How Jeremy Lin and James Harden Can Improve Their On-Court Chemistry for Rockets

Josh MartinNBA Lead WriterDecember 17, 2012

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 23:  James Harden #13 and Jeremy Lin #7 of the Houston Rockets wait for a play against the New York Knicks at the Toyota Center on November 23, 2012 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, bagainst the Newy downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets' first and only trip of the season to Madison Square Garden to play the red-hot New York Knicks has shone an all-too-revealing spotlight on Jeremy Lin.

And not just because he no longer plays regularly in the Big Apple.

Lin's productivity has suffered thus far through the 2012-13 NBA season. He's doing a solid job of dropping dimes (6.0 assists) and cutting down his turnovers (to 2.7, down from 3.6), but his shooting (39.5 percent from the field) and scoring (10.8 points) are both down.

And while there are a number of potential factors at play—a slow recovery from knee surgery, an uneasy adjustment to a new team in a new city, the unfamiliar pressure of living up to a $25.1 million contract, the recent absence of head coach Kevin McHale, the turnover across the roster—there seems to be one in particular that sticks out from the others: James Harden.

You mean, the budding All-Star and reigning Sixth Man of the Year? The one who's fifth in the NBA in scoring? The one whose acquisition was hailed as a coup for Rockets general manager Daryl Morey? The one with the funky beard who's become a fan favorite the basketball world over?

Yes. That James Harden.

The Rockets have yet to find a satisfactory balance in their own backcourt between Lin and Harden. Both of their principals are pick-and-roll guards who are at their best with the ball in their respective hands. Both are also more comfortable running the show than they are working off the ball.

Not surprisingly, then, each posts far better numbers when the other is riding the pine, per It would seem that there simply isn't enough orange to go around when Harden and Lin are on the court together.

This is nothing new for either youngster. Harden had the requisite talent (and then some) to start for the Oklahoma City Thunder prior to the shocking October trade. But he was etched into a reserve role because his skills overlapped with those of All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and because he was so effective in leading the second unit without them.

Lin, meanwhile, was sensational with the Knicks under Mike D'Antoni, especially when Carmelo Anthony and, to a lesser extent, Amar'e Stoudemire were out.

Which is a nice way of saying that Lin and 'Melo didn't exactly coexist on the court all that well. Per, their statistical relationship was not unlike the one that Lin currently shares with Harden. Each fared far better when the other wasn't present. Each also played in a manner best suited to on-ball dominance.

At this point in his career, Lin is all but useless without the rock in his hands. According to Synergy Sports (via ESPN's Tom Haberstroh), Lin ranks 79th in efficiency out of 121 players with at least 50 catch-and-shoot attempts.

Lin doesn't necessarily deserve to handle the ball when Harden's on the floor, though. The Beard is clearly the more gifted player of the two in nearly every way. And while he's also the superior shooter and spot-up player, his prodigious talents are similarly left to rot on the vine if he's to simply stand behind the three-point line.

The obvious solution for the Rockets, then, would be to stagger the minutes allotted to Harden and Lin. They've spent 640 minutes together so far this season, which accounts for just under 75 percent of James' playing time and nearly 85 percent of Jeremy's.

The best way to do this? Bring one of them off the bench. Harden is accustomed to the role, but he is far and away Houston's best (and most important) player. As such, his spot in the starting lineup is practically guaranteed, health permitting.

Lin has yet to see significant time as a reserve, but there's plenty of reason to believe it might work. Aside from the most apparent advantages—all of which relate to his not having to share the ball with a star swingman—one can trace the origin of Linsanity to a stint off the bench. Jeremy had his breakout game as a substitute against the then-New Jersey Nets on February 4th, when he exploded for 25 points, seven assists and five rebounds in almost 36 minutes.

Not that a reserve role would necessarily be ideal for Lin. However, in theory, it would afford him the modicum of freedom to which he's more accustomed and with which he can enjoy greater success within a team context.

This isn't to say that Lin and Harden can't or shouldn't play at the same time. They've been teammates for all of a quarter of a season so far, with the former signed on for another two after 2012-13 and the latter another five. They'll have every opportunity to develop a rapport with one another, to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses and to improve their own lots along the way.

In the meantime, though, it would behoove Kevin McHale and his staff to give each some space to stretch his legs and strut his stuff without interference. This wouldn't necessarily require that Lin slide down to the sixth man if the Rockets aren't keen to have such a well-paid player in such a role.

Though, as Tom Haberstroh points out, the NBA is replete with bench players—from Kevin Martin and Manu Ginobili to JR Smith and Jamal Crawford—whose salaries are comparable to the $8.3 million Lin is currently earning in Houston.

And when there's little choice but to play Lin and Harden side by side, the Rockets could carve out complementary roles for them. If Lin can't convert his spot-ups, why not have him cut to the basket when Harden is handling? If it's Lin's turn to facilitate, why not free Harden for a spot-up shot with a screen or two or have the two of them pair up for a guard-centric pick-and-roll?

These two are certainly good enough and smart enough (and doggone-it, people like them) to figure out a workable on-court dynamic in due time.

Luckily for James and Jeremy, the Rockets aren't under any temporal pressure to have them do so immediately. The team came into the season with relatively meager expectations, even after snatching Harden from the Thunder. A sneaky playoff berth would certainly put this squad ahead of schedule in its ongoing rebuilding process, while a lottery pick wouldn't be much reason for melancholy.

Either way, the Rockets will be replete with cap space this summer. That—along with the allure of a tax-free, big-city destination and the opportunity to work with two of the NBA's brightest young stars—should be enough to reel in a quality player or two.

If not a marquee name like, say, Dwight Howard or Josh Smith.

For now, the pressure can wait. As tempting as it may be for McHale to relegate Lin to a reserve role, it makes sense that he hasn't, and will if he doesn't. Lin would be better served to have his confidence boosted by his coaches, to have them encourage him to play with Houston's best.

In the bigger picture, Lin and Harden will have to fit together at some point. Might as well have them iron out the wrinkles now while the expectations are modest. If the partnership still doesn't work down the line, then the Rockets can look to make a change, be it in strategy or in personnel.

But first, they'll have to wade through the media circus of Lin's MSG homecoming.