When Daryl Morey offered Jeremy Lin a back-loaded 3-years $25 million contract this offseason, the move generated both controversy and excitement amongst Rocket fans. Were the Rockets getting a bargain on a potential star player with international appeal who had taken the league by storm over the span of a few weeks of “Linsanity” or had they just overpaid for a mediocre turnover-prone point guard with no jump shot? While it is far too early to definitively evaluate Lin’s season (let alone his NBA career), early signs suggest that, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in-between these two extremes.
This season, Lin is averaging 11 points and 7 assists per 36 minutes, with a PER of 14.7. This compares with 20 points and 8 assists per 36 minutes and a PER of 19.6 in 35 games on the Knicks last season, 25 of which Lin started. Part of this decrease in production is a regression to the mean from the outlier period of Linsanity and part of it is a reflection of the fact that Lin is no longer his team’s first option on offense. With the arrival of James Harden, Lin is taking a backseat offensively as a scorer and creator and has become more of a second option. Indeed, Lin’s usage rate this season is a relatively unremarkable 18% (league average is 19%), compared with his astronomical 28% on the Knicks. One result of this shift is that Lin is being asked to carry less of a burden on offense—this year, 46% of his baskets have come via an assist from a teammate, compared with only 23% last season. In response to his reduced ball-handling responsibilities, Lin has cut his turnover rate drastically, from 21% last season to 12% this season, which is around average for a point guard.
As the secondary creator within the Rockets offense, Lin’s primary role is to act as a fallback option if the initial Harden pick and roll fails to produce a clean look. In this scenario, the Rockets look to Lin to either run a second pick and roll or to take an open shot, if available. While Lin’s assist numbers have remained robust, his offensive output in general has been disappointing. Lin’s True Shooting Percentage of 47% places him below the league average of 53% and is a far cry from last season’s rate of 55%. This season, Lin is taking 4 shots at the rim (converting 57%), 2 shots from mid-range (22%), and 3 three’s a game (27%). These shooting percentages are all well below league averages; Lin’s three point shooting in particular has fallen off a cliff and his overall field goal percentage of 36% is alarmingly low for a point guard with a league-average usage rate. Lin, undoubtedly aware of his cold shooting so far, passes up wide-open threes on multiple times per game in favor of dribble penetration with the aim of either drawing a foul or dishing to an open shooter on the wings. While Lin is drawing fouls on 10% of his field goal attempts this season, this represents a step-down from the 16% he posted last season.
So far, Lin has not played up to his contract and his looked significantly worse than the player he replaced (according to basketball-reference.com, Dragic is averaging 18 points and 8 assists per 36 minutes with a PER of 22). The Rockets’ offense actually improves by 6 points per 100 possessions with Lin off the floor and his numbers in general bear a closer resemblance to his days as a back-up in Golden State than as an overnight sensation in New York. Lin’s main source of effectiveness last season was his ability to penetrate off of pick and rolls and draw fouls or create offense for others. Now that Harden is running the offense, Lin needs to be able to create as a secondary ball handler and space the floor by hitting outside shots. At this point, Jeremy Lin is simply not succeeding in the latter role. The Rockets, however, might be able to improve Lin’s three-point shooting by giving him more opportunities to shoot corner threes, where he is 50% this season and 46% last season, compared with 19% and 26% for non-corner threes. While we can realistically expect some uptick in Lin’s shooting percentages as he finds his way out of this slump, Lin performance to date has nonetheless been underwhelming.