There is something sinister about the aftermath of being an overnight sensation. When the novelty has worn off and the warts—always apparent but oft-ignored as our hero reaches the zeitgeist of national phenomenon—become unsightly and confounding, like a once-endearing personality trait of an ex-spouse that proved to be the final straw.
Many are at that point and have been for a while with Jeremy Lin, the Houston Rockets point guard forever cursed with living up to the month-long shadow he placed on himself in New York two years ago. With his minutes and responsibilities increasing in Houston's first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, Lin has managed just 9.5 points and 4.5 assists on 37.5 percent shooting.
In a must-win Game 2 on Wednesday night, Lin made just 1-of-5 baskets and had nearly as many fouls (four) as points. The Rockets lost 112-105, putting them down 2-0 going back to Portland. Houston's bench, a shaky unit buoyed at times during the regular-season Lin's shot creation, managed 11 total points. The Blazers, the NBA's lowest-scoring bench, nearly tripled that total.
The series has been full of frustrations for Lin, both major and minor. In Game 1, it was what Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry called the "least accurate 8-foot field goal attempt in NBA history." In Game 2, it was the head-scratching decision to intentionally foul Damian Lillard with 28 seconds remaining despite a James Harden three making it a one-possession game—a move that drew the ire of teammates on the floor and off.
The Rockets are scoring five points fewer per 100 possessions with Lin on the floor during this series. Their effective field-goal percentage drops by more than 10 percent. Considering the one place on the floor most consider Lin a boost is on the offensive side—the Rockets are hemorrhaging points defensively, regardless of who is on the floor—it's safe to say these have not been an ideal 96 minutes of basketball for Lin.
If this refrain sounds familiar, it should. These were the same concerns and criticisms lobbed at Lin last postseason, when Houston was so appreciably better with him off the floor that he lost his starting job to Patrick Beverley. Lin, dealing with injury issues throughout, made a quarter of his shots and flailed about on both ends of the floor in Houston's six-game loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
There are wholly legitimate reasons for Lin's struggles in Game 2 this time around as well. He missed practice Tuesday with flu-like symptoms and was limited to just 25 minutes of action. Coach Kevin McHale did not indicate after the game whether Lin's nine fewer minutes of action were sickness or performance-related, but it's a chicken-egg scenario that in the end matters very little.
Barring a historic comeback, the Rockets are playing on borrowed time. Bulls radio announcer Jeff Mangurten pointed out on Twitter that just three teams in NBA history have lost Games 1 and 2 at home and still gone on to win a playoff series.
For the Rockets, this represents nothing short of an unmitigated failure. If you listen closely, you can still hear the echoes of Lakers fans, in their full Drunk Uncle glory, gleefully expressing their schadenfreude deep into the Los Angeles night. Dwight Howard's arrival was supposedly a ticket to instant contention, and at certain points during the regular season the Rockets looked like legitimate threats to represent the West.
And yet here they are, about to get eliminated by the comparatively darling Blazers, the Harden-Howard detractors doing backflips in glee. This was never meant to be the finalized version of Houston's core, but rest assured Daryl Morey's remaining patience has evaporated.
Terry Stotts has thoroughly out-coached McHale, whose decisions have been nearly as exasperating as his team's shot selection. Morey could decide a three-year sample is enough to confirm McHale isn't as a coach what he was as a player: a fierce, championship-winning leader.
The Rockets hope the more notable changes will come via personnel. Houston is widely expected to be among the most aggressive teams in bidding for Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony. Morey would give the same elevator pitch he gave to Howard one year ago. Leave the falling-apart shambles of the NBA's yesteryear and come build a dynasty in Houston, where the lights aren't as bright but the talent shines over your current situation.
Howard gave up $30 million to play with Harden and compete for titles (and to play basketball anywhere but near Kobe Bryant). Anthony would have to do the same, as he would with the Bulls, Clippers or any non-Knicks suitor.
"If he goes to Houston, they're gonna win everything," Hall of Fame guard Oscar Robertson said on SiriusXM NBA radio Thursday (via Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork.com).
It all sounds wonderful in theory—except the giving up $30 mil; that sucks—but problem thy name is cap space. The Rockets currently have just under $63 million in cap obligations for next season, not counting some negligible cap holds. The NBA's most recent projection puts the 2014-15 cap at $63.2 million, putting them right on the borderline. Houston would, essentially, have to shave Anthony's entire salary (roughly $22.4 million for a max deal) off its books.
We're not breaking any news here to tell you where that starts. Long before the arrivals of both Harden and Howard, Lin and Omer Asik signed matching three-year, $25.1 million offer sheets with Houston. At the time, both contracts looked like borderline insane but dastardly moves on the part of Morey. Neither the Knicks nor Chicago Bulls were ready to take the luxury tax hits necessary to match the offers, and both players have generally proven themselves to be not egregiously overpaid.
The problem is that they are redundant. Ball dominance is Harden's thing. Protecting the rim is Howard's. Harden and Howard do their respective tasks better than the aforementioned pair, so it's only natural that on-court chemistry is out of whack. Morey unsuccessfully tried to trade a pouting Asik numerous times this season, while Lin has been on the discount rack for forever and a day.
With cap holds totaling about $16.7 million for next season, any straight-up signing of Anthony will be predated by the departures of Lin and Asik.
There is some recent precedent for this type of trade. The Warriors were able to sign Andre Iguodala last summer after agreeing to send multiple draft picks Utah's way in exchange for taking Andris Biedrins and Richard Jefferson off their hands. Lin and Asik are actual, functional basketball players. Finding a similar trade or two separate deals should be relatively easy, yes?
Not so much.
Because Lin and Asik will not cost in real-life dollars what they do on the NBA's cap structure. The poison-pill nature of their contracts calls for a $15 million balloon salary for 2014-15. While Houston's salary structure allowed the cap hit to be doled out over the life of the deal, language on the cash exchanged could not be altered.
Persuading your owner to take on $8.37 million of Jeremy Lin for a first-round pick is one thing. Expecting him to cut him real checks for almost double that? We're looking at a far more difficult situation than the one that faced Golden State a year ago.
Opposing teams also have little reason to play nice with Morey. An Anthony signing would give Houston a Big Four (including Chandler Parsons) that immediately makes it an NBA championship favorite. Coupled with the sour taste those deals left in the mouths of league executives when they were signed, the line of GMs willing to allow Morey out of the expensive year for Lin and Asik is very, very small.
Which is what makes Lin's struggles all the more disconcerting in a macro sense. Asik is a flawed player in his own right; his fundamental inability to catch a basketball is baffling. But he's a big body and one of the league's best rim protectors. If Morey backs off on demanding any tangible return for Asik, he'll find a team willing to pay for his services.
Lin's situation is murkier. He's an all-around solid player who at times showed flashes of consistency with his jumper, but he is still a flat defensive minus who gambles for steals too often and disrupts Houston's team concept (when it can commit to one). His regular-season shooting percentage almost mirrors exactly his career rate, though his true-shooting percentage was a career high.
Two full seasons in, teams have a good grasp of Lin's ceiling. If he's your third guard leading scoring-needy bench units, you're in a good position.
But at $15 million for next season, he's an albatross on the Rockets' future growing bigger with every clank off the rim.
All stats via NBA.com unless otherwise cited.
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