Life is quieter for Jeremy Lin now, and most of the early-season hoopla surrounding James Harden has worn off as well. The Houston Rockets are back to being just another so-so basketball team with a collection of young, exciting players and a couple of recognizable second-tier stars.
Those two stars were supposed to lead Houston into a new era. The Rockets had completed their purge of all vestiges of the Yao Ming–Tracy McGrady era and looked to blaze a new path, Billy Beane-style, powered by hard math and cutting-edge technological analysis. So far, however, the numbers tell a troubling tale about Lin and Harden’s ability to play together. That is, they cannot.
Lin tied his career high with 38 points as the Rockets scored 126 points, their second-highest mark of the season, in an overtime loss to the Spurs on Monday. Although Lin’s offensive breakout might have been encouraging for the Rockets, it came with Harden missing the game with a sore right ankle. Lin’s performance continued a trend that has to run counter to everything general manager Daryl Morey‘s computer models predicted: The Rockets are better when Lin and Harden do not share the court.
By traditional measures, Harden has flourished while Lin has floundered in Houston. Before he missed Monday’s game, Harden was averaging 24.7 points and 5.6 assists while getting to the foul line for 9.4 attempts per game. Lin upped his scoring average to 11.4 points to go along with 6.1 assists and 1.9 steals per game after his explosion against the Spurs. But while Harden’s game might look shinier on paper, he and Lin have been equally ineffective in helping the Rockets win consistently.
Despite the wide disparity in their conventional numbers, they have equally negative impacts on the offense. The Rockets score 102.6 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor; with Lin on the floor, they score 102.3. Both of those figures are worse than the Rockets’ overall offensive rating of 103.3, which means Harden and Lin each make the Rockets worse offensively. Houston’s most-used lineup of Harden, Lin, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson is posting an atrocious 97.8 offensive rating, making it pretty remarkable that the Rockets have been able to score at all en route to their 9-11 record.
This is the sort of phenomenon that worries the New York Knicks, who wonder if Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire will be able to coexist when the latter returns from his knee injury. Unlike Anthony and Stoudemire, though, Harden and Lin have no trouble sharing the ball. The Rockets are 11th in the league in assists, and their assist ratio goes up when Harden and Lin are on the court at once.
Neither has shot the ball well, and both are turning the ball over at far too high a rate. Yet offense has little to do with the issues the Rockets face with Harden and Lin on the court. The larger problem is on defense, where Harden has never been a good on-ball defender and Lin’s lack of experience against major college and pro offenses gets exposed through his lack of understanding about help defense. One of the most repetitive scenes for Houston fans this season has been watching Harden get beat off the dribble as Lin helps late or halfway, and Harden’s man dishes to Lin’s now-open man for an open shot or an easy drive past the recovering Lin. Tony Parker and Gary Neal combined on just such a play on a crucial second-half possession on Monday, although this time it was Toney Douglas taking Harden’s place as the initial victim. The play has become such a staple of opponents’ game plans against the Rockets that apparently they now feel comfortable running it no matter who is on the court.
Here, again, is why the Rockets’ twin-star shortcomings are more problematic than the Knicks’. New York’s success makes it possible for them not to play Stoudemire, even when he is healthy, if they don’t want to. Whether the Knicks pay an injured Stoudemire or a healthy Stoudemire $19.9 million not to play really makes no difference. The Rockets, by contrast, need to figure out how to get Harden and Lin to play well together. They have too much invested in both players to simply let one languish on the bench, and they do not have the financial resources to take either one as a sunk cost the way the Knicks can with Stoudemire.
In that spirit, give coaches Kevin McHale and Kelvin Sampson credit for sticking to the plan. Harden and Lin are the Rockets’ most-used duo this season, and both players have started every game when they have been healthy. The Rockets seem to be taking the Michael Jordan-approved approach of letting Harden and Lin fail until they get it right.
There is also an encouraging sign with Houston’s second most-used lineup, in which Marcus Morris simply replaces Patterson. Although that group has played together for only 52 minutes — compared to 289 by the Harden-Lin-Asik-Parsons-Patterson combo — it has posted an offensive rating of 106.5 and a defensive rating of 97.9. Over a full season, those figures would make the Rockets not just a playoff team, but one of the top seeds in the Western Conference.
The Rockets took a series of gambles in the offseason, and two of those gambles involved players who have never proved that they can be go-to guys over the long term. The payout has not been what the team expected so far, but Harden, Lin and the Rockets still have three-quarters of the season left to get things right.