The Fundamentals: Is there room for both Harden and Lin in Houston?
By Rob Mahoney
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.
That's a shame, because it supersedes what Lin does best: manufacture offense for his team with straight-line drives off a high screen. That skill made Lin a smashing success in New York, as defenders struggled to contain him once he was able to get a full head of steam going toward the paint. Some of that was due to, as it appears now, an uncommonly successful shooting season. Lin converted 46 percent of his long-paint looks (read: floater range) and 46 percent of his mid-range tries -- both tremendously impressive numbers for a player so green. But those same attempts have demolished Lin's efficiency this year, as he's making a miserable 25 percent on long-paint looks and just 33 percent in mid-range shots.
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 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.
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):
…to this (with 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.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.
A look at some of the relevant quantitative trends and tidbits emerging around the league.
• If we cut off our rounding at the tenths place, Serge Ibaka, Roy Hibbert and Larry Sanders are locked in an exact tie for the leading spot in blocks per game. Ibaka, who was the NBA's top shot-blocker last season at 3.7 a game, is hardly a surprise. But Sanders is pogo-ing his way up all the block leaderboards, while Hibbert's offensive struggles may have led some to forget what a dominant interior defender he can be.
• The Hornets' offense has fallen off a bit of late, but what New Orleans was able to do for the first stretch of this season -- without Eric Gordon and largely without Anthony Davis -- is worthy of a moment's consideration. Its efforts ultimately weren't sustainable given the dearth of ball skills throughout the active roster, but Greivis Vasquez (who accounted for 45.8 percent of his teammates' field goals while on the court, a mark that ranks second in the NBA) was able to orchestrate a pretty efficient offense despite having an unintimidating individual scoring game. Most playmakers need either the threat of their own shooting or a highly talented group of teammates to keep an offense rolling, but Vasquez was able to prop up New Orleans' offensive efficiency for far longer than one could have predicted under the circumstances.
• Effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) is a statistical measure created to account for the extra point that every three-pointer provides; after all, if different shots are worth different point values, why would they be measured on the same percentage scale in terms of accuracy without acknowledging the difference in potential gains? As a result, the leaders in that statistic are typically an even split of accurate long-range shooters and low-usage, at-the-rim finishers. So far this season, though, the finishers have a decided advantage. Five of the top six qualified leaders in effective field goal percentage are bigs, largely because of the impact of adjusted offensive roles. The Spurs' Tiago Splitter and the Clippers' DeAndre Jordan are finally registering enough shot attempts and minutes to officially qualify as statistical leaders, which makes it all the more difficult for the Kevin Martins and Jared Dudleys of the world to climb into the top 10 in eFG%.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Carl Landry, still working over post defenders
From the Warriors' bench comes living proof that post players need not be physically dominant in order to be efficient scorers. Being 7 feet tall with quads the size of tree trunks certainly wouldn't hurt any post player's efforts on the block, but Landry, listed at 6-foot-9 is doing some efficient work down low despite giving up height to many of his interior defenders. It's all about the face-up game. As much as we attribute good post play to back-to-the-basket move and counters, the ability to face up and score by working around an opponent can be just as effective as powering through him. Landry has a great grasp of post footwork and his own limitations, and he puts his arsenal of floaters and half-hooks to good use by attacking defenders on the block head-on.
2. Kemba Walker's ability to circumvent ball pressure
The idea of defenders pressuring the ball-handler in pick-and-roll scenarios is nothing new, and yet with the evolution of team defense over the last five years, aggressive pressure schemes seem more in vogue than ever. Today's point guards need to be capable of working over or around multiple opponents threatening to trap them off the edge of a screen, and those who don't (like Indiana's D.J. Augustin) risk being discarded from their teams' rotations.
