Who is the better point guard at the halfway mark--the New York Knicks' Raymond Felton, left, or the Houston Rockets'Jeremy Lin, right? (Photo : Reuters)
By the stats, they're not so different.
The Houston Rockets' Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks' Raymond Felton.
Two athletic point guards. Two guards that thrive off the pick-and-roll. Two players that, while having never played together, were bound together by the same common factor-being point guards for one of the most rabid fan bases in one of the most demanding cities in the world, New York.
Felton, acquired in free agency by the Knicks, was part of the rebuilding process to bring New York back to prominence in the summer of 2010. By that time, Lin, fresh out of Harvard, was vying for an NBA roster spot in the 2010 NBA Draft, but when unchosen, though he secured a job with the Golden State Warriors in late July of that year.
While Felton was becoming a mainstay in New York, helping Amar'e Stoudemire have an MVP-caliber season, that all changed in the trade that brought Carmelo Anthony from Denver to the Knicks during the February 2011 trade deadline. Felton was shipped out to Denver, then bounced back to Portland for an unimpressive 2011-12 season.
Meanwhile, Lin, who bounced around from Golden State to Houston, was nearing the end of his NBA rope before the Knicks picked him up off waivers in December. Then injuries to Anthony and Stoudemire forced then-coach Mike D'Antoni's hand to put Lin into a Feb. 4 game against the then-New Jersey Nets, and...well, everyone remembers what happened next.
Yet, despite the eruption of "Linsanity" that took New York--and the world--by storm, the Knicks decided, amid some criticism--and some praise--to let Lin walk in free agency when Houston outbid New York for Lin's services with a three-year, $25 million deal. The Rockets, spurred on by owner Leslie Alexander and a lot of cap space to burn, were hoping Lin was part of a huge overhaul that the franchise needed to exorcise the playoff-less times of the last three seasons.
The Knicks, meanwhile, opted instead to bring back Felton in a multi-player trade with Portland...which brings us to where we stand as of the end of February.
The Knicks have thrived under Felton's veteran savvy and re-galvanized play for the first half of the season, taking the lead in the Atlantic Division with a 34-20 win-loss record.
And the Rockets?
They've only emerged as one of the most exciting offensive young teams in the NBA, rattling off 106.4 points per night, the second-highest team scoring average in the NBA behind OKC. And with only 23 games to go in their regular season, Lin--who has provided streaky scoring, but a team-first, playmaking strategy--and the Rockets have control of the eighth and final playoff seed, ahead of the barely-functioning L.A. Lakers.
All in all, by the win-loss column, things seem to have worked out fine for both teams. And yet still, the question remains-which team got the better end of the bargain? Who has been the better point guard, Lin or Felton?
Lin's 2012-13 Season Past the Halfway Mark
Last season, Lin was having the time of his career--maybe even his life--with the Knicks, but just could not make it work once Anthony returned to the starting lineup. Lin was averaging 24.6 points and 9.2 assists in his first 10 games of "Linsanity" last season, but that production began dropping as Anthony began, understandably, taking his superstar's share of the shots again. In his last nine games before his season-ending left meniscus injury, Lin produced only 13.6 points and 5.9 assists.
Lin also seemed to struggle when the Rockets, his new team, acquired James Harden, who has emerged as a dominating scorer and superstar-caliber player. He was especially floundering in November, when he was shooting a dreadful 37.3 percent from the field, hitting only 3.8 of his 10.1 shot attempts-which is about five shots less than the 15.1 shots--7.3 of them which he hit on 47.2 percent shooting-that he hit wearing a Knicks uniform in February last season. His production has gotten a little steadier with time, even showing flashes of greatness--his 38 points against San Antonio on Dec. 12, 28 points against Golden State on Feb. 5 and a few hot streaks scattered along the way are proof of that. For any other point guard, averaging 12.6 points and 6.2 assists on 43.3 percent shooting after 59 games would be a nice season. However, after the bar Lin set for himself last season, Lin has set expectations for himself that, in the eyes of his critics, he has fallen way short of.
And yet, while he hasn't brought "Linsanity-Part II" to Houston this season-although if the team never acquired Harden, who knows if that would have still been the case? Or if the Rockets would even be in playoff contention now?-Lin has started to show signs of becoming a more mature, complete point guard.
He is learning how to move and think in the Rockets' up-tempo offense, when to cut and when not to cut, how to play without the ball in his possession. For the most part, he has been getting better learning how to defer control of the offense to Harden when he gets hot--which is a lot in his All-Star season that has netted him 26.4 points per night, fifth highest in the NBA--and how to keep the Rockets' red-hot offense going when Harden gets cold.
Plus, as a nice bonus, Lin has developed some quick hands on defense, his 1.92 steals ranked fourth-best in the league.
