In the past few weeks, people have begun to notice that James Harden and Jeremy Lin have not exactly developed good chemistry on the floor together, and many are calling for Lin to move to a sixth man role off the bench. Is this talk premature or do the Rockets have a real problem on their hands? Let's take a look.
Tom Haberstroh of ESPN In$ider was perhaps the most prominent writer noticing this trend, writing that Lin's numbers without Harden on the floor closely resembled the figures from Linsanity
Lin has played about 85 percent of his minutes next to Harden, so it's clear that the Rockets are desperately trying to let this duo figure things out on the court. In Sunday's embarrassing loss to arguably the NBA's worst team (right, Bargs?), Lin played all 33 of his minutes next to Harden, and the Rockets were minus-7 with the tandem on the court, which coincidentally turned out to be the final deficit.
This insistence to play them together is a problem once you take a whiff of Lin's putrid numbers while playing next to the Beard. On a per-36-minute basis, Lin has averaged 10.7 points, 6.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds with a ghastly 46.5 true shooting percentage (TS%) to go along with a 12.1 player efficiency rating, according to the NBA.com's StatsCube tool. You know who else has a 46.5 percent TS%? B.J. Mullens.
But look what happens to Lin's numbers in the 106 minutes he has played when Harden hits the bench: 19.7 points, 7.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds with an above-average 55.4 TS% and a 17.7 PER.
That's pretty darn good. If those numbers look familiar, there's a reason for it. Check out Lin's per-36 minute stat line in New York last season: 19.6 points, 8.3 assists and 4.1 rebounds. 55.2 TS% and a 19.9 PER.
That's pretty damning stuff, however a closer look reveals there is even more to the issue. Not only has Lin fared better without Harden on the floor, Harden's play sees a similar uptick with Lin on the bench.
From NBA Stats Cube (click image for bigger version):
With Lin on the bench, Harden is playing absolutely spectacular basketball, scoring more efficiently from the field and behind the arc despite a significantly higher usage rate. Additionally, he's getting to the line at a much higher rate, and scoring 5.5 more points per 36 minutes while taking fewer shots from the field.
On its face, there doesn't seem to be much of an argument against moving Lin to the bench in order to stagger the two's minutes. Both have played significantly better without the other on the floor, and Toney Douglas appears to be a better fit alongside the ball-dominant Harden.
However, there are a few problems with that somewhat simplistic analysis, the first being an issue of sample size. Lin has played just 106 minutes without Harden, less than three games worth of data. For example, in 112 minutes, Chris Copeland has averaged 28.5 points, and 4.5 rebounds per 36 minutes on 53% shooting and 46% from three point range, but I don't think anybody is labeling him the next star.
In this case, it's not clear whether we have enough data to make a judgment. Just as nobody would declare that James Harden was going to average 41 and 7 after the first two games of the season, it's unreasonable to assume such a huge discrepancy will persist between Lin and Harden's on-court/off-court figures.
Add in the fact that the two are being thrust into brand new roles with a new team, no training camp, and a coach that has been forced to come and go, and it's perfectly reasonable to see why the two have struggled together. Even Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, two of the three best wings in the NBA at the time, took almost a full year before they learned to play together effectively. The fact is that playing two ball-dominant players together is a difficult transition to make, but the potential benefit is huge.
This Rockets squad is the youngest team in the league, and right now, it can afford to wait on Harden and Lin to get it together. Lin was not signed to be an instant savior; the Rockets saw a player with well less than a full season of experience worth a long term investment. There may be some growing pains, but this team's future would be better served allowing the two to work it out instead of just throwing in the towel and handing Toney Douglas a starting spot (ask the Knicks how well that worked out).
If the Rockets want to win a championship with a roster resembling this one (albeit with some significant additions), their highest ceiling backcourt is one with Harden and Lin in it. As we saw last night as the duo worked in harmony against the Knicks, Harden and Lin can be a tremendous mismatch if they play off each other instead of ball-watching. With time, it's reasonable to assume that the two will continue to have more games like that and fewer like the egg they laid in Toronto. At the very least, they deserve more than 24 games to figure it out.