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The Houston Rockets’ Jeremy Lin Issue

The issue with Jeremy Lin goes far beyond disrespecting one player . . .it’s about not understanding what it means to win.

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The love affair between the Houston Rockets and Jeremy Lin was doomed to fail right from the start.

First of all, Rockets GM Daryl Morey and his crack team of statistical wizards overlooked a critical element when they predicted that Lin was going to be the next big thing in the NBA. They were looking at the month of play that earned Lin the attention of the basketball world and started a brief but impressive cultural phenomenon. The guy actually had to hold his own separate press conference at All-Star weekend because everyone in the world wanted to talk to him.

The Rockets wanted him so desperately that they came up with an inventive way to price him out of the New York Knicks’ range. They backloaded their poison-pill contract offer so that they could pay him out over three years with cap hits of roughly $8.4 million, though in the final year Lin actually makes $13.5 million. The Knicks wanted no part of that contract and let Lin walk without so much as a second thought.

Now, the Rockets know why.

Context is important,  however, and it should be noted that when the Rockets made identical offers to Lin and Omer Asik they had struck out on all of their major free agent signings. They hoped against hope that either one or both of these two players would turn out to be a great starter, and in Asik’s case they turned out to be correct. Lin, not so much.

In this case, the clever contract structure came back to bite Houston in the rear, as other teams were extremely reluctant to take on a contract that would radically overpay Lin (not in cap hit, but in actual salary), who was also dealing with recurring injury issues.

All of that brings us to today, and the story about the Rockets showcasing Carmelo Anthony in Lin’s No. 7 jersey in their quest to convince Anthony that he belongs in Houston alongside James Harden and Dwight Howard. As the Houston Chronicle‘s Jonathan Feigen so aptly points out, Anthony is only wearing No. 7 in New York because his customary No. 15 was retired by the Knicks. The Rockets could very easily have shown Anthony in No. 15 and not even further alienated Lin in the process.

This, however, is the way the Rockets do business. Players are basically commodities, objects to be manipulated in whatever way is necessary to further the ambitions of the front office. While on the surface that might seem like a perfectly good way to do business, it’s not a great way to build the kind of chemistry and family atmosphere that yields great relationships, and winning at an elite level is entirely about relationships. It’s why the San Antonio Spurs have been the West’s best team spanning three decades and it’s why LeBron James is sitting in Miami waiting for Pat Riley and the HEAT to figure out what they’re going to do to get back in the Finals. If it were just a business to LeBron and the HEAT, the two-time Finals MVP might already be fitted for a Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers or Los Angeles Lakers jersey.

Morey, for his part, is sensitive to the hurt feelings that the team’s Anthony promo created:

“It’s always a challenging situation during free agency,” Morey told Mark Berman of Fox 26. “You are always having to recruit players and there might be current players at current positions, might be people with the current numbers. It’s unfortunate that it’s often hard to handle. Reality is, it’s standard practice.When we went after Chris Bosh a few years ago,we had him in Luis Scola’s number. When we went after Dwight Howard he had [Pat] Beverley’s number. I get the sensitivity and I hate that it creates some hurt feelings. I don’t like that, but that’s obviously Carmelo Anthony’s number, that’s the number he wants. He told us that. Bottom line, if Carmelo comes Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin have to be traded. It’s just math. It’s not personal. My job is every day figure out how to win. Sometimes it creates challenging situations.”

To his credit, Lin has dealt with the ridiculously public way in which the Rockets have handled their desire to move him with incredible grace and style. Yesterday afternoon he tweeted out the following:

The Rockets have worked to take everything from Lin. They are paying him well, certainly, but that’s only one part of doing a job and being part of an organization. If you want to win you have to treat people with respect and dignity, and the message the Rockets send out to the league when they treat someone the way they are treating Lin is that perhaps Houston is not the best place to sign as a free agent.

Plenty of teams have money. Plenty of teams have cap space. Carmelo has plenty of options, and with teams that have a better shot at getting him to the NBA Finals. If the Rockets want to get serious about winning a championship they have to stop crunching numbers and start paying attention to the human side of the game. The NBA is certainly a business, but business is as much about relationships as it is anything else.

Bill Ingram is a Senior NBA Analyst for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA since 1998.

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