. Statistically, it was better than Lin's this year. It's safe to assume Harden relied more on kickbacks last year when the path to the hoop was clogged.

But to the original question: is Lin holding Harden back from more production?

I say yes and no. Because there is both a statistical and a philosophical answer to the question.

Statistically, there is no denying Harden is far less efficient this year than last. One could make the case for the burden increased responsibility bears; without a Durant, Harden has more of a load on his shoulders, and thus forces more shots, especially when Lin's jumper isn't falling.

A more consistent jump shot from Lin would benefit both him and Harden. Lin's most passionate fans would agree. Heck, Lin himself would agree.

So to the philosophical argument. Does Lin having to learn both a position and a teammate constitute holding Harden back?

I say no.

I say backcourts are formed by learning each others' strengths and weaknesses, and that takes time. I say further that Lin, for the umpteenth time, has started fewer than a season's worth of games at the point-guard position.

It's a position that generally takes time to learn—Russell Westbrook being an exception to the rule.

I cannot argue that Harden might well score more, or at least score with more efficiency, with an O.J. Mayo, a Stephen Curry, a Deron Williams, a Derrick Rose—folks with a dangerous jumper.

But it also stands to reason that a backcourt with two attackers, both of whom thrive with the ball in their hands, is going to take some time to gel as a unit.

So yeah, Harden has a lot on his shoulders, especially when Lin's shot is off. It's incumbent upon Lin to be more efficient.

Lin's a smart guy and a caring teammate. He knows what he has to do to get better, and he'll do it. And in addition, I've proposed adding a third guard who's an outside shooting specialist, perhaps a J.J. Redick, to take pressure off both Lin and Harden as Lin grows in his position.

But in the long run, should Harden and Lin play together for many seasons, I don't think Lin will be seen as holding Harden back.

Instead, he'll be seen as doing everything he can to make Harden, and his team, better.

Check back with me this time next season and let me know if I was right.

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