Jeremy Lin’s move to the Rockets’ bench makes all kinds of basketball sense
Rockets coach Kevin McHale is set to make a simple basketball decision — the choice to start one deserving player over another — that will undoubtedly reverberate across the NBA world. Such is Jeremy Lin’s hold; no event in his basketball career can be read as simple, not after the theatrics of Linsanity or the dramatic turn of his first year as a starter in Houston. Every development must be painted as either a great obstacle or an even greater redemption, if only because Lin’s career is seemingly inextricable from his narrative.
But I’d wager that Lin’s story could not be further from McHale’s mind as he decided which point guard provides the best fit for his starting lineup. Note the past tense, as according to Rockets forward Chandler Parsons by way of Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, that determination has already been made:
After coach Kevin McHale said he wouldn’t reveal his starting lineup until 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, Chandler Parsons let the cat out of the bag at Tuesday’s practice.
“Did he not tell you guys who is starting? I don’t know why it is a big surprise. It is the same as how preseason ended,” Parsons said.
If that’s the case, the Rockets’ opening-night starting five against Charlotte will be Omer Asik, Dwight Howard, Chandler Parsons, James Harden and Pat Beverley.
This, more than anything, is a matter of fit. Beverley is the right player for this role, for reasons that have nothing to do with whether he’s generally a better player than Lin. The starting five is a lineup like any other — one that requires a balance of skills and space in order to be effective. Given that McHale opted to include both Howard and Asik in that mix, Beverley — a more accurate three-point shooter than Lin — is the more fitting complement. Houston will need all three of its perimeter players to pull at defenses in order to clear space for Howard and Asik to both contribute consistently on offense, and Lin simply doesn’t pose the kind of shooting threat that would keep defenders honest. That’s an issue that can be overcome in spots, but it makes little sense for the Rockets to begin games at a spacing disadvantage merely for the sake of Lin’s name and reputation.
Beyond that, it makes all the sense in the world to pair Beverley with Harden in the backcourt. Beverley can lock in defensively in a way that Harden hasn’t expressed much interest in doing. Harden saved his energy while on defense last season, to put it kindly, but Beverley lives to bump and dog ball handlers no matter their distance from the hoop. He’s a first-line obstruction on a team that doesn’t have any other high-level perimeter defenders, which is important in making Houston’s starting lineup as sound defensively as possible and in more quickly establishing functional defensive chemistry.
If Houston is to contend for anything of import this season, the primaries involved need to have faith in their rotations and execute them. The perimeter players need to trust that the big men will be in position to cover for penetration, while the bigs need to be able to trust their perimeter counterparts to keep their marks in front of them. Lin, for all of his best efforts, struggles in that regard. He has quick hands but lacks the lateral mobility that makes Beverley such an irritant. As a result of his slow feet, Lin surrenders blow-bys that make things more difficult for his teammates — a gap in coverage that shouldn’t be discounted for a team looking to set an early defensive standard. The Rockets will have a prime opportunity in their opener against the Bobcats, followed by early tests against the potent offenses of the Clippers and Mavericks. It’s a long season, but the requisite chemistry has to start somewhere.
Lost in all of this, too, is that the move could well benefit Lin. He and Beverley will still share minutes at the point while also logging minutes together, leaving Lin plenty of playing time and debunking the claims of demotion. Lin, for his part, seems to grasp this. From Jenny Dial Creech of the Houston Chronicle:
“Obviously, I would love to start,” Lin said. “I think every player would love to start but I think given our current situation, being able to being an offensive spark off the bench, being able to be a primary ball handler in that second group are big things too. Coach and I and Pat have all talked. At the end of the day, we are all trying to do what’s right for the team. Egos aside, we are just trying to go out there and play. Who starts isn’t important.”
All that changes is who Lin plays with and against — two factors that could work very much to his advantage. Shifting to match up against reserves should help mitigate some of what Lin does poorly on both ends of the court. His margin for error will be widened against less intimidating defenders and less explosive scorers.
He’s also right to note that the move brings him a freedom that he wouldn’t have otherwise. As a starter, Lin is a lesser Harden — a ball handler who can create off the dribble, albeit to less efficient ends than his superstar teammate. He’d also be deferring to the post-up creation of Howard, who will undoubtedly assume a healthy share of touches and shots within Houston’s offense. The ball would largely be out of Lin’s hands, and the dynamic out of his favor. Lin’s primary value lies in his ability to generate offense, and unlike Harden, he doesn’t have the off-ball skills — the spot-up shooting and cutting, namely — to make the most of a starting spot.
It’s for that very reason that the Rockets experimented with toggling Lin and Harden as solo creators last season, each given room to operate without the other on the floor. When granted that independence, Lin shot a much better percentage from the field (48.1 compared to 43.3 with Harden on the floor), got to the free-throw line more often (5.3 attempts per 36 minutes, up from 3.5), racked up more assists (8.8 per 36 as opposed to 6.4) and scored more overall (18.4 points per 36 compared to just 14.3). Houston’s point differential was slightly better with Lin on his own rather than in tandem with Harden, which speaks to a redundancy in their games that could make this arrangement mutually beneficial.
Both will still play together plenty, and Houston will be fine for those stretches. Lin will play consistently with Howard, too, and they’ll likely thrive as a pick-and-roll pairing. This change is just too sensible to be declined for the way it maximizes the Rockets’ resources, no matter the hysteria that tends to spiral around Lin. This move will not bring about the world’s end. Lin is not being targeted or punished. This is merely a coach making a basketball decision based on basketball logic, and the correct one at that.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.