Should the Rockets trade Jeremy Lin?

Less than six months ago, before he played a single minute, Jeremy Lin was the most popular basketball player Houston had since Yao Ming retired. He was set to be the Rockets “franchise” player—at least for the 2012-13 season—without any real elite skill or All-Star caliber ability.

In this new role, with new responsibilities hanging heavy over his head, Lin would suddenly transform into the nightly focus for opposing defenses, an answer to “who should take the last shot?,” and, most significantly, someone charismatic enough to convince casual fans who can afford it that season tickets might actually be a pretty good idea.

But as Grantland’s Zach Lowe pointed out earlier this week, even before Daryl Morey and Sam Presti blindsided the basketball universe by exchanging some stuff for James Harden and some other stuff, the Rockets didn’t expect to get Lin from the Knicks. They wanted him—and they obviously prepared for what might happen should they get him—but anything other than “delivering an offer sheet will give New York’s front office a major headache!” didn’t qualify as a probable conclusion for Morey or his staff.

Of course the Knicks would match their offer! Right?

A little more than a quarter of the way through this season, after watching Lin struggle and Harden thrive as best he can beside a struggling point guard, we’re now forced to ask ourselves an increasingly pivotal question: is this really Houston’s backcourt of the future?

Being that Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are the only players in the league who’ve scored more points than Harden this season, that question basically translates to “Should the Rockets trade Jeremy Lin?”

I’ve been having somewhat of a battle royal in my brain trying to answer it ever since Bill Simmons and Nate Silver briefly brought it up in their B.S. Report conversation a few weeks ago.

A franchise player is called that because almost every personnel move that’s made by the team’s front office is done with him in mind. How does Random Player A fit in with what Franchise Player B likes to do? In the case of Lin and Harden, why hang onto a guy whose playing style doesn’t appear to mesh with the franchise player? Doesn’t that mean his playing style doesn’t mesh with the franchise?

Lin became trade eligible on December 15th; here are both sides of the argument on whether the Houston Rockets should hold on, or trade him (either before this year’s trade deadline or over the summer).

Keep Him

1) Have some patience, he’ll be fine: Why should the Rockets hold onto Jeremy Lin? The easy answer is they haven’t had him for half a season, and to give up on one of the biggest sensations in basketball history twice in three years could be a serious mistake.

Do we really know that Lin and James Harden will never co-exist as a successful backcourt tandem? How could we? Lin is currently re-structuring his jump shot, much like Tiger Woods did with his golf swing. Who knows if it pays off, but there’s no pressure to rush things in the present; this team isn’t in win-now mode.

Who Jeremy Lin is as a basketball player today won’t be the same as who Jeremy Lin will be two years from now. For a 24-year-old, he’s not a bad scorer in the pick-and-roll, and according to he’s actually more efficient at the rim this season than he was in New York.

Lin’s already doing some pretty helpful stuff, especially when he’s afforded fourth quarter playing time. (This season he’s been on the court for 210 third quarter minutes and 133 fourth quarter minutes.)

In that final period Lin usually focuses on nothing but getting to the basket, drawing 29.5% of Houston’s fourth quarter fouls and making just under 33% of their free-throws.

Not to mention he’s established himself as one of the better on-ball defensive point guards in the league. He has length, quick hands, and slides laterally as good as anyone. According to Synergy, Lin is a top-20 isolation defender, allowing 0.62 points per possession (on 8-23 shooting).

Lin can score a lot of points against really good NBA defenses (see his performance against the Spurs last week, or how he did against a prepared Lakers team last season). Is he perfect? No. But he’s proven he can be a difference maker at this level.

2) Value: Lin’s trade value is at the lowest its been since Linsanity hit, so dealing him now wouldn’t be ideal. So far he’s shooting 30% from 10-15 feet and 25% from 16-23 feet, per Hoopdata, but those numbers should get a little better. For this reason, keeping him now makes the most sense.

But also, what’s Lin’s market? He’s an international superstar for reasons that have less to do with extraordinary play than the magic carpet he rode through Manhattan last year. Based on who he is on the court, should that really cost $8.3 million over the next two years?

The price tag is too expensive to place Lin on the bench (where he might belong) as a change of pace firecracker. And the list of teams that don’t already have a point guard who’s established or still developing is very small. Now might not be the best time to dangle Jeremy Lin in the face of opposing organizations.

Trade Him

Jeremy Lin’s game is filled with tons of positives, but at times it feels like the glaring negatives carry more weight. His PER (down from 19.9 with the Knicks to 13.6 this year), usage percentage, and points/assists/free-throw attempts per 36 minutes are all dramatically lower than last season; he isn’t doing what’s expected when the ball is in his hands.

