Jeremy Lin may not be having the season his fans want, but he has been developing into the point guard that the high-scoring Houston Rockets need if they want to make the playoffs. (Photo : Reuters)
At this time last year in the Houston Rockets' lockout-shortened season of 2011-12, Houston was sitting with a respectable 21-14 win-loss record in the standings.
However, after two sizeable losing streaks in February and near the end of the season, as well as spotty play on and off the court, Houston ended up finishing with only a 34-32 record and ended up missing the playoffs for the third straight season since the "Rush Hour" era of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady came to an end.
Fast forward to one year later from that 21-14 mark.
The Rockets' former backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin are gone. Lowry flew the coup to Toronto, leaving the door wide open for the Rockets to sign point guard Jeremy Lin in free agency, while Martin was traded away to Oklahoma City in the deal that netted Houston a franchise star in James Harden.
As a result, the Rockets are in control of the eighth seed in the Western Conference with a 31-27 record, have one of the hottest offenses in the league (second in the NBA in team points with 106.3 points, just behind OKC's league-leading 106.6 points) and, believe it or not, with a better record than the L.A. Lakers.
Yes, those L.A. Lakers. The ones led by Kobe Bryant and with their vaunted off-season acquisitions of superstars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. If the season ended today, Houston would be in the playoffs, and the Lakers would be stuck on the outside looking in.
At this rate, the Rockets could find themselves fighting for playoff positioning with Utah and Golden State for more favorable seeding in the West. And in large part, it's due to the Rockets' new backcourt of Harden and Lin.
True, Harden will get the lion's share of the attention, and rightfully so, the first-time All-Star earning his distinction this season with a scorching 26.4 points per game, fifth in the league. The former Sixth Man of the Year has evolved from the backup man to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook into a superstar player whose scoring rivals Durant, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant--y'know, MVP-type stuff.
And then there's Lin.
Unfortunately, his first half of the season wasn't quite "Linsanity"-level stuff (if it was, it's anyone's guess as to how much better the Rockets could be right now).
Lin has averaged a modest 12.7 points and 6.2 assists this season--decent numbers, but probably not what most fans were expecting after he set the Big Apple on fire last year with an amazing February scoring spree of 24.6 points and 9.2 assists, shooting 49.7 percent in his first 10 starts .
However, it's been Lin's pass-first, playmaking mentality and a knack for thriving in a fast-paced, pick-and-roll offense--as his stint under Mike D'Antoni's offense has shown--that have been a huge help for Houston's young-legged squad as they've made it hell on defenses around the league to try and stop them.
While Harden has thrived in the limelight, enjoying his new superstar status as he's led the Rockets to a turnaround season, Lin appears to have been benefiting by slowly taking in Houston's offense, learning how to do the little things that make a great floor general. No longer with the pressure of having to carry the offense as he did for that February stretch last season in New York when Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire were hurt, Lin has been learning how to do create better plays and run the floor better, and he has one of the most overpowering offenses in the game right now to learn how.
Chandler Parsons has taken notice, crediting Lin for helping Houston's super-charged, perpetually kinetic offense running like a well-oiled machine. "He's keeping us in our sets and doing all those little things that Coach was emphasizing," he said of Lin.
Lin himself has noted that the Rockets are improving with every game, as is his own play as he and his teammates get more accustomed to each other.
"I think we're getting more mature as a team and as individuals. We're understanding not to panic and to get back to what we do best," Lin told the New York Times Friday night after the Rockets beat the Brooklyn Nets 106-96, a game where Lin scored nine points but with six assists.
Last season, the Rockets were a lottery team that was inconsistent and in disarray. This season, with a selfless, pass-first point guard in Lin at the helm and Harden, a bonafide shooting guard superstar, in the drivers' seat, the Rockets have a chance to erase the last three years of futility and return to May basketball and the NBA Playoffs.
They've even rattled off impressive wins against top contending teams like Oklahoma City, New York, Golden State, Brooklyn and Memphis, while taking NBA title favorites Miami and San Antonio to the limit. In only a little more than half a season's time.
With a season or two more of experience, there's no telling how good the Rockets can be.
With Lin and Harden locked in together for at least two more years after this season, Houston fans will have plenty of chances to see if whether the Rockets' tandem star guard combination can take the team to new heights. And there will be plenty of time to see just how much both of these exciting players can improve individually and as a unit.
But for now, it's good to be a Houston Rocket fan-especially with May basketball locked in Houston's sights.