Jeremy Lin's The Key

Jeremy Lin needs to be set free: Whether McHale likes it or not, he's key to new Dwight Howard Rockets

Jeremy Lin needs to be set free: McHale must recognize key to Rockets

Jeremy Lin Thunder
Jeremy Lin isn't the headliner, but his play will go far toward determining how good the Houston Rockets become. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
Kevin McHale spoke highly of Jeremy Lin at the Rockets media day. Will the minutes follow? Houston Rockets/Facebook
James Harden arms up
James Harden swears that he wants to become a defensive stopper too. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Omer Asik
Omer Asik wasn't exactly dying to talk to reporters about his new role on the Houston Rockets. Rockets roundball
Jeremy Lin Thunder
Kevin McHale, Jeremy Lin, Rockets, basketball, November 2012
James Harden arms up
Omer Asik

Jeremy Lin isn't the headliner, the curiosity or the phenom anymore. He's slated to speak third from last at the Houston Rockets Media Day. He's an appetizer before Dwight Howard and James Harden close the show in a near overflow interview room.

But at least Lin gets a talking part. Omer Asik — who is supposed to believe he is one of the most vital Rockets even though the team signed Howard for $88 million to take the starting center spot — is not put up on the dais in the interview room. Instead, Asik does his media briefing in a bare hallway of the refurbished Toyota Center after leading four reporters through a gauntlet of picture taking that includes at least seven stops.

"You guys are still here?" Asik asks after the reporters wait out stop No. 6.

We are. And so is Jeremy Lin. At times, it seemed like Lin's return to Houston — the righting of what general manager Daryl Morey's called a Christmas Eve cutting mistake — would be shockingly brief. Trade talk swirled around Lin, the strange obsession with backup point guard Patrick Beverley (he of the 5.6 point per game career scoring average) built and the Houston Chronicle even broke out a dumb poll that breathlessly asked who the team's starting point guard should be.

 Yes, Jeremy Lin is back. He also just so happens to be the key to the most intriguing team in the NBA. 

All the while, Lin kept working on his defense, his jumper and his left hand in a serious summer that left no less a legend than Hakeem Olajuwon praising his skills.

Yes, Jeremy Lin is back. And he's a clear, starting NBA impact player. He also just so happens to be the key to the most intriguing team in the NBA.

It's hard to argue when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey calls Howard and Harden "two of the Top 10 players in the league" (sorry Dwyane Wade, it's true). Yet as good as Harden and Howard are, it's even harder to argue that either is the equal of LeBron James or Kevin Durant. The Rockets aren't a team that can roll out a Mario Chalmers at point guard and win a title.

To taste championship champagne, Howard and Harden need Jeremy Lin at his best. Which means that Houston's new incredible duo — not to mention head coach Kevin McHale — must allow Lin to be the team's main distributor.

"I think for me, I have to be a point guard," Lin says. "I have to make sure everybody gets the ball. There is a little bit of a different role, but I want to be the same attacking, relentless player I've been in the past."

As talented as Harden is, and as good of a passer as he can be, do you really expect that the guy who loves to play Hero Ball is always going to keep the ball moving?

These Rockets need a creative, pass-first point guard. They just happen to have that type of player on the roster — if only they use him.

Kevin McHale, The Believer?

On this Media Day, essentially the first day of these new contender Rockets, a day that has TNT's Craig Sager waiting for interviews in his own room down the Toyota Center hall, McHale says almost all the right things about Jeremy Lin. Even if he does sort of dismiss that New York Linsanity run as something of a fluke.

"If people hadn't seen him that month, or five weeks, in New York, people would say that it was a heck of a rookie year for the kid," McHale notes of Lin's 13.4 points per game, 6.1 assists per game, all-82-games-played first Rockets season.

 The Dream can already see it. The question is: Can McHale? 

McHale's belief — or lack of it — in Lin will go a long way toward determining Houston's fate. Hakeem's seen what Howard and Lin can be, telling Fox 26's Mark Berman that the combination is "very deadly." ESPN's deemed the Rockets' backcourt the best in the NBA.

But none of this holds up if Houston simply becomes all Harden and Howard. If Dwight Howard is going to return to his Orlando days dominance, he needs to have Lin penetrating and throwing him plenty of passes as well.

Both Howard and Lin independently bring up a play from their summer workouts in Aspen with Hakeem, when Lin throws a ball way too high for Howard and the big man skies up and dunks it anyway. To Howard, it's a sign that his balky back and aching body are whole again, that he can almost fly like that NBA Slam Dunk Superman again.

To Lin, it's . . . well, it's a game changer.

"It was a terrible pass," Lin says. "And he just went up and still threw it in. I was like, 'Oh, wow. That's good for me.' "

Howard only needs to ask Tyson Chandler how good playing with a free Jeremy Lin can be for a big man. The Dream can already see it. The question is: Can McHale?

If Jeremy Lin's treated like a true NBA starting point guard, if he's trusted like his potential and game screams he should be, the Rockets will become a true trophy threat. If not? If Lin's minutes are yo-yoed around again, if he's still treated as more of a curiosity than a difference maker?

Well, these Rockets of Harden and Howard will still be damn entertaining. They just won't be on any sort of title path.

"We have a chance to do something special if we stay together, stay focused," Howard says.

And if they don't forget the third wheel. The two Top 10 players are the foundation. But these two Top 10 players can't drive the Rockets to glory by themselves.

"Coming back to the same city as (the year) before is a big step for me," says Lin, a 25-year-old who's lived a vagabond pro basketball life. "I haven't done that since my junior to senior year of college."

Somehow, through it all, Jeremy Lin is back. Now, the Rockets just have to use him right.