Using Synergy, I recently re-watched every Rockets possession that ends with Lin in isolation. He drove left one time out of 19, making three baskets while committing a turnover approximately a third of the time. If unable to force anything to the right, he settles for a pull up jumper.

1) No chemistry/on-court fit with James Harden: Compatibility must be accounted for when making any trade that isn’t completely done for financial reasons. Right now, Lin’s game isn’t accentuated beside his team’s best player (and vice versa).

When he and Harden share the floor, Lin scores 10.9 points per 36 minutes, shooting 27% from behind the three-point line and attempting 2.2 free-throws. When he’s alone running amok, Lin’s scoring 19.7 points per 36 minutes, 56% on three-pointers

Harden’s scoring goes up 5.3 points per 36 minutes when Lin is on the bench. He also rebounds the ball better and attempts five more free-throws.

Let’s compare this situation to last year’s in New York, replacing Harden with Carmelo Anthony. Lin averaged 22.4 points per 36 minutes when Anthony sat, and 17.2 when he played. His field goal percentage went from 49% to 40%.

When Harden and Lin share the court, the Rockets score 101.7 points per 100 possessions.

When Harden is on the court with Carlos Delfino, a legitimate three-point threat, the Rockets score 108.5 points per 100 possessions. When Harden is on the court with Toney Douglas (shooting 43.3% from deep this season), the Rockets score 105.5 points per 100 possessions.

Obviously, Harden’s spent much more time with Lin than Delfino or Douglas, but the sample size is large enough to draw a fairly accurate conclusion.

Look how open Lin is on this pick-and-roll sequence initiated by Harden. Kyle Lowry sags down all the way to the free-throw to help on a drive that Jonas Valanciunas appears already in position to stifle.

Harden kicks it out to Lin on the perimeter, who catches it with his man still in the paint.

Here’s the play:

He makes this shot, but that’s not the point. This play shows how little respect Lin’s shot has throughout the league right now. He’s shooting 31% on three-pointers (32% last year) and 39.7% overall from the floor. An ideal point guard for a slasher like Harden is one who can shoot, or at least create the illusion that he can shoot, to help stretch the floor.

Lin doesn’t do that, creating perhaps the most significant bullet point in any argument attempting to rationalize why he should be traded.

2) Explore the market and maybe you get lucky: As Lowe already pointed out, the chances of Houston trading Lin before this season’s deadline are small to teensy-weensy. But if the team shows no improvement during the regular season (and they don’t make the playoffs) believe that Morey will be on the phone looking for a deal this summer.

Apart from the sleeping giant marketing bonanza Lin can potentially create, what might interest other teams is the three-years on his deal, as opposed to the four-years (and another two years) that Ty Lawson or Stephen Curry (playing extremely well now, but living one second away from another ankle injury) recently signed to.

Of the two, a deal for Lawson would be slightly more probable, but even though both are incredibly convenient long term fits beside Harden, striking a deal centered around Jeremy Lin would require intricate diligence. It’s nearly impossible.

Here’s something they COULD do right now: Package Lin to the Lakers with Carlos Delfino, Daequan Cook, and Patrick Patterson, then make a run at a point guard like Chris Paul (not likely), Jeff Teague or Brandon Jennings in free agency.

They’d have Toney Douglas and Scott Machado running point for the rest of the year but with Gasol you’d have to think at least an 8th seed playoff spot would be a near lock. (The Rockets want to make the playoffs for obvious reasons, one of them being that if they do, their first round pick is forfeited to the Atlanta Hawks, giving them an extra $1.7 million in cap space to play with this summer.)

Then you have Gasol in a contract year next season while still maintaining incredible flexibility to go after a max free agent in the summer of 2014. That’s not a bad plan.

3) Benching him isn’t the solution: Even though the Rockets are 4.2 points per 100 possessions better when Lin is off the court (the largest margin for any player on the roster), having your $8.3 million point guard on the bench at the end of games isn’t a long term option. The Rockets will have to either move him now, or move him later. But tying cement bags to Lin’s value and then throwing it off the boat won’t help anybody.

In his last five games Lin is averaging 28.6 minutes of action, which is laughable for a starting point guard. This needs to change, and if not then Houston must maximize on whatever trade market they can wrestle their way into.

The “Verdict”

Lin goes on dramatic back and forth spurts that simply aren’t acceptable for a starting point guard. If no improvement is seen by the end of the year, we won’t be asking if Lin gets traded, but when. There’s over 60 games for him to get it together though, and judging him entirely off what we’ve seen would be rash.

But what we’ve seen is alarming and costly. Weighing the pros and cons on dealing a struggling, young player like Lin can be divisive and exhausting. It’s a polarizing issue, and from where we currently stand there’s no telling what the right answer might be.

Twitter: @MichaelVPina

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