Back on Dec. 10, Jeremy Lin matched his career high in scoring, dropping 38 in a Lone Star State thriller against San Antonio. The Rockets lost in overtime, but Lin’s performance was an encouraging sign. Up to that point, his production had been inconsistent, even getting benched for key stretches. Where did the 38 point outburst come from, then? Yes, Lin was more aggressive in attacking the paint, but the most obvious changed variable was not anything he did on the floor. Rather, it was who wasn’t on the floor: James Harden.
In the midst of Lin’s struggles, questions about Lin and Harden’s ability to coexist in the Houston backcourt surfaced. After all, both Lin and Harden had thrived respectively as dominant ball handlers in New York and Oklahoma City. Lin’s career night in the absence of his running mate only served to confirm the suspicions about his compatibility with Harden. Head coach Kevin McHale, upon his return from a leave of absence, began staggering Lin and Harden’s minutes, with good returns — the Rockets finished the rest of December with eight wins to only three losses.
Now that the All-Star break’s here, it’s as good a time as ever to check in on Houston’s shiny, red backcourt. Harden has played 73 percent of his minutes alongside Lin (1,484 minutes with Lin on court, 542 minutes with Lin on bench), while Lin has played 83 percent of his minutes with Harden (1,484 minutes with Harden on court, 314 minutes with Harden on bench).
Unsurprisingly, Lin’s offensive numbers go up slightly up when Harden is on the bench. As far as shot distribution and performance, Lin shoots from the same spots at about the same frequency regardless of whether or not Harden is on the floor. Although, with Harden off the court, Lin shoots at a much higher percentage on both corner three-pointers (60.0 percent vs. 33.3 percent) and above the break three-pointers (44 percent vs. 26.7 percent), and much lower in the paint (non-restricted area), 16.7 percent vs. 29.3 percent. The lower percentage from the paint (non-restricted area) likely stems from opposing defenses being able to collapse on Lin more with the threat of the paint-seeking Harden out.
Harden mostly plays the same whether or not Lin is on the court. Interestingly, Harden has yet to take a corner three-pointer with Lin off the court, since Harden can operate almost exclusively from above the break. Harden’s percentage of unassisted field goals made has no significant change whether Lin is on or off the court (68.5 percent with Lin on court, 69.3 percent with Lin on bench). For comparison, last season, when he shared the floor with Kevin Durant, Harden only scored unassisted 42.5 percent of the time, compared with 62.4 percent when Durant was on the bench. This confirms what we already know: Harden is the man in Houston, and he’s been handed the keys.
More important than Harden and Lin’s respective individual stats is the Rockets’ performance as a team, which we turn to next.
Overall, the Rockets have an Offensive Rating (Points Per 100 Possessions) of 107.8, good for fifth in the league, behind MIA, OKC, NY, and SAS. What keeps them from the same elite status as MIA, OKC, and SAS is the Net Rating, i.e., the differential between their Offensive Rating and Defensive Rating (Points Allowed Per 100 Possessions). OKC, for example, has a Net Rating of about plus-10, meaning they score eleven more points per 100 possessions than they allow. The Rockets are still in the top ten with their plus-2.6 Net Rating, though.
Looking at the first half of the season, the Rockets’ Net Rating when Lin and Harden are both on the floor is about the same as their overall Net Rating. This comes as no surprise, since Lin and Harden not only play the majority of the Rockets’ minutes, but also play them together. A few things worth noting:
— With Lin on the bench, the Rockets have their highest Offensive Rating, but a below average Net Rating of plus-2.
— The percentage of field goals made assisted jumps up to nearly 67 percent with Lin on and Harden off. This is probably due to the Rockets’ having their primary facilitator still on the floor, while the more isolation-heavy Harden off.
— The high Net Rating for when both Lin and Harden are off probably comes from the Rockets’ deep bench exploiting inferior opposing second units.