Are Jeremy Lin and James Harden Compatible?

Published on: 19th December, 2012


Lin defeats Knicks
Are Jeremy Lin and James Harden Compatible?  | read this item

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Although the two terms are often used interchangeably in basketball contexts, there’s a very clear difference between chemistry and compatibility. At the risk of oversimplifying both, chemistry is a harmony of thought between teammates, whereas compatibility is a harmony of skill — each so valuable in its own right as to be categorically distinct. They share a conceptual link, but that’s hardly a basis to assume one simply because of the observed presence of the other.

Case in point: the curious basketball relationship of Houston’s James Harden and Jeremy Lin, who returns to New York on Monday for the first time since the Knicks declined to match the Rockets’ offer for him in July. As teammates, the two seem to share a great, giggly bond, underscored by the similarity of their agreeable personalities. After just a few short months, they appear very comfortable around one another, and have been unselfish with the ball as the Rockets attempt to figure out more pressing issues of compatibility. But even with Harden and Lin on the same page, an innate discord in their skill sets remains — a redundancy that can’t be remedied with good vibes alone.

It’s unfortunate given that both players are doing all the right things in hopes of more successfully playing off one another. But the respect of the defense can’t be earned solely with good intentions. The fundamental problem is this: Harden and Lin are both at their best when they’re afforded the opportunity to create off the dribble, but only one of those two (Harden) is in any way useful away from the ball.

We don’t know yet whether Lin might eventually start converting intermediate looks at the same clip as last year (or at least settle in somewhere in between those rates and his current marks), but in a way that hope is irrelevant to Houston’s day-to-day operations. The Rockets can only work with Lin as he currently is, and in his present form he has struggled to score from all of the areas that made him so potent for the Knicks.

Playing alongside Harden, Lin becomes a bystander – – his usage rate, or the number of his team’s possessions he finishes with a shot, drawn foul or turnover, is down to 18.5 percent with Houston after being 28.1 percent with New York last season — spotting up on the weak side of the floor as last season’s Sixth Man Award winner takes control of the offense. And because of Lin’s shaky three-point stroke, defenses have no reason to honor the threat of his floor spacing.

Harden provides a different challenge in that he is an ideal complementary player by way of his do-it-all skill set, but he’s far too good to rely on a teammate who frankly isn’t in the same class in shot creation. It’s counterproductive to take the ball out of Harden’s hands simply because it better serves a lesser player in Lin, and thus one

Jeremy Lin, James HardenJeremy Lin (left) and James Harden struggle to bring out the best in one another when they share the court.

can already begin to see coach Kevin McHale’s dilemma: Two of his best offensive players struggle to bring out the best in one another, to the point that both seem to play better apart.Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 9.09.34 AM

Those trends were so conclusive that over the last few games McHale and the Rockets have begun to embrace Harden’s and Lin’s incompatibility. Up until a few weeks ago, Houston treated the two promising guards as if they were joined at the hip; Lin and Harden would both exit the game at the same time in the first and third quarters and play as a tandem as much as the situation allowed in the second and fourth quarters. Such an approach is understandable given the franchise’s vested interest in their joint success, not to mention the fact that both players and coach were entrusted with figuring out how a roster full of young talent would fold itself together.

Now that he has a better idea of how Harden’s and Lin’s skill overlap affects the team’s overall performance, McHale is free to experiment with alternative substitution patterns to maximize the impact of both players. Lin’s minutes are now orchestrated to give him more time on the court without Harden and vice versa. In Houston’s first 16 games, Harden and Lin averaged a combined 11.5 minutes on the floor without their backcourt mate. In the games since*, that number has nearly doubled (22.1 minutes).

*For the sake of keeping the minutes average as clean as possible, I excepted Harden’s Dec. 10 absence against the San Antonio Spurs in this calculation.

The early results are promising, particularly Harden’s output. As the dominant playmaker at the tail end of the first and third quarters, Harden has been able to build leads and trim deficits thanks to more spacious driving lanes. It’s from those avenues that Harden creates the bulk of his offense — dribble-drive passes, layups, drawn fouls — and yet it’s those same opportunities that are denied to him whenever he shares the court with Lin. When Lin is spotting up in the corner, his defender often slides down into the paint. That in itself is an inconvenience, but hardly unmanageable. The bigger problem arises in that center Omer Asik is a staple of the Rockets’ highest-usage lineups because of his defense, but his presence compounds with Lin’s to create fairly serious spacing problems. In many cases, that combination prompts Lin’s defender to play safety while a big man applies pressure on the perimeter, where Harden just so happens to be working off the dribble. That tweak in defensive pressure makes it tough for all of the Rockets to score, but is particularly harmful to Harden’s driving game. A pick-and-roll becomes a trap, single coverage becomes double coverage and wide-open attempts at the rim become heavily contested. All of that translates into Harden’s shot chart going from this (without Lin):

Harden performance wo Lin

…to this (with Lin):

Harden performance w Lin

The stilt of the defense can’t solely be blamed on Lin, but he’s well-embedded in the chain reaction that limits the scoring opportunities of the Rockets’ best offensive player. Even when Lin makes the right plays and unselfishly gives up control of the ball, Houston’s greater concerns over compatibility persist by way of his iffy shooting — a problem that multiplies given that Lin winds up taking far too many spot-up mid-range jumpers as a result of Harden’s drive-and-kick efforts.

The off-ball issues are one thing, but Asik adds another complication to the way that Lin plays with the ball in his hands. Lin did an outstanding job of producing in New York through a bunch of lineup combinations, but one of the universals was the presence of center Tyson Chandler — a limited offensive player in a general sense, but one whose strengths provided Lin with all kinds of room in the pick-and-roll. The threat of a lob looms through almost every stage of a Chandler pick-and-roll, and with defenders having to account for that possibility, Lin was able to dash to open angles or pull up for uncontested looks.

Playing with Asik is entirely different, despite his improved offensive game. Opponents often opt to leave Asik uncovered until the last possible moment, when they’re able to bother his shot attempts around the hoop or foul him outright in a prudent play of the percentages. (Asik shoots 57.1 percent at the free-throw line.) Lin, meanwhile, is smothered throughout the entire sequence. Several defenders often blanket the attempts Lin is able to create, as his pick-and-rolls with Asik involve two players who must work toward and score from the same tiny semicircle around the hoop.

Lin is still figuring out how all the pieces work in a new system. For now, though, McHale and the Rockets may be on to something by giving Harden and Lin some space within the rotation, a strategy that should create more manageable in-game margins even as the issues of fit in their backcourt remain a work in progress.
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