When Daryl Morey and the Rockets inked Lin to a three-year, $25.1 million contract this past offseason, he was never going to be a savior. He was supposed to man the starting point guard position, continue to evolve as a playmaker, shooter and defender, and, yeah, he was supposed to make the organization some serious cash.
Then in came James Harden, and everything changed. He was to be the anchor of a franchise that most knew Lin couldn't be. Where Lin could have been construed as a promising stop gap, Harden was the real deal.
A genuine superstar in tow, Lin became a complementary piece. Together, he and Harden had the potential to form one of the most dangerous backcourts in the league. But it hasn't worked out like that.
Lin averaged 13.4 points and 6.1 assists on 44.1 percent shooting during the regular season. Atrocious? No. Star-esque? Also no.
Although there is a case to be made that Lin didn't deserve his pricey pact, his is far from the worst in the league. This side of the lockout, it's important to remember that. Annual salaries play a crucial part in any and all trade negotiations. Teams have to be willing to pay what the player is owed.
Which should make Lin immovable, right? James Dolan prints money, yet the New York Knicks distanced themselves from his contract. What other team, in their right minds, would take on what's left?
Those are fair questions. Lin's original contract offer paid him roughly $5 million a year for the first two seasons of his contract before ballooning to nearly $15 million in the final stage of the deal. Not many factions—the Knicks included—would jump at the opportunity to line Lin's pockets with that kind of cash.
That said, Lin's contract was especially exorbitant for the Knicks because they already had $76.6 million committed in payroll leading into the 2014-15 season. Luxury tax penalties would have driven Lin's price tag upwards of $43 million in the final year of his deal alone for New York. Any interested teams below the salary cap wouldn't come close to paying that much.
Strike that, no team that acquired Lin from the Rockets would have to pay that much. Lin wouldn't even account for the $14.9 million he's "technically" owed.
Per Larry Coon of ESPN.com's NBA Salary Cap FAQ, only Lin's incumbent team at the time (the Knicks) would have to structure the contract exactly like the offer. Others are able to spread the $25.1 million out evenly over three years:
Putting this all together, if a team that is $9 million under the cap in 2011-12 wants to submit a four-year offer sheet, and wants to provide a large raise in the third season, they can offer a total of $36 million over four years. The first-year salary is limited to the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception, or $5 million. The second-year salary will be $5.225 million (4.5% raise). This leaves $25.775 million to be distributed over the final two seasons of the contract, with a 4.1% raise from year three to year four.
For the team making this offer, this contract would count for $9.0 million (i.e., the average salary in the contract) of team salary in each of the four seasons if they sign the player. If the player's prior team matches the offer and keeps the player, then the actual salary in each season counts as team salary. The player's original team is allowed to use any available exception (e.g., the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level or the Early Bird) to match the offer.
Lin's cap hit accounts for approximately $8.4 million annually, which is digestible by NBA standards, even in the midst of a harsher CBA.
So, it's not about "can" the Rockets move Lin, it's about "will" they want to move him, to which I ask: Why not?
Not only is Houston's offense nearly two points better per 100 possessions with Lin off the floor, but his usage rate ranks 23rd among all 30 current starting point guards (20.8 percent). Harden's, by comparison, stands at 29 percent, seventh amongst all guards in the league, and the equivalent of fourth amongst point guards.
I feel confident pitting Harden against the rest of the NBA's starting point guards because he's dishing out 5.8 assists per game, just a hair beneath Lin's 6.1. He has the ball in his hands a majority of the time anyway, and he's a capable playmaker who is already tasked with facilitating the offense just as much as Lin.
Which, even I will admit, isn't enough. There has to be some dichotomy in the positional food chain. You want to have a clear-cut point guard in the starting lineup. The last thing the Rockets should want is to have Harden assume a Russell Westbrook-type role without the luxury of another proven scorer like Kevin Durant to defer to.
As good as Harden is with the rock in his hands, you also don't want him to be burdened with creating his own offense all the time. He's a ball-dominator, but offensive attacks must have some variety. Do you think Westbrook would be as effective if he didn't have Durant? Of course not.
So, the Rockets need a point guard not named Harden. That he is capable of running the offense for long stretches at a time should be a luxury, not a necessity. Which, in turn, makes Lin the necessity, right?
Houston needs a point guard, but it needs one who can effectively complement Harden. Thus far, Lin hasn't.
Per NBA.com (subscription required), Harden is averaging 7.5 points more when Lin is off the floor. To some extent, this is to be expected. Without one vital component on the hardwood, another will have to step up. Harden's field-goal clip drops by 2.2 percentage points overall when Lin is on the floor, though, and by 5.5 points from deep. And when on the floor together, Harden is a minus-2.3 per 48 minutes compared to the plus-5.7 he is without him.
That's not indicative of a coupling that is working. Not like it should. And while I'd normally suggest moving Lin to the bench in hopes of staggering the duo's minutes, it's tough to separate Lin from a Harden who averages more than 38 minutes per game. It's also difficult to want to when Lin has proved to be a liability on the defensive end.
No matter where Lin is situated in a rotation, be it as a starter or reserve, he needs to be somewhere where his defensive deficiencies can be covered up. Houston can't do that 100 percent of the time, or even at all.
Lin allowed 107 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end during the regular season. Alongside a player like Harden who relinquished 106, that's a problem. And on a Rockets convocation that finished in the bottom half of the Association in defensive efficiency (106.1), it's an even greater quandary.
Even if we were to assume that Houston wasn't troubled by Lin's defensive issues, there's no escaping the fact that he just doesn't complement a ball-dominator like Harden well.
The former isn't effective off the ball, and to play next to Harden you need to be effective off the ball. Think of how Jarret Jack and Stephen Curry fare with the Golden State Warriors. Both prefer to operate with the ball in their hands, but can also be used as spot-up shooters and general floor spacers. Lin can't.
Harden's sidekick is knocking down just 33.9 percent of his deep balls on the year, mitigating any effectiveness behind Harden's drive-and-kicks. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Lin is also converting on just 39.3 percent of his spot-up attempts, a regrettable number for someone who spends so much time (you guessed it) away from the ball.
None of this is to say that the Rockets must aggressively shop Lin, nor is meant to implore them to do so. This was Lin's first full season as a starter and, at just 24, there is the potential for tactical growth, on both ends of the floor.
Imagining a scenario where Houston moves Lin isn't absurd either. Given the ability to ship him off to a team in need of a ball-dominating point guard or approached with the opportunity to use his contract as fodder as part of another deal, it's conceivable that the team would consider it.
His tenure with the Rockets hasn't gone according to plan. He hasn't been the offensive catalyst he was supposed to be, and he and Harden simply aren't the dyad so many had hoped they would develop into.
Abandoning all hope of salvaging Lin's stay isn't necessarily an urgent form of discourse, but it shouldn't be out of the question either.
Loaded with cap space and a young superstar in Harden, the Rockets have options. They could pursue a big man in free agency or a point guard that meets more of their needs. Or both. They could also retain Lin in any scenario. Or not.
This is where the Rockets are at right now. Few players aside from Harden must be considered untouchable.
Lin isn't one of them.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports, 82games.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.
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