Jeremy Lin just concluded a whirlwind three-week tour of Asia with stops in Beijing, Shanghai and Sichuan (where he famously posed with a giant panda), and was swarmed by adoring fans wherever he went. If anything, the visit proved his star power across the Pacific remains undimmed.
What remains to be seen is whether the 6-foot-3 point guard can reclaim the spotlight in the U.S., where he plays for the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
Lin, whose parents are immigrants from Taiwan and whose ancestry is Chinese, burst onto the scene in February 2012 when he took over as the starting point guard for the New York Knicks. His inspired play led the Knicks to a winning streak that ultimately landed them in the playoffs, and also unleashed the “Linsanity” phenomenon that became the dominant sports story in the U.S. that spring.
Lin parlayed that success into a lucrative three-year, $25 million free-agent contract with the Houston Rockets, who immediately installed him as the starter. Though he averaged a solid 13.0 points, 6.1 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game in the 2012-2013 season, the Rockets’ offseason activities suggest that his days in Houston might be numbered.
Houston signed free-agent superstar center Dwight Howard in July, and during the courtship Lin was noticeably absent while the Rockets enlisted several players and also the retired Yao Ming (via Skype) to woo Howard. With Howard, in addition to the presence of shooting guard James Harden, a noted ball hog, there might not be much room (or need) for Lin to operate.
Lin insists that he can coexist with Howard, suggesting that he would be able to run the pick-and-roll, a popular NBA play where a guard uses a screen to set up an easy basket in the low post for a big man. But Lin is either forgetting or ignoring Howard’s history. In his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers, playing with the legendary Steve Nash – a pick-and-roll maestro – Howard proved he was unwilling or incapable of running the simple play.
The Rockets have quietly shopped Lin around in the offseason, but finding a suitable deal may prove difficult. Lin’s contract calls for him to be paid $5 million per season in the first two years and then a balloon payment of $15 million for the third season. Since Lin hasn’t established himself as a point guard of All-Star caliber, most teams won’t be willing to swallow that kind of hit on their salary cap.
Moreover, Lin’s value to the team’s brand may make the Rockets’ upper management, if not the fans, reluctant to part ways with him. Houston has a large Chinese-American community that has passionately embraced Lin since his arrival. The Rockets also lacked an international marketing presence after the premature retirement of Yao in 2011 that has since been capably provided by Lin.
For his part, at least Lin understands that getting dealt is part of the business and seems prepared if it happens. After a stellar four-year career at Harvard, Lin was undrafted coming out of college in 2010 and bounced around basketball’s minor league before being picked up on waivers by the Knicks in December 2011.
“Right now I know there’s always speculation about what might happen, but I haven’t made any decisions and I haven’t thought about it,” Lin told the media in China. “And I’m going to approach that question when the time comes.”
NBA teams open training camp for the 2013-2014 season in late September and the Rockets are scheduled to play an exhibition game against the Indiana Pacers on October 13 in Taipei, where Lin is expected to receive a rock star welcome. If anything, don’t expect Houston to move Lin before that trip, which also includes a game in the Philippines. The Rockets, and the NBA, simply can’t afford such a publicity backlash at a time when the emerging Asian market is viewed as vital to the game’s continued growth.
Samuel Chi is the Editor of RealClearSports and RealClearWorld. His column on world sport appears every Thursday in The Diplomat.