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Culture / Sporting Life

No Jeremy Lin, No Heart

Ego-Lite Difference Maker Haunts Rockets at NBA Trade Deadline

BY // 02.18.16

The Houston Rockets do not exactly have the heart of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in The Revenant. This group would have given up at the first sighting of that bear.

Even their interim coach — a guy with less job security than a Kanye West publicist — is calling them out. “We’re broken,” J.B. Bickerstaff put it. “Right now, we’re a broken team.” These Rockets often play dead even before the opening tip. They can’t be bothered to compete.

Daryl Morey’s NBA trade deadline-dealing cannot fix this mess of his own making. Houston’s media-beloved general manager gave away heart for years, forever chasing the league’s most flawed stars. The Rockets could sure use Jeremy Lin on this team about now.

The Rockets fall down by 21 points and offer little resistance to a Portland team they’re supposedly fighting for a playoff berth against in their last game before the All-Star break. Lin powers a completely undermanned and overmatched Charlotte team to a win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in one of his only real chances to lead the team.

Any questions?

Heart isn’t always easy to quantify in professional sports, but you should know when you have it on your roster. Morey had it in Lin, but never seemed to care. Instead, the Rockets discounted, dissed and eventually discarded one of the NBA’s more unique talents. Lin makes players around him better. When Lin’s on the court and allowed to run the point, it’s easier for his teammates to score.

It sounds simple, but it’s exactly what the Rockets sorely lack. The uber-talented James Harden’s assist numbers look great. But does anyone actually enjoy playing with him? There are certainly no free-agent stars clamoring to get to join him. Harden’s a compiler, a stats-gobbling force. I watched him rack up one of the most statistically impressive — and completely meaningless — triple doubles ever in a loss to the Detroit Pistons. Try 36 points, 17 rebounds, 14 assists and no real game-shifting impact.

It’s hard to put up that monstrous of a triple-double without completely dominating the game. Harden managed it.

Contrast that with Lin’s 24-point, eight-assist, five-rebound night against Cleveland, during which he kept the Eastern Conference’s best team continually off guard with his playmaking, fearless drives into the lane and defense. Yes, defense. Despite the continued playing time uncertainty he faces night to night, Lin’s defense — which was dramatically underrated in Houston — has become more and more of a strength.

Meanwhile, James Harden is the only star who was able to play his regular defense in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.

Chalk it up to The Kardashian Curse if you must (the producers of FX’s new O.J. Simpson case series surely would). But Harden has clearly regressed this season, and with Dwight Howard all but assuredly gone by this summer,  if not sooner, last May’s run to the Western Conference Finals is looking more and more like fleeting fool’s gold.

Morey will desperately struggle to try to sneak the Rockets back into the playoffs this spring, because his owner, Leslie Alexander, will accept nothing less. But even if that’s “mission accomplished,” this is a franchise going nowhere. It turns out that Daryl Morey built a house of cards.

Is that truly such a surprise?

The Rockets didn’t need Lin, a low-ego true point guard and one of the rare players in the NBA capable of getting a triple double off the bench. They didn’t need Chandler Parsons — not with Morey convincing himself he’d get a third “star” to play with Harden and Howard.

Now they need a complete overhaul.

Lin’s hasn’t found a perfect spot in Charlotte. Kemba Walker is too enamored of the same type of Hero Ball that Harden loves. The Hornets trade for Courtney Lee further complicates the team’s guard and wing rotations, and threatens to take additional minutes from Lin.

But the 27-year-old Lin is continuing to move forward, to hone his craft and improve. The same is true for Parsons, who found a coach willing to push him in Dallas in Rick Carlisle.

The Rockets are only moving backwards. Patrick Beverley — the savior of the Lin Only Haters — has been exposed as the extremely limited player he always was. Ty Lawson — Morey’s last big attempt at getting Houston a real point guard — has been a complete disaster who’s headed out of town. The “spark” of  Josh Smith, a player who tried to get away from the Rockets before he realized a team with a system of accountability is no place for him, lasted all of … two or three games.

It didn’t have to be this way. Morey and Alexander had a low-maintenance, team-first young talent in Jeremy Lin. That’s a rare combination in professional sports. But they had no use for Lin’s heart — or his passing.

This is how sports franchises get passed by. Russell Westbrook is not coming through the Toyota Center doors. Morey’s not getting that type of transformative mega star to help right Harden. But he had good, improving ones in Lin and Parsons. The Rockets had a fun future then.

What has Morey left them with now?

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