That would theoretically seem to be an issue for Charlotte's Walker, who, at 6-1, is listed at one inch taller than Augustin in what I suspect would prove to be a generous measurement. But Walker manages to turn those problematic situations on their head on a regular basis with a brutally effective ability to split his defenders -- a gambit that may be run more often by Walker than any other player in the league. It honestly works far more often than it should, which if anything is reflective of the difficulty in running a properly executed trap; many basketball fans consider double teams to be an easily executed strategic device, but there's always risk involved whenever the defense expands beyond one-on-one coverage. Pressure, after all, does one of two things: smother the ball-handler outright, or force them through the cracks of the defense as his only release.
3. The most terrifying post fake in the league
Although last season was the first in which LeBron James' slow-roasted post game had cooked through enough for consumption, the 2012 Finals were by no means a display of a finished product. It's a foundation from which the game's best player will be able to build, but James' work down low will always be a work in progress. With that in mind, I was eager to see what LeBron would add in his approach to the post this season, and the answer is an utterly terrifying twitch fake -- just the slightest hint a of lightning-quick shoulder turn while he has his back to the basket designed to throw his defender off balance. It may seem like nothing at first, but once you consider how quickly James can wheel around into a free look at the basket, you realize how powerful that single twitch can be. Opponents have little choice but to overreact to it, and James has done well to capitalize on his defender's misplaced momentum.
4. Metta World Peace, persistent 'til the end
It's gotten to the point where I actually kind of appreciate World Peace's bull-headed forays into shots that everyone knows will be blocked. There's just a strange security in knowing that whatever goes on in this unpredictable league, MWP will always be there, almost willingly throwing shots into the outstretched arms of defenders.
5. Stephen Curry, sticking with the hook pass
Few playmakers are able to claim a trademark passing style, but the Warriors' Curry should consider filing a patent application on the overhead hook pass. The execution is simple enough: When working off the dribble, Curry -- instead of collecting for a chest pass or throwing a one-handed pocket pass -- often opts to swing the pass sideways over his head to a shooter spotting up on the wing. My best guess is that the momentum of the move coupled with the fact that Curry usually throws hook passes with his dominant hand (right) boost its velocity; it may take only fractions of a second to pull off a more conventional setup, but in many cases that's all that the defense needs to contest the pass or recover onto the recipient shooter.
6. Boris Diaw's sneaky screen game
The Spurs' need for another defensive big man is obvious and long-standing, but out of attempts to fill that spot have come a number of interesting options. Tiago Splitter, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair each bring something unique to the table, but Diaw is by far the most interesting option … despite a lack of stable scoring, rebounding or even sound defense. Diaw thrives with the little plays that facilitate scores -- the cross-post passes, the quick diversions or the unexpected screens. That last element is a frequent weapon in the Spurs' offense that helps Tony Parker more than anyone; Diaw has a habit of screening his man up (toward the top of the floor) just as Parker beats his mark, which makes it almost impossible for any big-man defender to successfully stay in front of Parker's quick-footed drive in his efforts to help. It's a subtle move and one that may not always be legal, but Diaw sneaks a valuable big-bodied pick by both his oblivious defender and the referees alike on a regular basis.
7. The Vince Carter post-play circus act continues
Next time you tune in for a Mavs game, keep an eye on Carter. Any time he has the ball in his hands when a whistle is blown, you get a peek inside the repertoire of a trick shot master. Carter's HORSE game runs deep, and you're unlikely to ever see the same attempt twice.
Here's a look at one such shot Carter pulled off last season:
8. Young big men, putting themselves at a disadvantage on the catch
Many of the things that separate young players from veterans are so slight as to completely fly under the radar of those who view the game at the surface level. Shooting, rebounding, passing, defending on the ball -- all of these things are important. But so often success in the NBA is dictated by how players navigate the other sequences of the game, and how well they set themselves up to make those kinds of plays. One such case: I can't help but notice that a lot of young big men often surrender good position or a decent scoring angle by establishing the wrong pivot foot on the catch. In some cases, this is difficult to avoid -- for example, opponents playing denial defense make it all the more important for an offensive player to simply receive the pass in the safest way possible, regardless of their positioning. But on relatively routine post feeds and cuts, inexperienced bigs far too often put themselves in a tough spot by shuffling their feet at the last moment or simply establishing the wrong pivot out of carelessness.