Where, oh where has Linsanity gone?
It seems like only yesterday that Jeremy Lin was setting the NBA ablaze as a scoring-and-dishing sensation with the New York Knicks. Then came an untimely knee injury and an acrimonious offseason during which Lin's own teammates wondered aloud whether he deserved the big payday that was headed his way.
Now, Lin is with the Houston Rockets, free of the media circus that regularly swarmed him in Manhattan. And, it seems, free of the awe-inspiring play that earned him that three-year, $25.1 million contract to begin with.
The 2012-13 season has been a struggle for Lin, to say the least. He's averaging as many points as field-goal attempts (9.9), and his shooting has been abysmal, both from the field in general (38.1 percent) and from beyond the arc (26.5 percent). He's done well at the free-throw line (80 percent), though he's only getting there 2.1 times per game as opposed to the 5.2 trips he racked up in New York from night to night.
All told, Lin has been less aggressive and less productive offensively since taking his talents to Space City. Furthermore, his lackluster play on the defensive end has left the Rockets coaching staff with little choice but to grant more of his minutes to backup (and one-time Knicks teammate) Toney Douglas. Lin played a season-low 18 minutes, racking up seven points and three assists, during a loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, while Douglas logged 13 points and three assists in 35 minutes of his own.
In all fairness, there are perfectly good explanations for Lin's shortcomings thus far. For one, his struggles in the wee hours of the campaign were likely connected (at least in part) to his slow recovery from spring knee surgery. It's possible that any lingering worry or discomfort from the operation may still be impeding his willingness to penetrate and kick, as he did so well and so frequently with the Knicks.
But the more pressing problems seems to stem from circumstances beyond Lin's immediate control. It's daunting enough that Lin has had to adjust to a new city and a new team, one that was largely in flux to begin with. The absence of head coach Kevin McHale for a chunk of the season (on account of the recent tragedy in his family) likely made focusing on basketball that much more difficult for all involved.
The biggest boondoggle of all for Lin, though, may well be James Harden. On the one hand, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year has made Jeremy's job easier by allowing the point guard to operate even more anonymously. Rather than having to be "The Man" in Houston, Lin can lean on The Beard to carry much of what was once expected to be his burden to bear.
On the other hand, Harden's arrival effectively relegated Lin to a secondary role, one to which he apparently is having no easy time adjusting. Simply put, Lin is the sort of player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective. He's a solid pick-and-roll operator who's quick with the ball and can deliver all manner of fancy-but-effective passes.
Then again, the same could be said of Harden, who's probably a better scorer and facilitator than Lin will ever be. More time sharing the backcourt with Harden means less time with the ball for Lin, which, in turn, means more detachment and less productivity for the Taiwanese-American sensation.
To his credit, Lin has worked diligently to make himself a more effective option off the ball. Lin has never been a sharpshooter and likely never will be, but he has been putting in the sweat equity to improve that aspect of his game (per Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated):
Jeremy Lin told me he's been working with his shooting coach, Doc Shepler, on reducing arc on his shot (usually it's the opposite)— Chris Ballard (@SI_ChrisBallard) November 29, 2012
Jeremy could also use a boost to his on-ball skills. He still favors his right hand far too often, which renders most of his moves rather predictable and, thus, easy to defend. A stronger left hand would certainly do Lin some good in that department, if only to make him a more difficult cover.
It's still somewhat unrealistic to expect Lin (or any player, really) to mend such massive flaws midseason. The constant grind of an 82-game schedule doesn't leave players with much time or energy with which to ply their trade and strengthen their various weaknesses.
And, frankly, even if Lin were to magically take on Kevin Durant's shooting touch and Kobe Bryant's left hand, he'd still be faced with the same problem—playing next to a ball-dominating star. According to NBA.com, Lin's per-36-minute averages in field-goal attempts, free-throw attempts assists and rebounds all jump considerably when Harden is riding the pine, albeit in a small sample size (57 minutes).
Not that this should come as any big surprise. Without Harden, Lin is free (more or less) to handle the rock and orchestrate the Rockets offense himself. Such disparities fall in line with those seen between Lin and Carmelo Anthony with the Knicks last season. Per NBA.com, Jeremy was a much better shooter, scorer and distributor when he and 'Melo weren't on the floor at the same time.
The difference, other than the shooting percentages (Lin's plummets sans Harden), is in the circumstances. Lin didn't have to worry about ceding control of the offense in New York for weeks at a time on account of Anthony's injuries in 2011-12. Unless Harden suffers some unforeseen malady, Lin is unlikely to be the primary ball-handler in Houston.
As a starter, anyway.
Which brings us to a potential ploy to bring back Linsanity: Bring Jeremy off the bench. The idea wouldn't likely sit well with some folks in the Rockets organization, including general manager Daryl Morey, who went out of his way to rectify the mistake of cutting Lin loose last season prior to Jeremy's breakout in the Big Apple.
But, as one Western Conference scout recently noted to ESPN's Marc Stein:
"He's kind of settling into what he really is. On an average team, he can be a starter. On a good team, he's going to have to be a backup."
To be sure, Houston is an average team at present—9-10, to be exact. In that respect, he can start for the Rockets.
Such a role might not be in Lin's own best interest, though. As a starter, he has little choice but to cede control to a budding superstar in Harden.
But as a reserve, Lin can command the ball while operating against less imposing opponents. Yet according to NBA.com's stats tool, the Rockets have yet to employ Lin in any single non-Harden for more than seven minutes.
Which is to say, Houston hasn't done its due diligence in trying to maximize its investment in Linsanity thus far. Whether it's a matter of confidence, fit, skill set or something else, it's clear that the status quo isn't working out as well as either party had hoped.
A tweak to the formula, then, might just do the trick. Bringing Lin off the bench as a dynamic sixth man could allow him the play with the same free-wheeling energy and flair that made him a fan favorite (if a short-lived one) at Madison Square Garden once upon a time.
At the very least, such a move should light a fire under the 24-year-old flash in the pan of a phenom and perhaps spark a return to the Linsanity of yesteryear.