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An MVP's Rockets Lesson

Kawhi Leonard proves what Jeremy Lin could be with a Gregg Popovich level coach: A Carmelo Anthony lesson?

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Kawhi Leonard
Kawhi Leonard showed in the NBA Finals what can happen when a team shows real belief in a developing player. Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Jeremy Lin Thunder
Jeremy Lin doesn't need to worry about being pushed away from the ball by other teams. He's pushed away by his own team's coaching staff. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Rockets coach Kevin McHale's handling of Jeremy Lin will never be described as Gregg Popovich like. Houston Rockets/Facebook
Kevin Durant James Harden
The Rockets and James Harden will never rise to the level of Kevin Durant if they don't develop their young stars like Jeremy Lin. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Jeremy Lin Golden state
Jeremy Lin's already had bigger scoring outbursts than Kawhi Leonard ever had heading into his Finals MVP breakout. Courtesy of NBA
Kawhi Leonard
Jeremy Lin Thunder
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Kevin Durant James Harden
Jeremy Lin Golden state
News_Chris Baldwin_managing editor_arms crossed

In his first season as a part-time starter, Kawhi Leonard averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game. Three years later, Leonard's the reigning Sports Illustrated cover star, the NBA Finals MVP and an ascendant franchise player.

In his first season as a part-time starter, Jeremy Lin averaged 14.6 points and 6.2 assists per game. Three years later, Lin's no longer a starter, he's routinely ripped by basketball bigots and he's easy trade bait.

Kawhi Leonard is what happens when a coach displays real belief in a player, when an organization puts team over stars, when player development is a real mission rather than just a convenient soundbite mantra. Jeremy Lin is what happens when a coach shows his doubt nightly, when it's all about promoting a few select superstars, when young players are nothing more than trade pieces.

This is something Rockets owner Leslie Alexander should be thinking about as his franchise preps to go all out in its pursuit of free agent Carmelo Anthony — and possibly even a longshot play for LeBron James. With Melo informing the New York Knicks he will opt out and become a free agent, all the NBA's abuzz about the big ticket prizes. And the Rockets and general manager Daryl Morey are the most panting suitor.

 If  McHale had only worked to help Jeremy Lin rather than to hinder him, if he'd only been more open minded, the Rockets would be in a much different position today.

It's a great way to build excitement. But what about building up the potential future stars on your own roster?

The San Antonio Spurs' championship drives home just how short the Rockets have come in this vital mission. The Rockets are clearly not taking advantage of all the talent on their current roster.

Kawhi Leonard was nothing but an afterthought to most of the league three years even as Jeremy Lin first took off under Mike D'Antoni in Gotham, spawning Linsanity. But Spurs coach Gregg Poppovich saw something special there and he kept giving Leonard more and more leeway and prodding — until the point where he's yelling at him to be The Man before the NBA Finals' crucial Game 3.

In contrast, Lin couldn't have been more on top of the world or more sure of his game when he arrived in Houston as a big-ticket free agent. But Rockets coach Kevin McHale always saw something less than what was there and he kept holding Lin back, questioning him more and more — until the point where he's no longer even deemed starter worthy.

Belief is a powerful force. So is disbelief.

The Spurs are greater than the sum of their parts, toppling the NBA's single brightest supernova talent in the NBA Finals, one year after coming a miracle three away from doing it the year before too. The Rockets are less than the sum of their parts, managing to loss to a flawed Portland team in the first round despite having two of the Top 10 players in the league.

If McHale had only worked to help Jeremy Lin rather than to hinder him, if he'd only been more open minded, the Rockets would be in a much different position today.

The comparison is real. Players go to the Spurs and get better. Players go to the Rockets and regress. Unless you're one of the anointed superstars, you're a disposable, discounted piece in H-Town.

Strangely, that's apparently not even playing well with Carmelo Anthony. Anthony, who's often been derided as a Me-First Man, is reportedly most interested in Chicago and its team-above-all coach Tom Thibodeau. Anthony never liked Lin grabbing the attention away from him in NewYork.

But he apparently likes the idea of continuing to underachieve himself even less.

Carmelo Anthony's Call

The Rockets have a Kawhi Leonard level talent — albeit one with a completely different position and skill set — in Jeremy Lin and they're absolutely wasting him. Leonard never scored 20 points or more in three straight games until the last three games of the NBA Finals. But Popovich still found a way to build him up all along.

Jeremy Lin scored 20 or more points nine times in his first month as a starter in New York alone. But McHale still found a way to tear him down, night after night after night.

 Lin is making himself a better player, day by day, setting himself up for a Kawhi Leonard-size leap. Maybe, his next team will see that. 

Throughout it all — the yo-yoed playing time, the benchings, the inexplicable decision to start Patrick Beverley at the point instead — Lin's still determinedly worked on his game. His own drive continues this summer — even as the Rockets explore trading him and fawn over Melo.

"One thing I want to focus on is definitely just continuing to improve on my 3-point shooting percentage," Lin tells Huff Post Live in a summer sit-down video interview in New York. "It's gone up every year. But I want to be a 40-percent shooter from the 3-point line. That's what I was in college — for a year.

"I'm at 36 percent right now (in the NBA). As long as I continue to improve . . . "

Lin is making himself a better player, day by day, setting himself up for a Kawhi Leonard-size leap. Maybe, his next team will see that. It's no stretch to imagine Jeremy Lin as a future NBA Finals MVP. He's not an All-NBA level player. But he's very capable of taking over an important playoff series. Especially the way he's working.

"Things like defense and my left hand are things I want to improve," Lin says. "I do think I've improved a lot in those areas and that hasn't been as widely recognized perhaps. But I do think I've made strides in those areas.

Lin's defensive leap (just ask Tony Parker of the champs how stifling Lin can be on D) isn't recognized largely because McHale and the Rockets never acknowledge it. Let alone promote it.

For a franchise that campaigns for every bit of recognition, the silence on Lin is rather telling. Morey hopes Carmelo Anthony hears the Rockets' relentless superstar love. Instead, a different sound may be going out to the entire NBA.

McHale's squandered one potential difference-making talent in Jeremy Lin. Who's next?

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