The Houston Rockets have dubbed their 2012-2013 season “The New Age.” It couldn’t be more evidenced than by a ride around town … a glimpse at the media guide … a glance at their pocket calendar.
No, they are not promoting Kevin Martin.
The guys on that there billboard are Jeremy Lin, of course, along with Chandler Parsons and two of Houston’s warehouse full of rookies, Donatas Montejunas and Royce White.
The 2011-12 team that flamed out so badly at the end of last season is gone. Almost all of them, including key components Kyle Lowry (who was dealt to Toronto for a future No. 1 pick, top protected 1-3 only next June) and Luis Scola, who was amnestied as part of GM Daryl Morey’s failed attempt to acquire Dwight Howard. The only major holdover is Martin.
Front and center in each case is Lin, and this is indeed going to be a challenging new chapter in his career textbook.
While his fan base still remains strong – there were a couple of people wearing Lin Knicks jerseys at the Toyota Center on Wednesday night – a team that is projected to fall outside the playoffs simply can’t lead SportsCenter. While the expectations for Lin’s team are low, the demand for standout play from him is at an all-time high.
For one, that could only be expected of a player who has garnered a three-year, $25.1 million contract. But even more, Lin comes to Houston as the No. 1 or 2 scoring option on any given night.
Yes, Lin was the center of the spotlight in New York for a while, but he was only briefly the center of the offense — a lot of which had to do with New York’s injuries.
Even still, he was flanked by players who kept defenses honest. Steve Novak knocked down 3-pointers at an NBA-high clip. J.R. Smith, as intellectually frustrating his play might be, still commands respect from defenses. Tyson Chandler pick-and-rolled his way to the league’s highest field-goal percentage. Carmelo Anthony wasn’t at his best, but he was still ‘Melo. Amar’e Stoudemire was not an All-Star last season, but any coach who tells you they would pay more attention to Lin rather than STAT was being disingenuous.
That cast of sidekicks have been replaced by Martin, Patrick Patterson, the offensively challenged Omer Asik, a host of unproven rookies and the aforementioned Parsons. Needless to say, the talent just isn’t as prevalent.
So here lies Lin. With only 25 starts under his waistband – as spectacular as they were – he is now asked to do it again, and possibly even more.
And this time, over the course of an 82-game season, not a condensed 66-game campaign.
While the national media coverage won’t be as heavy, defenses will. The reckless abandon with which Lin attacks the rim with won’t be there as much with opponents sagging off the perimeter. With less talent around him, he might actually be forced to pass more than he did in New York, where he was a high-turnover player.
The verdict isn’t in yet on whether his new teammates will capitalize on these passes or watch them sail overhead.
And lest we forget, there is also the pleasure that some of the NBA’s finest point guards take in hazing Lin. Deron Williams’ 38-point drubbing last year at Madison Square Garden comes to mind.
And recently, there was Russell Westbrook dropping 16 points in the first six minutes on Lin in the preseason.
While people in New York cheered for Lin to continue at his rampaging pace, nobody expected it on a daily basis. It was almost like an added bonus. Knicks fans felt Anthony should give them about 23-30 points, Stoudemire should give another 20 and if somehow Lin can manage to drop 15 again, they should be fine.
Now it is no longer a question of whether Lin can score 15-plus points. He has to for the Rockets to have any type of respectable season.
These expectations are all new to Lin. In his recent GQ magazine interview, the Rockets’ new cover boy admitted he didn’t even see himself as an NBA player at one point. Now, his contract and Houston’s management have thrust him into a leadership role. With Lin’s minimal experience, it is almost like the blind leading the blind. Let’s just assume that Carlos Delfino – Houston’s longest tenured player at seven years – won’t be the source of a playoff run.
There were some encouraging signs Wednesday night in Houston’s preseason bout with Memphis. Following a sit-down with coach Kevin McHale, Lin was more aggressive at pushing the pace and trying to cause havoc. It resulted in a game-high 12 assists and five steals.
There have been some negatives, too. With the lane clogged more than it was in New York, Lin has seen more contested jumpers, which may explain his 7-of-28 shooting. He has had to throw up 3-pointers to keep defenses honest. Problem is, he still has yet to hit one, going 0-of-8 in four contests. It’s going to be a steep learning curve, to say the least.
With Lin’s play being scrutinized, his defenders have been consistent in pointing out that he simply isn’t 100 percent healthy. Yes, that 85 percent left knee (or however you wanted to wanted interpret his statement last April) is still not there yet. Some will say that he needs time to recover and find that comfort level again. Others will say its just a crutch Lin is using to buy himself more time.
Well, the season is less than two weeks away, and some have already grown weary of the act, whether true or not. The Houston Chronicle reported that the Rockets coaches were disappointed in Lin’s lack of intensity in coming back from the injury. According to the report, the coaches felt like he wasn’t pushing himself as much as he could and simply was being too cautious.
Time is running out on the knee excuse. Time is also running out for Martin – or his contract, to be precise. Martin is a free agent next summer, and you can expect the career 18-point scorer to be more than happy to shoot his way into his next four-year deal. Stripped of any promotional cachet after being the team’s leading scorer last season, Martin likely sees the writing on the wall. So does Lin.
In Thursday’s news conference, McHale told reporters about Lin asking him how he was worried about making sure Martin gets the ball. McHale told Lin that he’d rather have him look for the open man and just have the ball constantly moving.
It’s ironic. In New York, under former coach Mike D’Antoni, Lin was encouraged to do the same thing – run pick-and-rolls, find the open man and don’t settle for just isolating Anthony or Stoudemire. He agreed and hoisted shots that didn’t necessarily make Anthony too happy.
In Houston, absent of that same star power alongside him, Lin has been reliant on the scoring prowess of Martin, who is only too happy to oblige and is an early favorite to end Kobe Bryant’s two-year hold on most FGAs.
Still, Martin can only score so much. And only so much can be expected from a trio of rookies who have yet to play any meaningful games. Terrence Jones has been impressive this preseason and Jeremy Lamb has shown signs of being a smooth scorer. But Royce White’s anxiety issues – his fear of flying has cost him desperately needed practices and games – is below the curve.
GM Daryl Morey, who spent the summer stockpiling young but unproven talent in his unsuccessful bids for Howard and Andrew Bynum, might still have the chance to jettison some of that talent for a big name, but it’s far from a guarantee.
Right now, the biggest name is Lin, who has the responsibility to make sure the Rockets are at least respectable. Houston has finished ninth in the Western Conference three years running with more talented teams.
It is definitely a new day for Lin. A new cast of teammates. A new challenge. It’s a bet – a $25 million one, in fact – that Morey and Rockets were willing to make on Lin, who has a whole new set of expectations to fulfill.
Recently relocated to Houston, Harrison Sanford is a contributor to Sheridan Hoops. He has covered basketball (print and video) since the 2003 NBA Draft, events including the NCAA Tournament, the Big East tournament, McDonald’s All-American Games and the NBPA Top 100 camp. Follow him on Twitter.