Jeremy Lin appears destined to become the star of one of the NBA’s greatest-ever morality plays.
What this segment of the Lin Saga may lack in magic and razzle-dazzle, it will more than make up with a gutwrenching drama of reversals, recrimination, a happy reunion, redemption and perhaps even a measure of revenge.
By now it has become apparent to most basketball fans that Jeremy Lin will not be much of an asset to the Houston Rockets in its latest incarnation as a James Harden vehicle.
The season had begun promisingly enough in October as a story of the NBA’s youngest team building itself into a giant-killer under Lin’s leadership. After all, before Harden was suddenly injected into the mix on November 1, the Rockets had won four of the five pre-season games in which Lin played, including thumping wins over the Memphis Grizzlies and even an exuberant bench-clearer over the Orlando Magic.
Despite his long shooting slump Lin managed the point effectively enough to bring out the best in unproven talent like Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Kevin Martin and Greg Smith to more than make up for any deficit in his own shooting game. He even helped Harden makes his explosive debut as a starter for two more wins against the Detroit Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks. Lin had again shown himself to be a selfless ball distributor who engages his teammates enough to put forth the defensive effort needed for consistent wins.
That was before the Rockets management made the faithless decision to rebuild the team around Harden despite having lured Lin away from the Knicks with the implicit promise that he would be running a pick-and-roll offense. The results of this breach of faith have been predictable — progressively lower production not only from Lin but also from his teammates, including even Harden. The Rockets are now 9-11 on the season. They have been reduced down to something less than the sum of their components parts.
Some have put the blame on the 13-game absence of head coach Kevin McHale due to the death of his daughter. But McHale’s record before and after the hiatus is 2-5 while that of interim Kelvin Sampson is 7-6.
Some have begun blaming Houston’s quick descent into mediocrity after a promising start on Lin’s failure to live up to his $25.1-million 3-year contract. Few are blaming Harden despite his $80-million, 5-year contract and the fact that most of the losses have come with Lin asked to serve as a role player in the management’s apparent bid to inspire Beardsanity.
Encouraging those who blame Lin is the fact that Lin’s old team, the New York Knicks, have rocketed to a 15-5 start this season under Carmelo Anthony and a supporting cast of grizzled veterans who make it the NBA’s oldest team. Knicks’ owner James Dolan is seen as having been vindicated in his decision to cut Lin loose after his pledge to match any offer. Carmelo Anthony, who called the Rockets’ offer to Lin “ridiculous”, is looking for the moment like a misunderstood prophet who has finally found due recognition.
But the Knicks are building their hopes for a championship run on pure sand. They are the oldest team in NBA history. Jason Kidd, the starting point guard and the presumed wheels of the team, is 39 and currently out with back problems. His stand-in Pablo Prigioni is 35. Power forward Kurt Thomas is 40. Rasheed Wallace is 38. Marcus Camby is 38.
With Amar’e Stoudamire and Iman Schumpert both out with injuries, the Knicks were the league’s biggest turkeys during Thanksgiving weekend.
In what is likely to be a preview of things to come as the season ages the Knicks even more, the young and mobile Rockets scored 131 points against them, setting a record in the 10-year-old Toyota Center. Just two days earlier the Mavericks had thrashed the Knicks for 114 points.
If James Dolan has any sense, he should be dreading the inevitable turn south that his team will be making before long. He may even come to regret his decision to let Lin go for what would have been a bargain compared with the cost to MSG of another losing season — especially with the youthful Nets settling in across the river.
The Los Angeles Lakers know the purgatory of becoming the second-best team in a two-team town. That’s why the new ownership, led by Magic Johnson, is doing everything possible to avoid having the Lakers degenerate into what Dolan & Co have let the Knicks become — a grabbag of creaking knees in search of direction. That’s why it hired Mark D’Antoni, 61, as the new head coach instead of bringing back from retirement Phil Jackson, 67.
There’s another reason D’Antoni was chosen. His name is practically synonymous with the exciting, fast-paced pick-and-roll offense with which he turned Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns into a perennial contender. D’Antoni’s fame as a pick-and-roll guru rose to new heights when he placed Jeremy Lin at the point in February and ignited Linsanity. As practically everyone has conceded, by training, temperament and talent, Lin is ideally suited to play point in D’Antoni’s system.
The Lakers management probably had all that in mind when it signed D’Antoni last month. Having just paid over a billion dollars for a controlling stake in the Lakers, Magic Johnson and his investment group didn’t want merely to cling to the fast-fading glory of the Jackson years — they needed to recreate Linsanity in Los Angeles, the nation’s biggest Asian American market. Only by turning the Lakers into The Team for basketball-crazed Asian Californians — as well as two billion East Asians just across the pond — can it generate the kind of returns that will ensure a huge payday for what some say was a risky bet.
The table has now been set. With Lin being scapegoated and sidelined to an ignominious 18 minutes of play in the latest game against the Mavericks, he’s more than ready to leave Houston. The Rockets management is eager to unburden itself of what it apparently sees as a $25.1-million blunder. Its conservative heart is yearning for a proven big man to complement Harden.
The Lakers are more than willing to let go of injured Pau Gasol. He’s twice as costly as Lin, but the Rockets currently have one of the league’s smallest payrolls, and the management has shown a willingness to pay handsomely for proven talent. The Lakers may even be willing to part with Dwight Howard if that proves necessary to land a young leader who can unite and reignite a team that’s grown fallow in Kobe Bryant’s diminishing shadow.
Lin’s inevitable move to the Lakers — whether it comes sooner or later — will provide not only the happy reunion so badly needed by both D’Antoni and Lin, but redemption for both. If the past is any indication, the reunion will set the stage for the defining ride of their respective careers. The sweetest revenge both can imagine would be to take the team deep into the playoffs, long after the Knicks have faltered and the Rockets have fizzled out.