Jeremy Lin faces two problems: the critics are calling him a washout based on box scores and his team’s management appears to be listening to them.
Despite the fact that Lin led the Rockets to five wins in the six pre-season games he played — getting remarkably high-level play from out of his young but talented teammates — Houston’s management committed $80 million on a 5-year deal with shooting guard James Harden on October 27, two days before the start of the team’s regular season.
That isn’t a problem in itself. Lin showed in the first two games of the regular season — in which Harden scored 37 and 45 points — that he knows how to make good use of his new teammate’s scoring efficiency.
The problem is that the Rockets are now trying to reshape their offense around Harden instead of Lin.
“We’re going to go a different way because [Harden’s] talent dictates that but also we have to get him also moving towards us so we have a flow, a combination of both,” Coach Kevin McHale said during Tuesday’s practice.
Those words should sound an alarm bell for Lin.
What transformed Jeremy Lin from a hesitant benchwarmer into an inspiring playmaker was leadership responsibility. It was when the Knicks ran out of guards to run Mike D’Antoni’s pick-and-roll offense in early February and had to put the ball in Lin’s hands for every play that he rediscovered his major talent — court generalship. It was a talent he had developed at Palo Alto High, Harvard and the Warriors’ D-League affiliate Reno Bighorns.
Lin has other strong skills — dribble penetration, pickpocketing balls, deceptive speed, three-point shooting — but it’s his ability instantly to size up the tactical landscape with his peripheral vision and initiate the most effective penetration play that has truly distinguished Lin and given birth to Linsanity. That ability isn’t always captured by the box scores but it ultimately shows up in the team’s win-loss record.
Put Lin in charge and the team will get more than its fair share of wins. In games in which Lin was calling the shots, the Rockets have compiled an impressive 7-2 record so far this year — and that’s including the last one in which the ball was taken out of his hands in the crucial final minutes. That’s because by instinct and experience Jeremy Lin is wired to pull out wins. That’s why he’s such an exciting player to watch during the final half-dozen minutes of every game.
But once Lin feels that the burden of winning the game has shifted elsewhere, he loses confidence and turns into a merely competent player. That’s when a team’s ability to win close games suffers. When the Knicks tried to work ballhog Carmelo Anthony back in as the team’s centerpiece Lin — and the team — faltered, leading to the departures of D’Antoni’s and, ultimately, Lin.
The Rockets got a preview of the outcome of any such ill-advised move last Saturday against the Portland Trailblazers. After a fatigued Harden lost his scoring touch in an ugly defensive game, Jeremy Lin hustled with brilliant passes and clutch baskets to keep the Rockets in contention through the last minutes of regular time. Then in overtime McHale ordered the ball to pass through Harden’s hands. A fiasco resulted.
James Harden is an excellent player who, for the past three years, had been underutilized on a Thunder team overloaded with talent. All that suppressed talent came exploding out of the starting gate in his first games with the Rockets. Lin the general fully exploited Harden’s furious burst of energy. If McHale mistakes what he saw in those games for a sign that Harden is more of a playmaker than Lin, he is dooming the Rockets to another season of wandering the desert in search of a prophet.