Oh, he can still improve on things. Lin has to become a better jump shot shooter to make sure more than 4.6 of his 10.7 shot attempts this season-a 43.3 season field goal percentage-go in. And he has to cut down a few of those 2.9 turnovers he's coughed up.
But all in all, Lin has been growing as a player. As long as he works at his flaws, once he gets more comfortable in learning how to run Houston's lightning-quick offense and how to do the little things a point guard has to do, he'll soon be able to mesh more of his own skills into the offense, giving us a look at a more complete version of Lin.
Felton's 2012-13 Season Past the Halfway Mark
Contrary to Lin's slow start in Houston, Felton started out red-hot back in the Big Apple.
His first regular season game back as a Knick, Felton put up 14 points on 5-of-13 shooting with nine assists as he helped the Knicks wallop the defending champion Miami Heat 104-84. That led to the Knicks starting off the season on a 6-0 start where Felton scored 15.8 points and 6.5 assists during that stretch. Unlike Lin, who struggled playing with a superstar like Anthony or Harden, Felton fit right into Knicks coach Mike Woodson's offense, finding a way to create shots off the dribble while at the same time keeping the ball moving constantly until the Knicks could find an optimal shot in the half-court game.
He got even hotter in December, scoring 17.2 points and 5.9 assists as the Knicks won 9 of 11 games with Felton running the point alongside the scorching scoring of Anthony. However, since Felton injured his hand chasing a loose ball with Steve Nash against the Lakers on Dec. 25, which put him out of action for a month, Felton has struggled to regain his form.
Now dealing with a bruised right heel as well, the 28-year-old point guard--one of the few young pieces on an aging and banged-up Knicks roster--is starting to slow down. He's only averaged 12.3 points and 4.9 assists in February, a month where the Knicks have only won 6 of 11 and had lost four straight in last week. For the season, Felton has 14.6 points and 6.0 assists-figures that almost mirror Lin's.
In addition, he has a sore neck, as well, what would have certainly been an All-Star caliber pace slowed down by too many bumps and ill-timed bruises. His Houston counterpart, Lin, had a few ankle scares, but hasn't missed any significant game time, allowing him to grow with each Rockets game.
Not to mention, there is the problem of the Knicks' backcourt. Jason Kidd has been great for the Knicks this season, and Pablo Prigioni has provided stability off the bench, but they are simply not young enough to keep up with the fast legs of the Kyrie Irvings and Jeff Teagues and the Deron Williamses of the East. Or, in Wednesday's case, the Stephen Currys of the West, Curry dropping 54 points on the Knicks in a game the Knicks barely survived, 109-105.
Make no mistake; Felton--who only scored 10 points, but was big down the stretch--is the centerpiece of the backcourt for New York. His block on Curry with 1:10 remaining in the fourth helped the Knicks eek out a win; as stellar as Kidd was in his heyday on defense, odds are he probably wasn't going to stop Curry's shot from going in with the night he was having.
If Felton, who had been distributing the ball and keeping New York's offense rolling before his injury, hadn't missed a month--during which the Knicks lost 6 of 12 games-and hadn't had to deal with so many injuries, perhaps New York would be on top of the Eastern Conference right now instead of Miami (41-14).
The way things are shaping up, the Knicks seem destined for another first round series with their old nemesis, the Rajon Rondo-less Boston Celtics, or the Derrick Rose-less (for now?) Chicago Bulls. Both are tough defensive teams and both are lacking depth at point guard right now. And both will be tough competition. In fact, top to bottom in the East's eight-team playoff picture, with the exception of Indiana (George Hill), Brooklyn (Deron Williams) and Milwaukee (Brandon Jennings), none of the other teams have truly exceptional, game-changing point guards on the roster. (That's not a knock on Atlanta's Teague, a very talented player, but the Hawks are still a Josh Smith-Al Horford team.)
If the Knicks are going to beat some of those teams come playoff time and make a run at the NBA Finals, they're going to need Felton at his best, which means Woodson is going to have to find a way to rest him for the grind of May basketball. Anthony can't do it all by himself; he's going to need help. He's going to need Felton.
Final Judgment Past the Halfway Mark
Overall, both Lin and Felton have been paying off well for their teams.
Felton has the edge on offense and veteran savvy, but Lin has shown the most growth and has had fewer injuries weighing him down.
It's hard to see either of them having done well if they switched places. Lin thrives in the fast, open-floored and pick-and-roll heavy style of the Rockets while Felton has provided youth and stability on offense and defense for a veteran Knicks team trying to win now. They're right where they're supposed to be at the moment, and given another season, they should be even better.
So, which of these two playoff contending teams--the Knicks or Rockets--made the better decision on their choice of point guard? At the halfway mark...it's hard to say, really. But with crunch time approaching and roughly 30 or so games left in the season, it looks like we are going to find out.